Sunday, January 1, 2017

DespairDespair by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He appeared to my eyes as my double, that is, as a creature bodily identical with me. It was this absolute sameness which gave me so piercing a thrill."

An extraordinary novel but also one that I don't really like that much. Vladimir Nabokov's Despair, written in 1935 in Russian and then translated (twice!) by the author into English, is cleverly constructed and beautifully written yet it has left me cold: it has not been a compulsive read of the can't-go-to-sleep-before-I-finish type and I have had to work hard to keep my attention in many passages. Two potential reasons for my lack of enthusiasm: the novel may be too elaborately constructed to provide good reading and the fabulously rich, florid prose is definitely not to my liking.

This short novel is ostensibly a crime story told by one Hermann Karlovich, a German of Russian ethnicity. During his business trip to Prague he comes across Felix, a "tramp" who looks almost exactly like him. Hermann is fascinated with his doppelganger and devises a plan of a perfect crime that takes advantage of Felix' resemblance to him. Of course this is written by Nabokov so the criminal layer of the story, although prominent, only serves as a pretense to write about other, important things.

To me the most essential level of the (too) clever literary framework that supports the narrative is an enthusiastic celebration of language. Nabokov was trilingual: in addition to his native Russian, he learned English and French in his childhood. Despair confirms that he mastered the English language better than virtually any native speaker save for a really selected group of greatest writers. Nabokov exuberantly plays with words, phrases, and sentences, for example:
"I liked, as I like still, to make words look self-conscious and foolish, to bind them by a mock marriage of a pun, to turn them inside out, to come upon them unawares. What is this jest in majesty? This ass in passion? How do God and Devil combine to form a live dog?"
I feel that the author - gasp! - goes too far with his love of the language: the prose is ornate, too many words are used, at least for my unsophisticated literary taste. The florid language seems to be the goal in itself rather than a means to achieve something.

A prominent metafictional layer is present in Despair. Nabokov as the narrator writes about writing his story - which eventually becomes a sort of a diary - and the writing of the story itself becomes an integral part of the story, in some sense more important than the events of the plot. The narrator ruminates:
"I am sure to have unwittingly expressed certain notions in my book, which correspond perfectly to the dialectical demands of the current moment. It even seems to me sometimes that my basic theme, the resemblance between two persons, has a profound allegorical meaning."
The main structural axis of the novel seems to be the Hermann - Felix duality. But to me the most satisfying motif in Despair is the intentional ambiguity. The reader does not really know whether the events are true as described or whether they are the narrator's constructions. One of the most interesting themes is the relationship between Lydia, Hermann's wife, and her cousin Ardalion: not that the relationship is intriguing itself but Hermann's strange response to it. If he truly is - as he seems to claim - a perceptive observer of human behavior what does it tell us about the events as seen and described by him? This is to me the coolest puzzle.

A few passages in the novel may compel a reader to surmise political subtexts: for instance, the author refers to the new Soviet world
"[...] where all men will resemble one another as Hermann and Felix did; a world of Helixes and Fermanns; a world where the worker fallen dead at the feet of his machine will be at once replaced by his perfect double smiling the serene smile of perfect socialism."
Yet I do not think the author takes the politics seriously; he is just teasing us like in the rest of the book. All the time that I was reading the novel I had the feeling that Mr. Nabokov is winking at the reader.

I love good puns and the self-referential one than Mr. Nabokov's concocts as he - that is the narrator - contemplates the title of the novel he's working on is utterly delicious. He muses:
"'Crime and Pun'? Not bad - a little crude, though."
Indeed, not bad; and the author is coy in calling it crude.

A remarkable novel by a great master of prose. Just not exactly for me. Also, a perfect title to inaugurate this particular New Year!

Three and a half stars.

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