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Despair Paperback – May 14, 1989

4.4 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Language Notes

Text: English, Russian (translation)

From the Inside Flap

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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (May 14, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679723439
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679723431
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #45,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri. Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing ficticvbn ral books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
With deliberate reference to Dostoyevsky, and sideways glances at Poe and Kafka, Nabokov's *Despair* takes on the classic literary theme of `the double' with gruesome, and often hilarious, results. Hermann, a failed businessman and aspiring writer, relates his story of one day coming by chance upon a tramp in the woods who bears a striking resemblance to himself. Alternatively repulsed, fascinated, and obsessed by his `twin,' he concocts a plan to commit the perfect murder...the criminal equivalent of the perfect novel.

Nabokov draws out the metaphor between murder and art all the way to the eerie conclusion of *Despair* and his self-conscious narrator is the perfect mouthpiece for expounding the central theme: the art of crime and the crime of art. Vain, egotistical, insecure, capricious...Hermann is the quintessential unreliable narrator, a self-admitted liar from childhood who lies simply for the pure creative joy of it. An artist, in other words...and, in this case, an author. Hermann creates fictions and his murder plot will be his `masterpiece,' except there are always a few flaws in any masterpiece and critics aplenty to point them out. In the case of murder, the critics are the police and a bad review means arrest, imprisonment, and possibly a death sentence.

*Despair,* in spite of its title, is a lot of fun, poking fun as it does at the conventions of the novel even as it exploits each and every one of them. In a sense, it's a book about writing as much, if not more than, the murder that is actually being written about.
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Despair is probably not the first novel that comes to mind when thinking about Nabokov and his works and it may not even be among the top ten. But it is a Nabokov novel and that all by itself makes it worthy of our attention. Typically, it is a delight.

Nabokov's forward tells us that it was originally written in Russian while he was living in Berlin in 1934. There was an early, clumsy translation to English; then, in 1965, the final one. Nabokov describes it this way: "The ecstatic love of a young writer for the old writer he will be some day is ambition in its purest form. The love is not reciprocated by the older man in his larger library, for even if he does recall with regret a naked palate and a rheumless eye, he has nothing but an impatient shrug for the bungling apprentice of his youth." The novel hasn't even started yet and already the reader finds a big grin crossing his face.

It is written in the first person by a German businessman, who, while walking in an unpopulated area one day, comes across a hobo who, to his surprise, looks exactly like him. The plot has to do with a scheme our narrator concocts then implements to use this unusual resemblance for his own unscrupulous monetary gain. It would not be prudent to give away more. Though it is a rather familiar formula, let's just say that it is nevertheless very intriguing but ultimately logical in its surprisingly unsurprising denouement.

As usual with the Nabokov novel there is a lot more going on than initially meets the eye. Our narrator, fascinated by his scheme and by his own perceived cleverness, views his plan as a work of art. He comments that all art and great art especially is based on deception.
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Format: Paperback
In my opinion Despair is one of Nabokov's best novels. Here we can see an early draft of what would eventually become Nabokov's signatures: clever puns, comically cruel descriptions of characters as seen through the narrator's eyes, a story hovering beneath the "official" story, and vivid writing. "I took a handful of snow, squeezed out a curling worm of soap into it, beat it with the brush and applied the icy lather to his whiskers and mustache." The novel proper concerns Hermann Hermann, a "second-rate businessman with ideas" who one day stumbles across a hobo who Hermann believes resembles him as closely as "two drops of blood." The chance meeting in the mountains of Prague (circa the 1920s, when the novel was written) leads Hermann Hermann (an echo of Humbert Humbert?) to devise a cunning plan for committing what he believes would be the perfect crime, which he likens to a work of art. During the course of the novel, we are introduced to a bevy of colorful, vividly drawn characters: Hermann's wife, Lydia; her cousin, Ardalion; and Dr. Orlovious. The entire novel, so to speak, is Hermann's justification for an evil that he has done because he has a "lookalike," an evil that Hermann believes is an artistic masterpiece when viewed in its totality. But the wonder of Despair is not so much in the story line and plot but rather is in Hermann's remarkable asides and stray thoughts, which, when sewn together form a wondrous tapestry that reveal a story within the story, a story that Hermann Hermann can't or won't face. I wonder how many readers of Despair have recognized the true relationship between Lydia and Ardalion, a relationship that seems to zip right by the eyes of "observant" Hermann. To read Nabokov, it helps to pay attention to each syllable; and rereading is required.
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