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Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

Fortunately Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Despair, is short.  This has two advantages. First, it doesn’t take long to get to the end.  Second, it doesn’t take long to get to the middle, which is when the novel comes together and becomes fun.

This is a book about doubles, the chief double being one man another man encounters who looks, to the second man, exactly like him.  Again, around the middle of the book, we begin to get the idea: Man two will kill man one and use man one’s corpse as a means of swindling an insurance company.

The problem is, as we begin hurtling forward in the second part of the book, that man one really doesn’t look much like man two.  So the police come upon the corpse of man one dressed in man two’s clothes, see that he isn’t man two, and put out an alert to arrest man two.

Now this is probably too much action for a Nabokovian fiction, but Despair was one of Nabokov’s first novels, and he apparently still felt he had to kick his predecessors in the shin, mocking Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Double) in particular with lots of spinning, frenzied plot.

But Nabokov never excelled with plot. His great gift always was, and it shows up here, a comic gift for sensual description and characterization.  This required the inventive use of alluring words like “pale,” “puce,” “plum,” and “puff.”  Said words were then attached to characters’ faces, lips, waistcoats, and manners of speech, as in, “The pale fellow hooked his thumbs in the slit pockets of his puce waistcoat and puffed out his lips despairingly, wishing he’d eaten that plum when he’d had a chance on the afternoon train.”

I made that sentence up, of course, and have deliberately overwritten it to make a point.  In Nabokov we have the arch-artist who takes the position that words are everything in literature and literature is nothing but words.  As William Gass wrote, there is nothing about a character’s face in a story except his exclamatory eyebrows and bristly nostrils if that is all the author has given us to consider.  The character has no mouth, no ears, no hair, no double chin...nothing but the details proffered by the author. This, he suggests, and Nabokov concurs, is the point and purpose of literature: to find and fix on an essence and milk it for aesthetic pleasure, not mistake it for “the real thing.”

What Nabokov does allow with respect to “reality,” and this shows up in the ramblings of our self-deluded  unreliable narrator in Despair, is the permanence and inescapability of memory.  One is always a double, in a sense, because one is only what one remembers of a former self...the self of yesterday or ten years ago.  Literature, fortunately, allows us to excavate that self, or imitate it, or echo it with words, descriptions, interactions...stories. These are not “true” things, but they’re all we’ve got: we are what we are able to claim, persuasively, to remember.  That’s us doubling ourselves, generating in the process, laughter as well as despair.