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.
And Hermann’s convoluted deceptions extend to Felix, explaining to the bum that he is an actor in film and would like to have him work as his stunt double. Felix is finally won over by the money offered, but is Felix to be trusted? The reader’s emotional allegiance tugs back to Hermann after he invites the vagrant Felix to sleep over at his house. We feel Hermann’s trepidation when in the complete darkness he frets that he has invited a complete and possibly deadly stranger into his home. This very creepily written segment makes me wish Nabokov had added the horror genre to his list of accomplishments. Eventually, Hermann shares with Felix a strategy for both of them to financially gain from their facial likeness by having Felix briefly impersonate him and Felix agrees.
Other main characters in Despair include Hermann’s wife Lydia and her cousin Ardalion, who everyone acknowledges is a dreadful artist except Ardalion. A subplot takes readers down the road of possibility that Lydia and Ardalion are romantically involved. Hermann reassures us that Lydia adores him, but, of course, remember he lies. Ultimately, Hermann must invite Lydia into the intricate ruse he is fabricating to make it plausible to the authorities.
As an admirer of famous authors (and the process of writing itself), Hermann envisions himself somewhat an expert at plots and an author’s list of tricks; though it is quite obvious he is lackluster with a capitol L. The fact that I forget I’m reading Nabokov and instead get lost in the words of a possibly deranged loon (Hermann) is a testament to Nabokov’s gifts. Only occasionally do I sense I’m reading the prose magician when he drops lines like:
It was a fast, fresh, blue-dappled day; the wind, a distant relation of the one here, winged its course along the narrow streets; a cloud every now and then palmed the sun, which reappeared like a conjurer’s coin.
In a delightful, wry aside to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hermann ponders:
That Sherlock Holmes creator should have included one last episode beautifully setting off the rest in which the murderer in that tale should have turned out to be no other than Dr. Watson himself. A staggering surprise for the reader.
That it would have been, Hermann. But I will settle for the surprise you and Mr. Nabokov created in Despair. As I read this spellbinding story (that Nabokov extensively updated in 1968) I realized I was experiencing one of the great unsung noir novels. But since it is Mr. Nabokov, we don’t call it crime or noir but literature. And that’s fine with me. Either way, don’t miss Despair.