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10 thoughts on “Отчаяние [Otchayanie]

  1. says:

    Intensely good writing, with the unique Nabokovian feature of phrases we've never heard before somehow moving propulsively. Unfortunately, after a promising start, the plot turns flimsy, with the "twist" at the end telegraphed far too often to be anything other than a disappointment. This is an iceberg novel, but what's beneath the surface (the book jacket copy) is likely more interesting than the ramblings of our lead, Hermann, who (in the Zweigian conceit of the novel) has written and sent the prose to Nabokov for publication.

    Nabokov has an interesting line in the introduction (coming some 30 years after he wrote DESPAIR in Russian): "Hermann and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other. Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann."

    This seems odd - though both are unreliable narrators who commit a vile crime, the insidiousness of Humbert is far more extreme, and not just because LOLITA is a superior novel. Humbert's charm makes him disturbing, while Hermann is so unlikable that we can never be immersed in his mind. Though he is fully in control of the narrative, he is mainly a source of derision.

    Now, there is much pleasure here in what the reader knows and the narrator doesn't - the relationship between Ardalion and Hermann's wife is a brilliant piece of writing, with lots of great humor coming out of Hermann's not knowing what is so obviously happening. This book also has the strangest supporting character I can remember, a man named Orlovious who is somehow instrumental to the plot, in a large percentage of the book's scenes, and never once explained or described. I enjoyed the many digs at Dostoyevsky too ("Dusty") - the whole thing can be read as a Dostoyevsky parody, now that I think about it. But despite the evident strengths, this is a minor book by a major writer -3.7 stars.

  2. says:

    He's only gone and done it again. What Prose!
    What truly admirable prose!

    A literary virtuoso was he! I bow down to you in awe Vlad!

    OK, maybe I'm getting a little over excited, and maybe he didn't hit the vast heights of Lolita or Pale Fire, but he still manages with Despair to write a prose head and shoulders above most other writers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I can't think of any other writer (at least off the top of my head) that brings me such joyous literary moments than that spent in the company of Nabokov. That's a triple header of doubles read in recent times now, after Dostoyevsky and Saramago's take on the doppelgänger, both of which I really enjoyed.

    But Nabokov I simply found superior. And its all down to that prose. Bloody hell is it good! Like a dish of Caviar, with alpine strawberries floating in a glass of champagne.

    I have to pay homage to the genius translator also. Er...that would be Mr. Nabokov himself. With ease, he makes the narrative flow like a stream of liquid silk. Considering we are dealing with a novel about an insane murderer with no respect for human life, you would think it carries with it a dark or shady tone, but Nabokov fills the pages with some hilarious moments, mostly through the exceptional use of dialogue on behalf of Despair's unreliable protagonist, Hermann Karlovich a Russian living in Berlin with wife Lydia. On a trip to Prague, by complete chance, he comes across a fellow asleep on a grass verge, and low and behold he turns out to be his double.

    What follows is chain of events making for a right old rollicking read! where his twisted but brilliant sense of wicked humour is on full display from the opening sentences, to its finale.

    I believe this is the fifth Nabokov novel I have given top marks to. As much I loved it, and oh boy I absolutely did, it wouldn't get into my top three. That's the standard, It's a high standard at that, a very high standard actually. That puts him a pedestal above the rest.

    And what's great, even though I have devoured a lot of his work already, is that, looking through his back catalogue, there is still plenty more to go!

    But, easy does it kid, there is no hurry, why rush a good thing! just look forward to the next Nabokov outing. Whenever that may be...

  3. says:

    Wild, wicked, stylish, funny, in only the way Nabokov could write. On every page you sense the fun he's having, and boy, is it infectious.

  4. says:

    Just a word or so on this one—then a warning of sorts. Neither will be particularly useful, and neither should be given much weight. If your Read list is lacking an adequate Nabokov presence, if it lacks gravitas, pick this up, read it, pat yourself on the back, give it the obligatory 4 stars, and try to forget, as quickly as you can, that you saw the ending coming. It’s Nabokov, it matters, probably more than you will; certainly, more than I. There are funny bits, and sinister bits, and clever bits, and the world’s a wonderfully complicated place in which to live. But, you’ll probably be able to find much more engaging reads at any corner. Grab one, enjoy it, move on. Or, read this one, enjoy it (more or less), and move on. Even with constant reference to YOU, the reader, you’ll likely remain at a remove from the narrator and his story. It’s good (enough), and funny (enough) and clever (enough), and then over (but not quite soon enough).

    Now, for the advice. Be cautious, very cautious, when raiding other people’s To Read list with the silly inclination of ‘beating him (or her) to the punch,’ by snagging a short one. It could bite you in the ass. Whatever the short lived joy of said beating is, it remains complicated by the bitten ass. The ass you’ll be unable to sit on right away while trying to read something else. Isn’t that just the way things work out? My Advice Part II: read your own damn To Read list—you know, the one you have an interest in and from which you’ll likely feel greater reward. That said, next in line: The Lord Chandos Letter, from Vila-Matas’ reading list. I’ve known me too long to take my own advice.

  5. says:

    Wow. This is the most arrogant, self-aggrandizing, intellectually
    snooty indictment of literary criticism I've ever read. Wow. This is the most self-flagellating, masochistically interior, intellectually crushing self-indictment I've ever read by an artist. What a contradiction. What a clever little motherfucker. What a way to illuminate the disconnect between self and perception-of-self by others, of artistic expression v. reception.

    How dare you be you. I'm glad you're dead, Vladimir Nabokov*. No, I'm not, and everything I just said was hyperbolic. But only because I think you would've appreciate the fireworks given that you were such a fancy-britches and all. You card!

    But hey, if it makes you feel any better, even your mediocre-in-comparison-to-your-better-books books are better than most books I've read. (And I actually meant that part verbatim.)

    *Not me, but every living author probably is, considering your effortlessly incisive prose = a ruler striking the knuckles of their self-confidence and motivation to write, forever. You had a better command of the English (your second) language than approximately 95% of the "English as a first language" people I've met in my whole life. More fireworks! For you!


  6. says:

    Our fabulously droll narrator is out for a stroll when he sees someone asleep under a tree. He nudges the sleeper's face with his foot and has the shock of his life. He is looking down at his own face.

    Nabokov's narrator, we soon learn, lives in a kind of hall of mirrors. And who wouldn't go insane in such an abode? And he has lots of fun playing with the notion that art mirrors life or vice versa. Our hero plots a murder as a work of art. Every detail required to serve the execution of the central idea. One slip up and the entire construct comes crashing down.

    The early parts of this novel show Nabokov at his comic best. A scene where he watches himself make love with his wife from a greater distance every night is hilarious. And it's an early sign of how prone our narrator is to what's become known as dissociative identity disorder, sowing the suspicion that his double probably looks nothing like him in reality. The first half of the book is a lot better than the second part when it begins running out of legs a little and even ends a little scrappy by Nabokov's exalted standards. But it's a fabulously exhilarating and clever ride for the most part.

  7. says:

    Little silly kalliope, upon entering the pages of this despairing novel, wonders at her existence. This is all about her, or rather, about not being herself at all, but just the unoriginal existence of doubles. How come is she called like the Grand Kalliope, the Muse? They are clearly not the same. One is the doppelgänger of the other. She is clearly not the ‘one’, so she must be the ‘other’? But how can she refer to herself as the ‘other’? This baffles her and sends her mind into a spiral. She is in despair.

    For a way out she looks for a mirror. Mirrors are terrifying. May be Alice will give her the clue. But no, it doesn’t; or at least not any more than any of the other books. She lives only through her reading; the only world little kalliope knows is this virtual GoodReads, where many other members of its fleeting population also have their own muses, their own shadows.

    Nabokov, who also seems to be haunted by mirrors, may tell her to use cynicism and sarcasm as her path with his alluring and magical writing. The detachment that those acrimonious tones provide, help in separating one from one’s self. But no, rebuts little kalliope, that is a tiresome choice and besides it is not the separation of the ‘one’ from the ‘one’ that she is looking for but from that elusive ‘other’. Little kalliope cannot imitate what seems to be one of Nabokov’s signatures, that fine derisive tint that fascinates and captures her while also and gnawing at her patience. For quite a few pages she felt also somewhat lost, were it not for those constant strokes of violet or lilac colour that keep emerging out of the black print on white paper.

    She also feels somewhat uncomfortable, for in spite of this Despair dealing with doubles, two “I” (“I” + “I” – there does not seem to be a plural for the single “I”), she does not recognized herself in this very male tone. Had Nabokov read ROOM? Asks herself kalliope as she still feels as if she just walked out of that famous Room also of her own. Although she feels she is no ‘androgynous’ reader either. She would have disappointed Woolf too.

    Eventually the lilacs do lead her to find a sense in the novel, the structure or path or plot takes shape, and the light shines. She then sees Nabokov’s brilliance: the stars begin to glow. Some of the guiding posts are also literary, and these give a humorous glitter, in particular Turgy and Dusty. Are these also a Pair un-Paired?

    Observing Hermann Karlovich, though, kalliope eventually realises that for her to find herself, to uncouple herself without des-pair, from that one from which she is the doppelgänger, the solution is not what he proposes in the uncanny plot. Instead, it is Nabokov’s wizardry with words, and his literary cleverness what constitute the vignettes that make her literary visit worthwhile. Little kalliope can forget the doubts on her identity and continue to follow the auspices emanating from the Grand Kalliope. – her Muse.

    With or without lilacs and violets, and certainly without Despair.

  8. says:

    Only one author on earth can produce from me the following sentence: “Yeah, I’m reading this book called Despair about an insane murderer with no respect for human life, and it is HILARIOUS.” That author is Nabokov.

    In this, one of his lesser-known works, the egotistical and foppish narrator confesses to murdering someone who looks exactly like him in an attempt to collect his own life insurance money (and, more subconsciously, to rid the world of his weird doppelganger). Of course, Vladdy isn’t satisfied with a straight-up story, and slowly reveals that the first-person narrative we’ve been reading is really only just scrapping surface of what actually took place.

    As always with Nabokov, the language is beautiful and you are sure to learn at least a few new and awesome vocabulary words. You are also sure to either 1) write a bunch of new fiction with a weak, pseudo-retarded version of Nabokov’s style or 2) become paralyzed completely.

    Despair was one of his earlier novels, written in Russian in 1932 and then translated into English (by Nabokov himself, the goddamn genius) with extensive edits, in 1965. It’s absolutely fascinating to see a younger, less experienced Nabokov write - you can see all of the seeds of his future works. The themes that he returns to so often during the latter part of his career — mirroring, unreliable narrators, unlikable protagonists, mistaken identities, dark humor, botched violence - are here, too, a little more apparent and a little less smooth and adept.

    As a writer, I was happy to see a lower-level Nabokov - unlike in say, Pale Fire, where it is hard to pinpoint how he is pulling off the literary tricks he pulls off, in Despair, it’s a little easier to look into Nabokov’s mind and see the blueprints he was working with. For example, while it is hard to tell how he so subtlety reveals that Pale Fire’s protagonist is delusional, in Despair, I could pick up on specific techniques he was using to create Hermann, the book’s unreliable narrator. It’s sort of like watching a magic trick before the magician has perfected it — you can maybe glimpse a trap door or a string and get a clue as to how to execute it yourself.

    And while the exacting and masterful art of his later books is partially missing, his weird, twisted humor is on full display from the first page to the last. It might be the best kind of joke - 240 pages of non-stop dramatic irony which becomes more and more obvious with each page (all while the “author” is forced to continue complicating the story in order to continue deluding himself). And even while Nabokov can pull off a novel-length leg-pull, he also appreciates and condones the lowest forms of humor - puns and fart jokes. There truly was never a greater writer, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

  9. says:

    Vladimir Nabokov is a genius. In Lolita his genius is manifest in the perversion of human sympathies, the seduction of language, the durability of art (yet also the mortality of beauty). In Despair, one of Nabokov's first forays into English prose, there is an early adumbration of what will become the enchanting monster, Humbert Humbert, found in the narrator-murderer Hermann. But aside from the faint outline of what is to come, Despair is a brilliant novel in itself, removed from the nympholeptic successors which follow in the Nabokovian oeuvre. The narrative is a simple one, Hermann happens upon a man whom he believes is his perfect double, and resolves to commit the "perfect murder" - killing his double and cashing in on his own life insurance. But like Humbert, and their mutual progenitor, Hermann is an aesthete: Despair is not merely a novel of mistaken identity, of false doubles, of murder-plot high-jinx, but a novel about art - the reach of art beyond medium into life. Is not the "perfect murder" as much a work of art, of deliberate purpose and imagination, as the "perfect novel" or the "perfect painting"?

    To anyone with a passing interest in the masterful Nabokov, his extreme views on literature should be no mystery. He was a combative proponent of "art for art's sake," he believed that the purpose of fiction is to enchant and not to evoke empathy. In his lectures on literature at Wellesley and at Cornell he examined literature as he examined his lepidopteran specimens: with a microscope. Art in fiction, for Nabokov, is the successive accumulation of detail, of a fractal perfection which pervaded through all layers of the narrative and opened a world before the reader which has an almost tactile realism, but which also enchanted, which was fantastic, which was beyond reality, which was art. Hermann represents a perversion of this view on art, for though he seeks the perfection down to the detail, he fails to view with honesty the overall picture. His art is never perfection because while he is a devil for details, he is lost in the greater art of life, which he fails to appreciate.

    Throughout Nabokov, we see the butterfly, his passion, as a symbol for the complete cycle of artistic creation. When Lolita is playing tennis, her fleeting poses are beautiful but manifestly useless in the pursuit of victory - a sportsman's manifestation of art for art's sake - and while she plays "an inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us." (This scene parallels the interloping butterfly in the ultimate episode of Pale Fire) The butterfly as a symbol for the ideal art - life imitating art, imitating life, so to speak - coincides with the belief that art is mortality. "Death is the mother of beauty," as Wallace Stevens said, a claim with which Nabokov was sure to agree (note the fateful end of Lolita's titular character). To pervert this belief, to parody his own views on art, Nabokov brings forth Hermann, who sees a beauty in death, in destruction of life (much like Humbert's destruction of Lolita's innocence and life):

    ...what is death, if not a face at peace – its artistic perfection? Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus; thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous flush of unbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.
    This is a telling insight into the creation of Hermann - the pleasure he sees in death, the reference to Narcissus and to "artistic perfection," are all relevant to the character of Hermann, and significant to the novel's thematic development.

    The great irony of Hermann as an artist is his poor consistency with his own dogma. Despite his search for artistic perfection, despite his attention to detail, it is precisely the details which he overlooks, and in doing so gives himself away completely. Rather than devising the perfect murder, he devises the perfect blunder. Not only does he fail to achieve his financial goals, but he ensures his identification as the murderer. He is not a poor bluff, but rather plays cards with his cards face up on the table. The pivotal element, the crux of his entire plan, is the similarity of himself with his victim. He is convinced he has found is perfect Doppelgänger, only to discover that he is the only one who sees any similarity at all. Isn't this the great crisis of artists? The fear that no one will appreciate their art but themselves? For many artists, this is not a hindrance, they create art for themselves - it is a release - it is for it's own sake. Hermann, while having a seemingly genuine appreciation for artistic perfection, prostitutes his artistic efforts for financial gain, and as a result of doing so is doubly foiled.

    Despair is not Nabokov's greatest, I cannot argue that. It pales next to florid perfection of Lolita, next to the experimental risks of Pale Fire, and next to the playful game of history and nostalgia, fiction and biography, in Speak, Memory - but it is a great novel, it is worthy of the Nabokovian credit. It is immensely enjoyable to read, as a parodic game on the Crime and Punishment legacy, and also as a mock-treatise on the failures and purposes of art.

  10. says:

    That's it for my seventh Nabokov -- Despair, or Отчаяние, a "far more sonorous howl", as Nabokov writes in the introduction to the work. This represents Nabokov's "first serious attempt to use English for what may be loosely termed an artistic purpose."

    The writing is, as you kind of expect from Nabokov, stellar. The story is interesting, and it does not require as much from the reader as some of his other books do -- indeed, Nabokov writes that the book has a "plain structure and pleasing plot." Pretty much true: Hermann Hermann, a man who seems at first to be relatively sane, meets what he believes to be his double (a Dostoevskyian theme, which he in fact ridicules more than anything), and then concocts a pretty stupid plan that, needless to say, fails.

    One thing is for certain: Hermann Hermann is a thoroughly distasteful character. A self-serving prick and a thoroughgoing asshole. As he loses his mind and his plans utterly fail, it's hard to feel sorry for him. In fact, you kind of rejoice as the whole thing collapses under his feet. Nabokov portrays the whole thing in such an eerie way that it's hard to move away from the thought that perhaps there is some of Hermann Hermann in Volodya too.

    In the introduction Nabokov writes about the similarities between Humbert (of Lolita) and Hermann:

    Hermann and Humbert are alike only in the sense that two dragons painted by the same artist at different periods of his life resemble each other. Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.

    But, "in kinship with the rest of my books", there is no social comment to be made by Nabokov; there are no Freudian messages to be found in here; this whole thing is not in "the influence of German Impressionists", as Nabokov writes in the introduction, taking stabs at critics of various literary "schools."

    It's just a book. Art for art's sake. And the guy is a brilliant writer: read him.

    "Although I do not care for the slogan "art for art's sake", there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art."
    - Nabokov