Only one author on earth can produce from me the following sentence: “Yeah, I’m reading this book called Despair about an insane murderer with no respect for human life, and it is HILARIOUS.” That author is Nabokov.
In this, one of his lesser-known works, the egotistical and foppish narrator confesses to murdering someone who looks exactly like him in an attempt to collect his own life insurance money (and, more subconsciously, to rid the world of his weird doppelganger). Of course, Vladdy isn’t satisfied with a straight-up story, and slowly reveals that the first-person narrative we’ve been reading is really only just scraping surface of what actually took place.
As always with Nabokov, the language is beautiful and you are sure to learn at least a few new and awesome vocabulary words. You are also sure to either 1) write a bunch of new fiction with a weak, pseudo-retarded version of Nabokov’s style or 2) become paralyzed completely.
Despair was one of his earlier novels, written in Russian in 1932 and then translated into English (by Nabokov himself, the goddamn genius) with extensive edits, in 1965. It’s absolutely fascinating to see a younger, less experienced Nabokov write – you can see all of the seeds of his future works. The themes that he returns to so often during the latter part of his career — mirroring, unreliable narrators, unlikable protagonists, mistaken identities, dark humor, botched violence – are here, too, a little more apparent and a little less smooth and adept.
As a writer, I was happy to see a lower-level Nabokov – unlike in say, Pale Fire, where it is hard to pinpoint how he is pulling off the literary tricks he pulls off, in Despair, it’s a little easier to look into Nabokov’s mind and see the blueprints he was working with. For example, while it is hard to tell how he so subtlety reveals that Pale Fire‘s protagonist is delusional, in Despair, I could pick up on specific techniques he was using to create Hermann, the book’s unreliable narrator. It’s sort of like watching a magic trick before the magician has perfected it — you can maybe glimpse a trap door or a string and get a clue as to how to execute it yourself.
And while the exacting and masterful art of his later books is partially missing, his weird, twisted humor is on full display from the first page to the last. It might be the best kind of joke – 240 pages of non-stop dramatic irony which becomes more and more obvious with each page (all while the “author” is forced to continue complicating the story in order to continue deluding himself). And even while Nabokov can pull off a novel-length leg-pull, he also appreciates and condones the lowest forms of humor – puns and fart jokes. There truly was never a greater writer, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.