Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

It even seems to me now that it was, that town, constructed of certain refuse particles of my past, for I discovered in it things most remarkably and most uncannily familiar to me: a low pale-blue house, the exact counterpart of which I had seen in a St. Petersburg suburb; an old-clothes hop, where suits hung that had belonged to dead acquaintances of mine; a street lamp bearing the same number (I always like to notice the numbers of street lamps) as one that had stood in front of the Moscow house where I lodged; and nearby the same bare birch tree with the same forked trunk in an iron corset (ah, that is what made me look at the number on the lamp). I could, if I chose, give many more examples of that kind, some of which are so subtle, so--how shall I put it?  ...abstractly personal, as to be unintelligible, whom I pet and pamper like a devoted nurse.  Nor am I quite certain of the exceptionality of the aforesaid phenomena.  Every man with a keen eye is familiar with those anonymously retold passages from his past life: false-innocent combinations of details, which smack revoltingly of plagiarism.  Let us leave them to the conscience of fate and return, with a sinking heart and dull reluctance, to the monument at the end of the street.

Hermann, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Despair, stumbles one day across a vagrant who could be his doppelganger.  The vagrant, Felix, seems unimpressed by their resemblance, but Hermann sees in it a fantastic opportunity: He will murder Felix, and make it look like his own suicide.  It will be the perfect crime.  The only problem, we find out at the end of the novel--spoiler alert here, for what it's worth--is that Hermann is mistaken; Felix looks nothing like him.

Despair is a lot of things.  It's a farcical "up yours" to Dostoevsky, whose ponderous morality tales Nabokov despised.  Hermann, like Raskolnikov, wants to engineer the perfect crime for no other reason than because he can, because he believes in his own fortuitous position in the world.  Hermann points out that "Felix" means "happy" or "lucky," but it is Hermann who sees his own impeccability in the mirror that is Felix.  It's also, like much of Nabokov's work, a sly treatise on literary criticism.  Hermann "reads" himself into Felix, and the consequences are disastrous.  At some level, everything Nabokov writes seems to tell us we can't possibly get anything out of reading, while reveling gleefully in the contradictions of that very statement.

But I like thinking of it most as a condemnation of the ego.  In a way, when we look at other people we see only ourselves; Hermann only takes this idea to its logical conclusion.  But Nabokov suggests that all kinds of sight and sense--everything we know and perceive--is contaminated by our inescapable ego, and that we're perpetually gazing at the inside of our own skulls.  Our world "smack[s] revoltingly of plagiarism," but it's these echoes--repetitions, doubles, doppelgangers--that Nabokov found so endlessly fascinating.

It's also incredibly funny.  Nabokov makes much of Hermann's feckless wife, Lydia, who once tore the final pages out of a mystery book so she wouldn't be tempted to spoil it for herself, and then promptly lost them.  (Come to think of it, Nabokov's a lot like that--a mystery novel with the end torn out.)  Equally comic is her cousin, Ardalion, a failed and fatuous painter who only Hermann can't tell is having an affair with Lydia.  Nabokov has a reputation, and an earned one, for difficult prose, but Despair, like Lolita, is as readable and compelling as the schlockiest genre fiction.

Despair was the first of Nabokov's novels that he translated into English from Russian.  All known copies were, apparently, destroyed by German bombs in World War II.  The version that exists now is a second translation, with improvements, made many decades later.  It's easy to imagine Nabokov, translating the novel for a second time, laughing at the idea that his novel had its own doppelganger--one that no one else could ever track down.


Randy said...

I had never even heard of this novel. How would you rate it compared to Lolita or Pale Fire? I've been thinking about re-reading Pale Fire (which I've already read twice), but I think I could be easily swayed to picking up a new (to me) Nabokov novel.

Christopher said...

It's clearly not as good as those, but it's also not difficult reading. It's more fun than either one.