Mention the name Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita springs immediately to mind, and rightfully so. The 1955 novel is a flashpoint in 20th century literature, notable for its controversial subject matter: a professor and his obsession with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. From the Russian born author, there are additional legendary milestones like Pale Fire and Speak, Memory. What may not be as well known is that Mr. Nabokov was weaving that rich, vigorous prose many years earlier with 1937’s Despair. A first-rate crime novel with strong noir elements.
The protagonist of Despair, Hermann Karlovich, is a Russian businessman who encounters a homeless man by the name of Felix in the city of Prague. Hermann is struck by how similar they look to the point he believes he has found his doppelgänger. Felix, at first, doesn’t seem to think the resemblance is quite that strong and doesn’t seem to know what to make of the colorful Hermann.
Is Felix a dead-wringer for Hermann or not? One of the reasons we may doubt the doppelgänger fixation is a chapter later, Hermann discusses for several paragraphs his late mother only to conclude: “A slight digression: that bit about my mother was a deliberate lie … I purposely leave it there as a sample of one of my essential traits: my light-hearted, inspired lying.” Obviously, Nabokov is having a bit of merriment with one of his well-used tools from his writer’s handbag: the unreliable narrator.