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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.
In World War II England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis misinterprets her older sister’s love affair with their family’s gardener to be something much worse than what it is. Her innocence and partial understanding of the world begins a chain of events that tears the family apart and alters the course of the rest of the girl’s life.
Sounds a little dry, right? Wrong! I guess I forgot to mention that the book was written by Ian McEwan, the king of uncomfortable moments, weird sex stuff, the rotating third-person close perspective, and – I’ll say it! – writing about the human psyche. While I’ve found some of his earlier books to be a little too uncomfortable (or, rather, too uncomfortable without good reason) or a little too sexually deviant (again, in the way that it seemed for shock value rather than for a reason), this was a freaking masterpiece. My definition of a masterpiece: I was jealous while reading it and cried while reading the last page.
I think the one thing that makes this book so wonderful is McEwan’s eerily accurate understanding of how a 13-year-old girl’s mind works – her understanding of the world and her emotional reaction to it. Briony is trapped between childhood and adulthood. She’s old enough to recognize the dark and startling behind-the-scenes facets of her proper British family’s life, but not old enough to properly analyze or judge them. She’s old enough to impose her will and her ideas on others, but not wise enough to know when to act or when to question herself. It’s a frustrating and fascinating (and uncomfortable) time, and he has it down pat.
McEwan also experiments with structure in ways that are truly innovative and new without being gimmicky. Briony is an aspiring writer who grows and develops her style throughout the 60 years that the novel covers, and McEwan’s novel mirrors her literary growth. Part One of the story is extremely traditional (broken into chapters, with a clear rotation of perspectives and a uniform chronology). Parts Two and Three are much more modern – the story, which switches gears to follow the gardener into WWII France and Briony to her experiences as a nurse in London, loses structure and fluidity and uses more modern storytelling techniques. Finally, the last section is utterly contemporary – the story becomes even more abstract, with unreliable narrators and more conceptual writing favored over simple narrative.
And yet these games with structure and story and perspective in no way take your focus from the story and the characters. Instead, they add to the experience of watching the main character grow and develop.
If the book suffers from anything, it might be a little slow in some places and move too fast in others. Since McEwan tends to be very thorough when it comes to interior thought, the story often slows down a bit more than it should so that he can explain how every single person felt about a certain moment in time (although the story spans 60 years, the first 200 pages span a single afternoon and evening). The slow story is a necessary evil, though, if we want to keep the detailed character studies in place. And we do. And the action-filled second half of the book, which covers the British retreat from the Germans in 1940 and the over-capacity army hospitals of London, makes up for the sometimes austere and rigorous first half. It just takes a while to get the story rolling.
Overall, if I were you, I’d get this book and read it over Thanksgiving break.