Constant Reader
WebBoardOrientationReading ListsHome WorksActivities
Classics Corner

Buy the paperback

by Vladimir Nabokov

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965--thirty years after its original publication--Despair is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime--his own murder.

From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, December 01, 2002 06:18 PM One of the first things that struck me about Despair was the extent to which Hermann, the narrator, resembles Humbert, who tells the story of Lolita. The stilted, pretentious voice is very similar, as well as the lack of moral scruples. However, from the start Hermann has a barely repressed hysterical quality that is missing from his later counterpart. I also found it impossible to develop an ounce of sympathy for him, while Hermann occasionally struck a familiar chord. Perhaps that is what Nabokov meant when he said of the two: "Both are neurotic scoundrels, yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann." That quote is an example of what I most like in Nabokov - his beautiful phrasing and images. Here are a few more examples: "On hot summer days, a languid lady in lilac silks, she would recline in her rocking chair, fanning herself, munching chocolate, all the blinds down, and the wind from some new-mown field making them billow like purple sails. " (p. 4, Vintage paperback) "I lay face downwards, I saw running below me the pebbles and mud of a country road, wisps of dropped hay, a cart rut brimming with rainwater, and in that wind-wrinkled puddle the trembling travesty of my face..." (p. 51) "Indeed, it is not really possible to set down my incoherent speech, that tumble and jumble of words, the forlornness of subordinated clauses, which have lost their masters and strayed away..."(p. 89) But what is the reader to make of a narrator who states repeatedly in the first chapter that he is an inveterate liar? Is this a study in self-deception, or perhaps the chronicle of a madman? Impressions, questions, answers welcome. Ann
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 08:01 AM What is one to make of Nabakov's fascination with doubles? I'm sure there are lots of scholarly articles about it. I noticed the familiarity of Hermann's voice, too, Ann. He also reminded me a little bit of the narrator in the short story we just read. I can't think of the name of it just now. Hermann must have been mad. His feelings of superiority were certainly unwarranted. Nabakov is the master of the unreliable narrator, isn't he? And what are we to make of Ardalian? SPOILER In the end, I wonder if the tramp was his double at all. This is why I think the narrator was mad. His murder plan seemed so "reasonable" yet, no one was fooled for an instant. Sherry
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 11:37 AM That last thought ocurred to me too, Sherry. I think he'd talked himself into believing what he wanted to believe. Ruth
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 07:01 PM SPOILERS I agree with you both. I think we can guess from the start that the narrator is somewhat unbalanced, but the reader only gradually becomes aware of just how completely deluded he is. Felix never sees the supposed resemblance between him and Hermann at the outset and, as Sherry pointed out, the police instantly knew that Felix was not Hermann after the murder. Early in the novel, Hermann mentions that he hates to look in mirrors and this statement is repeated throughout. He doesn't want to look in mirrors because then he would have to face what he really looks like, not some mental image which apparently resembled Felix. By the end of the novel, I felt confident that the two men really did not look like each other. In fact, there are a lot of signs that Herman has a distorted sense of perception. At one point he thinks he is disassociating and viewing himself making love to his wife, but his wife forces him to admit that he is physically in another room. He sees a picture and is sure Ardalion painted it, but that is impossible. Obviously, his wife Lydia and "cousin" Ardalion are getting it on, but Hermann refuses to acknowledge this even though he has apparently interrupted them in the act. (Chapter 6). Sherry, I don't know why doubles fascinate Nabokov. Dostoevsky (whom Nabokov slams in this novel) wrote about them too, but I have never read his book The Double. Have you ever had the experience, however, of having someone tell you that you look like someone, but you can't see any resemblance at all? Hermann seemed to have the opposite problem. Ann
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 09:13 PM I haven't finished reading this article yet, but it may have some clues as to why Nabokov was fascinated with doubles. Sherry
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 09:34 PM Thanks for that interesting link, Sherry. Interesting that the lover of Nabokov's brother was named Hermann. Ann
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, December 02, 2002 10:47 PM I was a little annoyed, especially before I became used to it, by all the asides to the reader. So self-conscious on the part of the writer, so clever... I realize that they played into our perception of Whathisface's character, and learned to accept them. But I never did like them very much. Ruth
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, December 03, 2002 08:17 AM I just finished reading the article I posted a link to. Sergei's life would make an interesting, but in the end, sad movie. I imagine Nabokov was ashamed of him, and was ashamed that he was ashamed. I wonder if his literary themes of "doubles" had to do with his inability to feel separate from Sergei, to feel responsible for him in some way. As far as the book goes, all those asides to the reader play a very important part in our understanding of his unreliability. Hermann is self-obsessed and it's obvious that he's trying to impress the reader. The reader even seems like a character in the book; I wonder who Hermann thought he was writing to. Sherry
From: Tonya Presley Date: Tuesday, December 03, 2002 09:22 AM I think everything said about Hermann above is true, he's a self-deceiving, lying, madman. I think that is why, when I first read this all those years ago, I was so entertained! It is the fact of all the lies without the least bit of subtlety that clinches it. The rest of the unreliable narrators are a game; you find tiny clues and discrepancies and work an intricate puzzle. But Hermann is flamboyantly self-deceiving! His confidence and pomposity are so absolutely unshakable, he is practically a cartoon character. The best example, I guess, is Lydia. It didn't work quite so well this time, but the first time reading it he had barely to mention her name and I would start getting tickled. The first time I read it, I guess I didn't understand that he and Felix didn't look alike in the least-- when it turned out there was no mystery to the crime at all, well that was a hoot. Sherry, I sort of assumed Hermann was planning to send his story to Nabokov, but I didn't pay particularly close attention to that. Tonya
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, December 04, 2002 07:31 AM Yes, I think I remember that, too, Tonya. So Nabokov's writing a book about a person who is writing a book for Nabokov. Hmm. Quite circular, and a bit precious. Sherry
From: Mark Englert Date: Friday, December 06, 2002 02:10 AM I can't resist mentioning a passage that always makes me laugh out loud. It begins on page 202, when Hermann realizes his mistake, and begins, "With his stick, reader, with his stick. S-T-I-C-K, gentle reader. A roughly hewn stick branded with the owner's name: Felix Wohlfart from Zwickau. With his stickau he pointed ..." This novel become much more fascinating for me when I finally realized that, as many of you have noted, Felix looks nothing like Hermann in reality. I think that is essential to the story, because it not only reinforces how skewed Hermann's perceptions of others are, but also shows how disconnected Hermann is from himself. It takes only a small amount of sanity, I would argue, to have a decent idea of your own appearance, yet Hermann seems incapable of even this. I think the most unsettling part of the story was Hermann's warped sense of being an "artist". He tries to apply a sense of asthetics to his murder scheme, as if it were theatre or performance art. He even refers to his plan as his "masterpiece" more than once. Mark
From: Ernest Belden Date: Saturday, December 07, 2002 01:25 AM Lovers of Literature, This book may well be read as a work of literature, but it also makes suitable study material for a psychiatrist or psychologist. Oh, I forgot to mention mystics, people who believe in the supernatural. People, who for instance can leave their bodies, walk around somewhere and return to their bodies do exist. I knew a very nice lady who could do that or so she told me. I did not know her very well so I can not judge her sanity. But, and this brings me to the point I want to make, dissociationnn are very common and readily found in mentally ill people. These individuals are mostly upset if not terrified by such experiences. There is a German writer who wrote a book about it I read in my youth. I will attempt to find the writer. Then there is the superstition that once you see your double you are destined to die. Dissociations are, considered very pathological by psychologists and psychiatrists. I am at the point in the book where the hero of our book becomes preoccupied the "double" and and seemed to be partly dissociated. My own thoughts concerned Nabokov as I would have assumed only a very disturbed dissociated person could write the book. But apparently Nabokov was far from being crazy. At least my friend who met him while a student at Stanford and was invited to a party at the Nabokov did not think so. His books as well are often brilliant and most unusual but far from crazy. Well I am not done yet, but what a great book: literature and psychology- hand in hand. Ernie
From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, December 07, 2002 08:18 AM I'm so glad you are reading this, Ernie. Your thoughts about the psychological nature of things are so interesting and informative. Sherry
From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 11:58 AM Ernie, I appreciated your comments on dissociations. I didn't realize that they were not that unusual. Several times he comments that it is not he who is writing, but his memory - as if the memory were an entity separate from him. I wonder if this is part of the same dissociation. Hermann is also incredibly narcissistic. Is that a trait you encountered often in mentally ill patients? He tells us that he loves his wife because she idolized him: "To her I was the ideal man: brains, pluck. And there was none dressed better. I remember, once, when I first put on that new dinner jacket, with the bast trousers, she clasped her hands, sank down on chair and murmured:"Oh, Hermann..." It was ravishment bordering upon something like heavenly woe. That seems to be reading an awful lot into "Oh, Hermann," especially in light of her behavior with cousin Ardalion. When his mental image of perfection is finally challenged, he starts to disintegrate. I have a couple of questions for the rest of you about things that puzzled me: Why does he refer to his wife as "the poor dead woman"? (Chapter 1, page 24, Vintage edition) Is there any significance to the repeated use of the words "lilac" and "violets?" The trademark on the chocolates he sells is a wrapper with a lady in lilac, he describes his mother as a "languid lady in lilac silks," every time he meets Felix he wears his favorite lilac tie, there are violets in Felix's buttonhole, Lydia buys violets for Ardalion, and Hermann writes a story about a Mr. X.Y. who wears a lilac tie. Is there some special symbolism to this color? This book is very clever, and when I go back and reread parts of it I get a better appreciation of just how well it is constructed. Things that confused me at first make more sense the second time around. For example, I finally understood why Hermann hated to look in mirrors and see his true image. However, for me this is a book which is all intellect and no heart. It has a kind of black humor which has always escaped me. How did the rest of you feel? Ann
Topic: December: Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (16 of 20), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 12:20 PM I usually like black humor, but this is a slightly different angle, I think, which I didn't find particularly funny either. At least not while I was reading it. As I look back now, I think I was too taken in by our unreliable narrator for most of the book so that I didn't realize it was even supposed to be funny. Ruth
Topic: December: Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (17 of 20), Read 23 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Tonya Presley Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 01:01 PM I noticed the violets making multiple appearances in the book, so I'm glad you brought it up. From a search of "symbolism of violets," I got these: Violets symbolize the warding off of evil and an undying faithfulness, and have been woven into bridal bouquets for centuries. The discreet albeit important place found by the violet in the evolution of the art of painting is the direct result of the flower's color, form and symbolism. Its association with virtues such as modesty and faithfulness finds it in medieval missals and gothic psalters' illustrations, reaching their widest display in The Book of Hours and glorious tapestries such as "The Lady and the Unicorn". ...and there was much more. Searching on "symbolism of lilac" is less rewarding: Lilac (field)—Humility Lilac (purple)—Love's first emotion Lilac (white)—Youthful innocence; modesty; purity Lilac Polyanthus—Confidence I like Lydia trying to ward off evil, and for an added bit of humor, I'll take the field variety of lilac for Hermann! Tonya
Topic: December: Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (18 of 20), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 04:00 PM Thanks, Tonya. It's ironic that violet symbolizes faithfulness. One part that did amuse me was the references to Dostoevsky. Hermann recognized the resemblance between himself an "Rascalnikov" of "old Dusty's great book, Crime and Slime." After all, both heroes were motivated by a desire to commit the perfect crime. With Hermann, however, there was never any question of remorse. Nabokov always thought Dostoevsky was greatly overrated as a writer, which doesn't surprise me since their skills as writer were so different. Nabokov is supposed to be one of the master prose stylists of 20th century English literature, whereas Dostoevsky's style is often wordy and sloppy. Dostoevsky dealt with the soul, society, and big philosophical questions. I doubt Nabokov believed in a soul, and he always denied that his works had any message whatsoever. For me, too often his works resemble intellectual games. But nobody else can write quite like Nabokov. I love images like this: half a year had suddenly gone - a fall in a dream, a run in time's stocking. (p. 81) or I found there a few shacks standing awry, a washing line, and on it some pants bloated with the wind's sham life." (p. 6) In another place, Hermann talks about his nervousness and says "my heart is itching." I know just what he means. Ann
Topic: December: Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (19 of 20), Read 20 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ernest Belden Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 11:19 PM Ann, Your note answers a number of questions I have about this book. Nabokov seems to digress and become circumstantial very very frequently. You apparently found that in the end (which I have not reached yet) it all hangs together. Initially I thought the book was all about dissociation but there seems to be a lot more to it than that. I am close to halfway through and continue to be fascinated by N's play of words, his sentences and how he keeps the reader on tenterhooks. Nabokov is a master at creating tension and curiosity in the reader. In this respect he is truly unique in literature. Modern authors mainly write in a cohesive, sequential manner, but not Nabokov. As a psychologist I can't help but wonder what this thing about "doubles" is all about. At this point the hero seems very self centered and does not appear to be compassionate or loving. Ann called Despair a book without a heart and this seems to be the direction in which it is going. Ernie
From: Ernest Belden Date: Friday, December 13, 2002 12:29 AM Ann. I finished the book last night and as you or somebody else said it improves as we go along. Initially I got carried away with this stuff of Herman seeing his double and his preoccupation with this experience. Well I was wrong. There was no dissociation but there was plenty of narcissism as you wrote. Herman is far from being mentally ill, but a bit closer to narcissism and yes, psychopathy. The play on words,sentences and paragraphs are indeed astounding and keep the reader on tenterhooks. N. truly is a better writer than Dostoevsky. What I found initially confusing were the unfinished paragraphs or chapters. But at the end it all fitted together. In one respect there is a similarity to Dostoevsky - the violent outbursts. Buy they are frequently followed by fits of crying, apologies etc. Perhaps this has something to do with the Russian soul and is quite common in Russia and other places. In Herman's discussions with his double he also changes emotions and attitudes frequently for little reason. Central Europeans, as I observed while on vacation and subsequently remembered, on rare occasion shift from super polite to verbal insults and fits. My only interpretation of Herman's reference to his wife as "Poor Dead Woman" I can only interpret as due to their opposite personalities. He sees her as lacking in energy, vitality and shrewdness (Herman's strength). She follows him and always ends up agreeing with his schemes. Who ever suggested reading this book exhibited excellent taste and knowledge of literature. Ernie
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Sunday, December 08, 2002 11:15 PM I'm a bit confused by the two threads running simultaneously on this book. Both Humbert and Hermann are burdened with an intelligence that suffers through daily dealings with lesser, duller, clueless dupes. Poor chaps. Their facility with malicious, deft verbal character annihilation is their only comfort—barely a penny’s worth of joy compared to the lifelong torture of being surrounded by stupidity. One wonders where they end and Nabokov begins. These twin characters, H & H, strike me as Nabokov’s shadows, profitable outlets for venomous inclinations, a fleshing out of the author’s shadow self. Maybe they are Nabokov’s double, doubled. Forgive my jaundiced take on the great prose stylist of the 20th century but I am still reacting to the article that Sherry turned up. Mind you I can forgive Nabokov almost anything for just the passages that Ann quoted from DESPAIR. I am in awe of the s. o. b. The heart is much harder to find in Hermann’s tale than it is in Humbert’s. I was not emotionally invested in Hermann beyond the wicked fun it was to discover how he got his due. DESPAIR dances other murder mysteries right off the stage with its linguistic prowess, but it isn’t even in the same league as LOLITA which aches with tragedy and contains some of the best writing I’ve ever read. SPEAK, MEMORY is on my tbr list. I’m so glad that I get to know the man through his writing rather than in person. Robt
Topic: Despair (13 of 16), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, December 09, 2002 08:39 PM Robt, Sorry about the dual notes. I was guilty of posting to both notes myself. It was confusing because the note reminding everyone of the next book and the note for the discussion itself both had the title in them. I'll differentiate them better next time. I was really interested in your comments that Hermann's and Humbert's sense of superiority and disdain for others must have had their roots in Nabokov's own personality. That seems likely, doesn't it? At the same time, he did paint these traits as repellent, so he must have been aware of the dangers of these tendencies. I read the article that Sherry posted too, and I wondered if the writer was reading things into Nabokov's relationship with his brother that weren't really there. Was the problem really that Nabokov couldn't accept his homosexuality, or were they just incompatible? I have read SPEAK MEMORY and, after LOLITA, it is my favorite Nabokov book. When I have a bit more time, I'm going to look up the references to his brother, whom he speaks of with regret. He does say of him "I was the coddled one; he the witness of coddling," and talks about how different they were from each other. I think you would really enjoy this book. I have also read about half of the biography of Nabokov's wife, VERA. He was one of the few people lucky enough to find his real soul mate - in his case, his wife. Ann
Topic: Despair (14 of 16), Read 33 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Robert Armstrong Date: Tuesday, December 10, 2002 08:18 AM Ann, It is an academic transgression to ascribe fictional attributes to an author who wrote them. What’s the term? Biographical speculation. Really F worthy literary criticism. However, can’t you see Nabokov on a bad day, with a sprained back or shingles, just letting his temper rip into a student of lesser talent than he? And then horrified at the psychic scar he has created he learns to hold his tongue, and drawing on every fiber of his breeding he just makes it to his study, slams the door and, clickety-clack, releases his venom in the most healthy manner possible: literature! Why shouldn’t it be the prerogative of the casual literary commentator to indulge in such fantasies whether or not they hold any resemblance to historical fact? What fun. Surely reading SPEAK, MEMORY will open a Pandora’s Boxload of additional material for me to play with. The assumption that Nabokov was a homophobe may or may not be true and does seem to be simplistic. Having two gay uncles, one of whom sexually abused him, and a gay brother close in age would certainly make homosexuality an issue for him to sort through, especially in the era in which he lived, where homophobia was rampant and accepted. However, it makes me sad that Nabokov portrayed all his gay characters in a nasty manner and sadder still was the story of his brother Sergei’s tortured demise in a concentration camp. The gay holocaust was very real. These are things that I am sorting through. Robt
Topic: Despair (15 of 16), Read 21 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Ann Davey Date: Tuesday, December 10, 2002 07:20 PM Robt, Yes, I can readily see Nabokov losing patience with the lesser intellects (practically everyone) whom he was forced to confront in real life and letting the venom rip in his fiction. I think you will enjoy SPEAK MEMORY, but you are not going to find a lot of facts about his life in the book. It is very impressionistic - but also very beautiful. Much of it is about is idyllic Russian childhood. It completely transported me back to that era. Many years ago, I got a Master's in Russian and Eastern European history, so his book held a special fascination for me. I only remember one obviously gay character from Nabokov's books, but then I have not read nearly enough of them. Humbert's gay friend in LOLITA was definitely a caricature. If he is one of several, that is disturbing. I know that gays were a targeted group of the Nazis and that many suffered terribly as a result. Ann
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Wednesday, December 11, 2002 09:24 AM Ann, Thanks for the intro to SPEAK MEMORY which makes me want to read it more than ever. That's interesting about your studies in Russian history. What little I know of it makes me glad I didn't experience such incredible turbulence. Robt
From: Jim Heath Date: Monday, December 23, 2002 10:49 PM Very funny book. I particularly liked the section where Hermann finds his wife in Ardalion's bed and accepts the story that she had an upset stomach at the movies and needed to lie down. Also the section where he speculates on potential sales of his book in the USSR: "In fancy, I visualize a new world, where all men will resemble one another as Hermann and Felix did; a world of Helixes and Fermanns; a world where the worker fallen dead at the feet of his machine will be at once replaced by his perfect double smiling the serene smile of perfect socialism. Therefore I do think that Soviet youths of today should derive considerable benefit from a study of my book under the supervision of an experience Marxist who would help them to follow through its pages the rudimentary wriggles of the social message it contains." Hermann is a magnificent self-absorbed maniac whose vision is fixated on the mundane, how someone cleans their nails, the quality of someone's small talk. I think he murdered Felix almost on a whim because he felt like he had to do something sensational with his double. Quite a contrast with Dusty's (I love that nickname) Raskolnikov.



Vladimir Nabokov

In Association with