Friday, October 24, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“Despair,” by Vladamir Nabokov

(Editor’s note: This is the 29th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Robert Eversz, one of the founders of the Prague Summer Writer’s Workshop, now the Prague Summer Program, and most recently the Writer in Residence at Western Michigan University. Eversz is also the author of five novels featuring paparazza Nina Zero, including Burning Garbo [2003], Digging James Dean [2005], and Zero to the Bone [2006]. He currently lives outside Washington, D.C.)

I first discovered Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair on the bookshelves of an English language bookshop in Prague, Czech Republic, not far from Petrin Hill, where this ecstatically written tale of madness and murder begins. I’d been casting about for literary models that might inspire the novel I was then writing about an expatriate American compelled to commit murder in post-communist Prague. After thumbing through Despair’s first chapter, in which the narrator, Hermann Karlovich, alludes to murder, admits to lying deliberately to the reader, and protests that the accusations of madness against him are false, I realized that I had found not only an inspiration for my own work but also a little-known classic of crime fiction and one of the greatest doppelgänger stories ever written.

Some priests of literary art and genre purists might object to the classification of anything written by Nabokov as a crime novel. They might protest that literature must have firmly fixed and impermeable borders, keeping literary fiction free of the blood-lust common to genre fiction, which is, after all, nothing but entertainment. I respectfully disagree. Crime fiction is a genre in the same way that coming-of-age fiction is a genre--a simple category of composition characterized by a similarity of subject matter. Novels that contain a crime or crimes at the center of their composition, such as Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union--all nominated as best books of their respective years by the International Association of Crime Writers--are crime novels in this classification.

The protagonist of Despair, Hermann Karlovich, is a German chocolate manufacturer of Russian birth writing about the events that brought him, in a fugitive’s disguise, to a small hotel in the south of France. The story he tells begins with a chance meeting of a vagabond sprawled motionless under a thornbush on Prague’s Petrin Hill. Hermann at first suspects the vagabond is either dead or deathly ill, and with one toe of his elegant shoe flicks the cap off his face. The man’s features astonish him. He doubts the reality of what he sees, doubts his own sanity. He writes, “While I looked, everything within me seemed to lose hold and come hurtling down from a height of ten stories. I was gazing at a marvel.” Hermann gives the vagabond a cigarette and engages him in conversation, astonished that he doesn’t see through their class differences to the remarkable similarity of their physical appearances. “Our resemblance struck me as a freak bordering on the miraculous,” Hermann writes. “What interested him was mainly my wishing to see any resemblance at all. He appeared to my eyes as my double, that is, as a creature bodily identical with me. It was his absolute sameness which gave me so piercing a thrill.”

Back in Berlin, Hermann sinks again into the comfortable monotony of his life, bored with his childish and adoring wife, and fixated on the remarkable resemblance he believes to exist between himself and the vagabond. Though a humble manufacturer of chocolates, Hermann considers himself an artist at heart, and a gifted writer who begins his tale by remarking, “If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness ...” He then botches what he wishes to write and stops, starts, stops, and starts again, declaring, “Dull work recounting all this. Bores me to death ... An author’s fondest dream is to turn the reader into a spectator; is this ever attained?” As Hermann grows more distracted by his dreams of art, he pays less attention to his business, neglecting it to the verge of bankruptcy. He remembers his double, the vagabond, and hatches an insurance scheme which he believes will be a work of art in itself, dazzling in its planning and execution.

Nabokov’s first-person narration captures the inner machinations of a brilliant but deluded mind at work, a mind driven to contemplate, then plan and commit a murder as a work of art. Readers familiar with the fiction of Jim Thomson can place this work next to The Killer Inside Me and examine these first-person accounts of murderers approached from opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Hermann Karlovich is the first incarnation of a specific type of addled criminal consciousness by Nabokov later reborn in the characters of Charles Kinbot from Pale Fire and Humbert Humbert of Lolita. “My hands tremble,” Hermann writes early on. “I want to shriek or to smash something with a bang. This mood is hardly suitable for the bland unfolding of a leisurely tale. My heart is itching, a horrible sensation. Must be calm, must keep my head.” Of course, Hermann doesn’t, and part of the joy of this tale is watching his arrogance and delusions come crashing against the hard earth of reality.

Nabokov chafed against the literary establishment throughout his career, authoring texts that were banned by the most powerful nations of the time; the land of his birth, Russia, banned everything he wrote, the UK and France both banned Lolita, and it took that same book four years to find a U.S. publisher brave enough to take it on. In the preface to the reworked edition of Despair published in 1965, Nabokov penned a sentiment more to the dark heart of crime fiction by Thompson and James M. Cain than to the literary fiction of his time. “Despair ...,” Nabokov wrote, “has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer ‘ideas’ than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot.”

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few, true, genius outlaws of 20th-century literature.

1 comment:

Barrie said...

Wow. It sounds like a very interesting and intricate plot. Thanks.