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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A most literary homicide...
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...
Published on March 30, 2007 by Mark Nadja

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars first part is pretty bad, but the last third is great
The first two-thirds of this novel are slow going. "Despair" is an accurate description of what I experienced while slogging through it, although "Ennui" might be closer to the mark. This novel is what you might call stylistically innovative: throughout the book, Nabokov - or rather, his narrator -- calls the reader's attention to the ways in which he is borrowing...
Published on January 7, 2012 by gormenghast


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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A most literary homicide..., March 30, 2007
This review is from: Despair (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. Nabokov thus adroitly turns an otherwise relatively conventional crime story into an existential commentary on the absurdity of the human condition and the ultimate failure of the artist to apprehend an entirely satisfactory expression of this absurdity. The question is: Can an artist get away with murder? Is any crime ((art)) perfect?

Whether as an extended and metaphoric meditation on art and personal identity or as a nifty, twisted tale of a mind unraveling into psychosis and murder, *Despair* is an impeccably written, entertaining, and intelligent novel by one of the 20th century's greatest writers.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Little Gem, December 30, 2006
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This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
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. How hilarious it is to discover that his scheme ends in such a banal, predictable way and how clever that Nabokov seems to be poking a little fun at his own pretensions.

No review of a Nabokov work would be complete without quoting at least a couple of passages as his use of the language is so exquisite. Here is our narrator describing the unpleasant landscape immediately prior to his fateful meeting with his doppelganger: "One could not leave the steps of the path, for it dug very deep into the incline; and on either side tree roots and scrags of rotting moss stuck out of its earthen walls like the broken springs of decrepit furniture in a house where a madman had dreadfully died." Wrenching, and structurally, the astute reader might also wonder whether it contains an element of foreshadowing.

Here is a delightful aside: "Germans got their due [losing World War I] for that sealed train in which Bolshevism was tinned, and Lenin imported to Russia."

A final example, after posting a letter that would put his plan into inexorable motion: "I felt what probably a purple red-veined thick maple leaf feels, during its slow flutter from branch to brook."

It's Nabokov. What else is there to say?
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An early masterpiece, January 30, 2002
By 
Ed Scarpo (Bayside, NY USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Despair (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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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Literature and Entertainment!!!!!, June 16, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
This book possesses something very rare: the ability to entertain as well as just about any Agathe Christie book along with a wildly rich variety of diction, intrigue, and (though the author denies it in his prologue) meaning. I have read it three times and each time I chuckle over some droll detail I missed on my last reading. Moreover, a great introduction to Nabokov: Ada and Pale Fire require much more cerebral work, and unlike Despair, don't lend themselves as easily to being happily re-read - something pretty much required if Nabokov can begin to be truly appreciated, as his stylings are difficult. A wild romp that will particularly be appreciated by worshippers of Dostoevsky and Pushkin, as critical extensions of some of their work are oddly offered (and strangely juxtaposed)as well. A solid, muscular masterpiece that makes much of Lolita look tame.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, October 12, 2011
This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
Before I get to the story of "Despair," I've got a question, namely: Why do so many authors seem to think that the act of generating art makes a fascinating subject for a novel?

In our trip through the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, we've seen that he returned to the subject over and over again. Which is fine, but let's face it - most of us do not make art in any noticeable way. So why should we read a bunch of novels about doing something we don't do?

Well, for one thing, Nabokov himself never said or implied that his work was intended to make us identify with his characters, so evidently there's something else going on here that we might find beautiful or useful or whatever, up to and including just plain fun. To begin with, it's interesting to contemplate the ideas behind his tales, even before we read them. Thus we come to "Despair," in which the narrator insists that he is an artist, and a great one. And his art? Murder, of course.

The blurb on the back cover says that in this novel, the protagonist (I hesitate to use the word "hero") contrives his own murder, but that isn't precisely true. Hermann, a not particularly successful Russian of German descent who holds his wife in well-disguised contempt, meets up with a tramp while taking a walk outside of Prague. This tramp, he insists, looks exactly like him in almost every detail. As his business gradually fails and his marriage becomes less bearable, he returns to the idea of his double with increasing obsession, and finally develops a plan to make use of his twin to escape his problems. Yes, murder is involved.

If this were an ordinary tale, you would expect a lot of ruminations about the motive for this crime. Hermann barely even mentions this until about three quarters of the way through the book. Instead, he goes on and on about how artistically perfect his plan was and what a pity it is that no one will ever appreciate its beauty. As a matter of fact, several times he announces his intention to send his manuscript to Vladimir Nabokov, who can then if he chooses present it as his own work of fiction. Hermann even addresses Nabokov directly a few times. All of this is a favorite Nabokovian metafictional device - presenting the work as if it were a real-world artifact - and it goes some way to describing one of this author's artistic claims, namely, that his work had no hidden or deep meaning. Like Hermann, he insisted that his sole motive for making anything at all was artistic expression, and maybe having a good time.

Is this true? On the evidence of "Despair", possibly. I've said before that Nabokov was no realist, and he certainly loved games. This novel is, among other things, a murder mystery game, although the mystery is less who committed the murder than why he did so. What's more, there's no detective in this story. If there's a Sherlock Holmes present at all, it's the reader. Yep, another postmodern metafictional device.

The first thing the reader has to detect is what Hermann is getting at - the character is the first-person narrator of his own story and spends almost the entire first chapter trying to decide how to get started. He admits immediately that he's a liar and enjoys it, and draws parallels between himself and another great literary murderer, the hero of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment". For a guy so anxious to be admired, Hermann sure doesn't make things easy on himself. Although it's rather delicious that Hermann the fictional liar invites Nabokov the nonfictional writer to lie about the authorship of this novel - dissertations have been written about funhouse mirrors like that.)

Another possible subject for the reader's detective skills is the question of whether Hermann tells the truth about anything. This isn't as obvious as it sounds. True, he maintains that he is a liar, and like a lot of criminals he considers himself superior to just about everyone else. Quite apart from the issue of whether or not he gets caught - which I'll leave you to find out - let's have another look at that first chapter. As I said, in it, he has a lot of trouble deciding how to get started. In subsequent chapters, he has similar difficulty in deciding how to carry on. In other words, he seems to be lying to himself. He may enjoy his falsehoods, but he doesn't seem to be a very competent liar. What this says about his competence as a murderer, I will again leave you to find out.

Nevertheless, if "Despair" (or any of Nabokov's other work) was nothing more than a game, it probably wouldn't still be in print. The author began his career composing chess problems and other puzzles, and knew the difference between games and stories. In his introduction to the English-language translation of this novel, he compared it to his most famous work and its narrator, and says that "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 could mean a great many things; this is Vladimir Nabokov, after all. To me, it suggests that however despicable and self-absorbed Lolita's oppressor is, he still has love. Hermann has none. Quite a heartfelt theme for a mere game.

None of this makes Hermann sound very pleasant, of course. I'm uneasy about recommending a book with a main character like that. We can have the satisfaction of turning up our noses at him, but that's kind of ignoble. Still, "Despair" is well-constructed and well-written, an amusing game with some weight to it. Not bad at all. And wait until you see what comes next.

Benshlomo says, How do you like a good story about a bad man?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining metafiction, December 30, 2004
By 
Steven Reynolds (Sydney, Australia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
Russian-born Hermann Karlovich, 36, is a married and disappointed purveyor of chocolates in pre-war Berlin. When he meets a young vagrant he considers to be his physical double, he undertakes to exploit their likeness to commit the perfect crime. The less said about what happens next the better, as revealing any more might undermine your pleasure. And there is a lot to enjoy here. The plot is playful - it's contrived, familiar and somewhat childish, but as it unravels we realize those qualities are precisely part of Nabokov's point in choosing it. Hermann is a monstrous narcissist convinced of his own criminal (and literary) genius and unable to see his plot's fatal flaw. With Hermann as the narrator, recounting his criminal "triumph", the novel progresses with a highly self-conscious awareness of itself as a potential High Art text. Hermann is almost constantly reflecting on literature and the typical constructions by which such a mystery story, and novels in general, routinely unfold. This might be irritating if it weren't for the subtle intention behind it - Hermann's error is to assume that his life can and will be experienced as work of art (by himself and by others); that the "perfect crime" is possible and that he can commit it, just like in the world of fiction. In creating such a wonderfully unreliable and deluded narrator, Nabokov explores and critiques the literary conventions by which so many novels proceed, and contrasts them with a character (and climax) which are refreshingly, horrifyingly human.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doppelganger Mystery, September 7, 2004
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This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
--
So, so wonderful. If you haven't read the book description, I recommend you don't. The one-sentence description reveals something not revealed in the book until nearly its end. If you have read the description, don't worry - it doesn't detract anything. I recommend this book, particularly as a plot-driven, less ethereal read for those who prefer that side of Nabokov (not to say his stamp is missing). Also interesting is that it was written in the 1930's and much revised by Nabokov in the 1960's, in English, after a literal Russian-to-English translation by his son. So the historic value that I find so interesting in his early work is there, yet his skill-level is far higher than in the books of his I've read from the 20's and 30's. To me, this plot, a doppelganger/crime in Nabokov's hands, is an original -- the way it unfolds, its structure; its breadth of characters, concepts and details. Literature is blessed by Nabokov. And Despair, brilliant, is an "easy" read, a suspenseful, highly enjoyable book.

Spoilers, if you haven't read other reviews: I love an unreliable narrator, and thought the pacing with which Hermann's credence becomes questionable was seamless. But what I want to say most is something Nabokov denies in his Foreward. However, having read some of the other Forewards from this reissue series, he had a clear disrespect for those who "need a Foreward to explain the book" [Quote from the Foreward of "The Defense"], so part of me thinks he's messing with us in his intros. In any event (intentional on VN's part or not), this is something I loved: the political implication of the main way Hermann's credibility is sketchy -- his likeness to another person. Hermann himself mentions the word Marxism very near the end, and when he ultimately concedes that he and Felix may look different, says, All people are really alike anyway. I thought about the book's entirety, the time in history it was written, and the ideology / social construct itself. As an American, at this time in history, I found this particularly powerful. Driving this politic home in "Despair" is their precise opposite lots: Hermann wealthy; Felix poor, a beggar, someone who goes to Hermann for money. The rich and the poor men, in Despair, are doubles, "alike in every way," Hermann writes.

And now, I'll be quiet. Other people have written wonderful reviews that mention different great details of "Despair." Stellar work. Amazing characters, so well-drawn, as always.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not what I was expecting..., November 25, 2012
This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
It is always dangerous to form preconceptions about a book before reading it. When a reader's expectations about what a book is going to be are dashed, as they often are, it tends to lead to disappointment. I formed an idea of what I thought this book was going to be about based on its title, and based on the very short blurb on the back of the book, that turned out to be totally mistaken. I think I would have appreciated this novel more if I had not been operating under my own mistaken first impressions about what I thought the book was going to be about. The back cover says that the book is about "a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder." I took that quite literally and, combined with the title, thought that the book was going to be a black humor take on someone who decides to commit suicide. I thought it might even be a humorous existential meditation on the meaninglessness of existence, or something of that nature. It turns out I was wrong.

The book is actually a book about a chocolate salesman, named Hermann, who, on a business trip to Prague, runs into a homeless person who he believes to be his exact double. The narrator becomes obsessed with his double, but the reader is unclear about Hermann's ultimate intentions at first. It is clear that Hermann is hatching some kind of a plan, but it is not clear what that plan is, or whether he will succeed in carrying it out. I will not give anything away, though anyone who has read the back of the book will be able to guess some of it.

Hermann himself slowly and methodically narrates the unfolding of his own plan. Hermann is impatient as a narrator, he gets bored with the boring parts, and Nabokov is able to induce the same impatience, and sometimes boredom, in the reader. There is a fair amount of humor in the book. Nabokov certainly has a felicity with language, and there is some degree of suspense, as Hermann's plan slowly unfolds for the reader. The narrator himself is extremely unreliable. There are also a lot of interjections about the nature of writing. The narrator often addresses himself directly to the reader, and openly debates with himself about different possible ways of beginning a chapter. The narrator often makes comments about the standard conventions of writing. This is, indeed, one of the most self-conscious books I have ever read. It is very aware of itself as a book, and as a piece of writing.

While there is a fair amount of humor in the book, and it is certainly possible to glean some interesting reflections on the nature of writing and art from the book, there is not, I do not think, any deep philosophical message in the book. Indeed, Nabokov seems to be making fun of readers who attempt to find some deep philosophical meaning in the work in the foreword when he writes that he "shall be interested to see if anyone calls my Hermann 'the father of existentialism'." While it may not offer much food for the philosophers, Nabokov continues, "Plain readers...will welcome its plain structure and pleasing plot." Nabokov also comes right out and says that the book "has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth." Hermann, the narrator, makes fun of possible Marxist interpretations of the book throughout his narration.

Nabokov has certainly mastered the techniques of writing. I have already drawn attention to his felicity with language, but he also creates interesting characters. Creating interesting, full blooded, characters is often difficult for writers, even good writers. Some writers are good at describing their characters, or having their characters describe themselves, but when their characters actually speak, they all tend to speak in the same voice. Though there are only four main characters in the book, Nabokov's characters all speak in their own voice. Nabokov has also mastered the technique of creating suspense (I actually read the whole book in a single sitting).

I did feel, at times, however, that Nabokov is sort of all style, with little substance. There is an interesting story here, but it is not that much different from a standard mystery novel. What sets it apart from a standard mystery novel is the extremely high level of writing, and the sort of post-modern (whatever that means) reflexivity or self-consciousness of the narrator. Nabokov is a master of style, but there were times when I felt as if he was being virtuosic simply for the sake of virtuosity. Sometimes it felt as if Nabokov was simply showing off. Reading Nabokov is kind of like watching a really good juggler. There is no doubt that a really professional juggler is often able to inspire a great deal of admiration in me, but ultimately juggling is just a trick. There is not really any chance that you are going to come away from a juggling show with a new perspective on the world or human life. Nabokov seems to me to be like a professional juggler. His writing is certainly impressive, but I did not really feel like I came away with anything of substance.

Some people may be fine with that. There is nothing wrong with being a juggling enthusiast, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying art for art's sake, and who knows, perhaps I am simply missing the point (it would not be the first time). Personally, I tend to prefer more philosophical novels. Hermann, the narrator, makes a number of references in the book to Crime and Punishment (Vintage Classics), and there are certainly a number of similarities between the two books. There are also some pretty huge differences. Dostoevsky's novel (which is one of my all time favorite novels) is a psychological novel that delves deeply into the human heart, and attempts to give expression to the deep existential struggles of human life. Nabokov does not seem to me to have a similarly serious purpose in this book.

The bottom line is: if you are interested in a book with a "plain structure and pleasing plot", that also happens to have been written by a master of the craft, then you will almost certainly find a great deal to enjoy in this book. If you are expecting (as I was) a more philosophical novel, then you might be disappointed, although, you will probably still find (as I did) a great deal to enjoy in the book, which should take the edge off of the disappointment. I have a feeling that if I had simply known upfront what to expect, and had not been misled by my own hasty assumptions, I probably would have been able to simply enjoy the book, without any attendant disappointment. But such is life.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars first part is pretty bad, but the last third is great, January 7, 2012
By 
gormenghast (Atlanta, GA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
The first two-thirds of this novel are slow going. "Despair" is an accurate description of what I experienced while slogging through it, although "Ennui" might be closer to the mark. This novel is what you might call stylistically innovative: throughout the book, Nabokov - or rather, his narrator -- calls the reader's attention to the ways in which he is borrowing elements from different genres, manipulating the structure of his work, and turning literary conventions on their heads. For example, he will interrupt the narrative flow to point out literary elements such as foreshadowing or rising action. In general, the novel does not unfold in the way we expect a novel to unfold, and the narrator, who is narcissistic, unreliable and possibly insane, cannot be categorized as a hero, antihero, or villain. This raises the question: if a novel does not conform, structurally or stylistically, to conventions of the genre, is it really a novel? And what is a novel, when you get right down to it? What is a hero? What is sanity?

I'm sure critics eat this sort of thing up. Indeed, there's a New York Times blurb on the front cover praising the book as "challenging and provocative" and "one of Nabokov's finest novels." The fact of the matter, however, is that "stylistically innovative," "challenging," and "provocative" usually translate into "not much fun to read" (think: Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"), and indeed this is the case for much of the novel. At times, it was insufferable. However, a miracle occurred two-thirds of the way through: the story suddenly became interesting - so good, in fact, that I began to feel like all of my previous suffering was worthwhile. The brilliant ending forced me to revise my opinion of the novel and to take back all of the nasty things I'd been thinking about Nabokov. My attitude towards him is now one of grudging respect.
Worth a read. Three-and-a-half stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars CRIME AND PUN, November 19, 2011
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This review is from: Despair (Paperback)
DESPAIR is narrated by Hermann Karlovich, a failing and deranged chocolate manufacturer who is self-absorbed and needs money. Hermann, who thinks he is a lawbreaker of genius, is also obsessed with the idea of mirror-image doubles. But in Hermann's skewed world, the doubles that he sees are those in the funhouse mirror where "...a crooked mirror strips its man or starts to squash him, and lo! there is produced a man-bull, a man-toad, under the pressure of countless glass atmospheres; or else, one is pulled out like dough and then torn in two."

In DESPAIR, Hermann commits a shocking crime and then compares his story of that crime, which is the novel DESPAIR, to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. But since the author is Nabokov, not Dostoyevsky, the tone of DESPAIR features wry and literate hubris, not tortured guilt. CRIME AND PUN Hermann writes at one point in his manuscript. He also observes that there are many layers to this narrative, producing subsequent broad appeal. "Aye, let other nations, too, translate it into their respective languages, so that American readers may satisfy their craving for gory glamour; the French discern mirages of sodomy in my partiality for a vagabond; and Germans relish the skittish side of a semi-Slavonic soul."

BTW, the title of this excellent novel refers to the despair Hermann feels when he learns that the perfect crime that he conceives and executes--his masterpiece, so to speak--is scorned by the newspapers. These "...behaved just as a literary critic does, who at the mere sight of a book by an author whom he does not favor, makes up his mind that the book is worthless."

Highly recommended
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Despair
Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (Paperback - May 14, 1989)
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