Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

Drawn by Martin Amis’s contention that Despair is one of Nabokov’s trio of immortal novels, I’ve read and been rewarded by its ingenuity and wit. Despair is superficially a thriller but more than that-it is a Nabokov thriller, therefore all conventions of genre are held up and examined minutely.

The distinctly unreliable narrator Hermann Karlovich tells us his story of a chance meeting with his apparent doppelgänger and the ensuing murder plot, devised for artistic rather than monetary purposes. Nabokov’s intention of Despair as a gentle parody of Crime and Punishment is apparent, no less in his references to “Dusty” Dostoevsky:

Do you feel the tang of this epilogue? I have concocted it according to a classic recipe. Something is told about every character in the book to wind up the tale; and in doing so, the dribble of their existence is made to remain correctly, though summarily, in keeping with what has been previously shown of their respective ways; also, a facetious note is admitted-poking sly fun at life’s conservativeness.


Lydia is a forgetful and untidy as ever….
And left to the very end of the epilogue there is, pour la bonne bouche, some especially hearty bit, quite possibly having to do with an insignificant object which just flicked by in some earlier part of the novel:
You may still see on the wall of their chamber the same pastel portrait, and as usual, whenever he looks at it, Hermann laughs and curses.
Finis. Farewell, Turgy! Fairwell, Dusty!
Dreams, dreams…and rather trite ones at that. Who cares, anyway…

Being Nabokov, the story incorporates a strong dose of intertextual reference and literary criticism woven into the narrative, laughed off of course:

There’s something a shade too literary about that talk of ours, smacking of thumbscrew conversations in the stage taverns where Dostoevsky is at home; a little more of it and we should hear that sibilant whisper of false humility, that catch in the breath, those repetitions of incantatory adverbs-and then all the rest of it would come, the mystical trimming dear to that famous writer of Russian thrillers.

Immortal? Perhaps undetectable on a first read, and as we know all Good Readers (of Nabokov) are re-readers. It would however be a good introductory Nabokov novel; many of his recurrent themes are performed.

4 thoughts on “Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. >This is one I haven't read yet, but this is great…"repetitions of incantatory adverbs"…definitely makes me think of our friend Dostoevsky.

  2. >Every Nabokov novel has its share of delights, "Despair" included. But in their very different ways, "Lolita," "Pale Fire," and "The Gift" (the latter being the summit of Nabokov's Russian period) handily beat the hell out of it. Really, no contest.

  3. >James – I agree completely, at least about Lolita and Pale Fire. The Gift I have yet to get around to but will be sure to soon. I read Despair as I was curious about Amis considering it one of Nabokov's three immortal novels. On my first reading I don't get it.

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