Prepare yourself for another redundant review of praise for V. Nabokov. While it does not quite match the tirelessly beautiful prose of Lolita, or the ever-consuming intrigue and originality of Pale Fire, Despair at least eclipses the mostly straightforward Laughter in the Dark in its execution of Nabokov's version of "popular fiction." That is, the New York Times Bestseller fiction of the day (whether it be 1934, 1965, or 2008), which to be sure, will always be far inferior to practically every sentence this master has set down for print. I was not able to work Bend Sinister into that sentence of novel comparing (which would then include all the works of Nabokov I have read, save Speak, Memory which really should be separately categorized) because it is too clumsy a sentence as it is--though I would also put Despair above that work in its "page-turner" quality. Bend Sinister is a book that requires yet another reading by me someday, but not before Pnin, Ada, or Ardor, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, or Look at the Harlequins! are tackled (at least those, not including Invitation to a Beheading).
But I had wanted to read Despair for roughly six years and finally got around to it over these past few days. And it was quite different from what I was expecting. I was expecting a story of suicide, with respect to the tagline the novel is marketed by: "Despair is the sardonic story of a man who undertakes the perfect crime--his own murder." Perhaps that very accurate description of the novel would lead any reasonable reader to realize it was not going to be about suicide, but I suppose I associated too much feeling with the title of the work. Suicide is only briefly mentioned--as an excuse for the murder to take place, and as a dismissed means to an end--and anytime there is an opportunity to quote Nabokov, I must flower up the content of Flying Houses by giving into the temptation:
"'He can't be saved,' said I, with what is called, I believe, a bitter smile. 'He is determined to die on his birthday: the ninth of March--that is to say, the day after tomorrow; and the President of the State could not prevent it. Suicide is the worst form of self-indulgence. All one can do is to comply with the martyr's whim and brighten up things for him by granting him the knowledge that in dying he performs a good useful deed--of a crude material nature, perhaps, but anyhow, useful.'" (150-151)
"All is dark, all is dreadful, and I do not see any special reason for my lingering in the dark, vainly invented world. Not that I would contemplate killing myself: it would be uneconomical--as we find in almost every country a person paid by the state to help a man lethally. And then the hollow hum of blank eternity." (220)
The narrator, Hermann Karlovich, is a neurotic madman along the similar lines of H.H. or Charles Kinbote. His atheism is pronounced as the particularly memorable opening to chapter six professes, which would be too much to quote verbatim for an accurate depiction of his worldview. He is a German salesman in the chocolate business who only needs to describe his specific function once ("We were urging a foreign firm on the verge of bankruptcy to convert their manufacturing process to that of ours to supply Czechoslovakia, and so that was how I came to be in Prague." (15)) While in Prague, Hermann comes across a "marvel"--a tramp, lying in a forest just outside town, that appears exactly like himself, in his own estimation. He wakes the man up and the man wonders why he has been disturbed from his slumber and Hermann offers him a cigarette and then calls him a fool and holds up a mirror to the man's face and tells him that he is a double of him.
The man's name turns out to be Felix, and there are not many other characters in Despair. There is only Lydia, Hermann's rather dense, simple wife, Ardalion, her cousin who is a painter of questionable talent. There is also Orlovius, the only friend of Hermann's and Lydia's that is mentioned. Hermann plans several encounters with Felix, finally proposing one night that Felix stage a performance playing the part of Hermann for some definite gain of a thousand marks. After some persuasion, Felix agrees, and then Hermann's plan springs to action. What he intends to do is like a variation on James Cain's Double Indemnity--a mystery plot with a comparable degree of trickery, though also quite simple in its own way.
The circumstance under which Hermann writes this "memoir" is one of the masterstrokes of the novel--when it all appears that things have gone as planned, only for the author to continue on after the fake happy ending. The author's enduring repartee with the reader is reminiscent of certain parts of Mann's Doctor Faustus, except in this case, it is far more excessive and comic. One particular boast he continues to make is of his literary mastery ("And speaking of literature, there is not a thing about it that I do not know. It has always been quite a hobby of mine." (55)), which might be just be attractive to me for obviously personal reasons:
"All this is a digression and not an evasion--most emphatically not an evasion; for I fear nothing and will tell all. It should be admitted that I exercise an exquisite control not only over myself but over my style of writing. How many novels I wrote when young--just like that, casually, and without the least intention of publishing them. Here is another utterance: a published manuscript, says Swift, is comparable to a whore." (89-90)
Or for random bits of comedy:
"Enough--let us go on--roars of laughter are not in my line! Enough, it is not all so simple as you seem to think, you swine, you! Oh, yes, I am going to curse at you, none can forbid me to curse. And not to have a looking glass in my room--that is also my right!" (31)
There also appear to be self-references, when Hermann discusses that he will be passing off his manuscript to a Russian author whom he has met in the town that he presently inhabits, who is then described by Hermann employing rather clever details that abound in this story of "doubles." Despair is a mix of the more plot-oriented version of Nabokov and the literary experimentalist Nabokov and at 222 pages it may just be the short, ideal length of a novel. I would remark that it would provide the material for an excellent Hollywood adaptation, but I find it has already been done, in 1979 (by Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In short, another redundant review of a book by Nabokov on Flying Houses--"It's good. Duh."