Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
A weird and wicked tale
on 13 January 2014
“I smiled the smile of the condemned and in a blunt pencil that screamed with pain wrote swiftly and boldly on the first page of my work: ‘Despair’; no need to look for a better title”.
Ah, Nabokov! There is simply no one else like him in literature. In 'Despair', Nabokov weaves a weird and wicked tale of doppelgängers, machination, and insanity that leads its reader through the unsettled thoughts of a writer struggling to set out his memories of a strange sequence of events.
It is the confessional narrative of one Hermann Karlovich, a Russian emigre and failed chocolate manufacturer who has dreamt of escape from his mundane existence. As he writes, he tells us self-reflectively how he is writing this account of the events that led to him being wherever it is that is now (the reader must wait until the end to find out where he is). But Hermann is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, a self-confessed liar who - the reader soon learns - is clearly mad. So unreliable is our narrator that at times you wonder if he is writing this story from a padded cell.
The story begins with an extraordinary chance encounter on a hillside outside Prague, an apparently mundane meeting that has a fatefully profound effect on our narrator. The tramp Felix that Hermann stumbles upon sleeping on the grass, minding his own business, is to Hermann's eyes his exact double. And soon an intricate plot starts to hatch within Hermann's mind, as he sees a way of escaping from the numbing reality of his existence.
Nabokov writes with his usual wit, humour and characteristic playfulness with language ("What is this jest in majesty? This ass in passion? How do God and Devil combine to form a live dog?"). He subtly conveys to the reader some salient facts that fly in the face of the story that Hermann would have us believe. For example, it becomes abundantly clear in Hermann's account that his wife Lydia is having an affair with her drunken cousin Ardalion, but Hermann is blissfully unaware of it and continues to describe Lydia to the reader as his dutiful wife: "I had a bird-witted but attractive wife who worshipped me; a nice little flat; an accommodating stomach; and a blue car".
The irony, of course, is that Hermann is Nabokov's creation, and - in as much as Hermann is the fictional author of 'Despair' - Hermann is, in a sense, Nabokov himself. Nabokov, however, seeks to disown any resemblance to his creation when, in the Foreword to this revised edition of 1965, he writes of his infamous creation: "Hell shall never parole Hermann". (Nabokov himself translated the 1932 original novel from Russian into English in 1965).
I first encountered 'Despair' some 35 years ago when I saw Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1978 film adaptation of it, with Dirk Bogarde playing the demented chocolatier - now renamed Hermann Hermann. Reading Nabokov's novel now, I get memories of that film drifting back to me, and I can understand why Tom Stoppard would have wanted to create a film out of the book and why Fassbinder would have wanted to make that film. The notion of cinema runs throughout the novel: the idea of acting and creating an imaginary world, of escape through role playing, the use of performance and directing action to deliver a scene ... these are all here in 'Despair'. It is an almost unfilmable story, yet one that is so cinematic!
Incidentally, I think Fassbinder did a wonderful job with it, and I am pleased to see his film - which disappeared almost without trace for over 30 years - is now receiving some positive reappraisal through its recent (2011) release on DVD. It is time I saw it again.
Strange to say, the novel's dramatic (in more ways than one) ending reminded me of Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's film 'Sunset Boulevard' - which is, come to think of it, a rather Nabokovian film, with its descent into madness, its confusion of cinema with real life, its somewhat unusual narrator ... Could it be that Wilder and his fellow screenwriter Charles Brackett were familiar with Nabokov's work?
It is difficult to recommend Nabokov because you will probably either love or loathe his writing, depending on what you want from your fiction. Nabokov is Nabokov, he is so unique and there is no one else with whom he can be compared. 'Despair' is many things: a murder mystery, a psychological thriller, a sly take on Dostoyesvsky's 'Crime & Punishment'. It will almost certainly be something the likes of which you have never read before.