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Friday
Apr042008

Despair

There are some literary themes that will always seem well–worn, perhaps because they are so essential.  Love in its myriad forms; betrayal, the greatest of all sins; nostalgia for a lost opportunity, a lost childhood, or a lost homeland.  In fact, love, betrayal, and nostalgia could very well form the essential triptych of human journeys.  When we love unrequitedly, we are betrayed.  And when our love is returned, rare is it that such a sensation lasts more than a few weeks or months of actual time.  Love is unique in that it cannot be fully realized until  much later in the future.  The perspective that love brings in relation to all the other petty details of life is one of richness, unending richness, and is the feeling that comes closest to giving us a sense of what consciousness beyond all these buildings and clocks might be.  Not everyone gets the chance to be truly, madly, and deeply in love; some wallow in the grim, sadistic dungeon of quelled lusts and voyeuristic itches.  No surprise then that some of our society's most resentful souls (let us leave aside for the moment the pathologically and maniacally ill) are those who believe they should be loved, believe also they have much to offer prospective partners, and then shun the world because all the world's lovers have shunned them.  This vicious cycle may, in some circumstances, lead to crime.  But more often than not it leads to misanthropy, bitterness, and a need to channel this frustration into something productive like work or art.  And this last observation should inform our reading of this brilliant novel.
 
Our narrator, Hermann Karlovich (his Russian patronymic; no surname is ever provided) sells chocolates in Berlin.  He is, much like the protagonist of this classic Russian tale, a bilingual Russo–German equally at home in both cultures.  And like the German of Pushkin's story, Hermann is Russian in his social circles but German in his thoughts.  This means, in general terms, the company and culture he keeps are Russian and russophone, but his philosophizing and emotional limitations suggest a more austere upbringing full of rules, regulations, and harmony.  Before I am castigated for espousing such multicultural rot, you should consider the author of Despair and his view on the matter (better yet, read Nabokov's scathing reflections on German culture in this book reviewed earlier on these pages).  The whole point is that Despair is about cultural clichés, romantic clichés, even the much–belabored thematic cliché of the double, resulting in a monstrous parody of all these approaches.  Not that all critics of the novel agree with this assessment.  Their summary (and the one furnished by Hermann himself) would read as follows: a man, frustrated by a boring job, an unfaithful wife and, perhaps, unrealized literary aspirations, finds his Doppelgänger in a Prague park, and plots his own murder so as to abscond with the insurance money, thereby altering his tedious lifestyle.  Now if you know anything about Nabokov you know he is a master stylist and a master plotter – a rare combination in the annals of literature.  While Despair injects some of the "rhetorical venom" (Nabokov’s own comment in his introduction) that would be found in two later works, if this were indeed the plot and sequence it would be as worthless as the pulp novels that so fascinate Hermann’s airhead wife Lydia.  Critics retort that Hermann, a "failed artist," is raving mad and unable to conjure up anything more than the most recycled of plots, see the whole endeavor as Nabokov’s critique of bad writers with evil intentions, and gladly write off the work as one of the grandmaster’s least successful gambits.        

Yet they are, I say in all modesty, completely wrong.  The description that Hermann provides – indeed, the ostensible events of the novel itself – are mired in a deception so fantastic and ingenious that every cell of my being wants to reveal at least one card of Nabokov’s hand.  But I cannot.  I cannot say what numerous readings of this novel indicate might be the true storyline, the true motivations of Hermann, of his double Felix, and of his wife and her perfidious cousin, Ardalion.  If I were to hint at the trick that Nabokov plays on his unsuspecting readers, I would direct your attention to Hermann's treatment of one subject in particular: that of art.  Art for Nabokov is the pinnacle of human achievement, God's work refashioned and regurgitated in the finest form our earthen clay can muster.  If someone in Nabokov's world is a friend and champion of art, true art, it is likely that his negative character traits will be offset by a bit of favoritism from his creator (as in this novel, Nabokov's best).  Keep this in mind when judging Hermann's and Felix's discourse in the country inn, or Ardalion's letter, or Hermann's bizarre machinations in a Berlin post office that so reminded me, for some reason, of the Berlin post office which I would frequent.  There are so many layers of suggestion in Despair that, if you are in the mood for a murderous allegory of revenge, you cannot put it ... And there, I fear, I have said too much already.

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