Vladimir Nabokov’s Hidden Noir: Despair

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.

Vladimir Nabokov
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.

Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.


  1. Brian Greene

    I haven’t read this one and am not even sure I had heard of it before, David. And it sounds like noir as only Nabokov could have written it. Excellent take on it.

  2. oscar case

    Fine review, Mr. Grainger. I tried Lolita but just couldn’t get interested in it. This one sounds better.

  3. David Cranmer

    [b]Brian[/b], I hadn’t heard of Despair before this past year. My nephew, writer Kyle J. Knapp, was a huge fan of VN’s work. And now I’m slowly working my way through the great prose writer’s catalog myself. Currently, I’m reading Kng, Queen, Knave which I hope to review here as well.

    I think you would enjoy it, [b]Oscar[/b].

  4. Victor

    Good review and thank you for bringing this one out of the shadows, Mr. Grainger!

  5. David Cranmer

    Gladly, Victor. And thank you for stopping by, sir.

  6. Ron Scheer

    Excellent review. That mix of playfulness and noir enlivens the dark fiction of several writers I can think of–like Patricia Highsmith and Cornell Woolrich–and all for the better.

  7. David Cranmer

    Agreed, Ron. Humor is essential and masters like Woolrich, Highsmith, and Nabokov sprinkled that ingredient throughout their novels and short stories.

  8. Prashant C. Trikannad

    I enjoyed your review very much. I didn’t know Nabokov had written anything bordering on noir but then it has been ages since I read any of his work. You make a good point about Nabokov’s writing being classified as “literature” and not as “crime or noir.”

  9. David Cranmer

    Prashant C. Trikannad, I’ve always found labels a bit pretentious and silly. A great story is a great story regardless of whether it was written by a pulp writer or a towering “literary” god. Westerns like Lonesome Dove and True Grit are far more than just another oater. These modern classics are rubbing elbows with Faulkner and Nabokov. A great story is a great story regardless. Can I be quoted on that? 🙂 And thank you for the kind words regarding my article and stopping by.

  10. Mates

    Great review!! I want to read this one, I have only read a couple of Nabokov’s novels. You make Despair sound very enticing!

  11. David Cranmer

    Thanks, Mates, Despair was very enjoyable to read and review. I have Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave to tackle next.

  12. Scott Adlerberg

    Terrific, piece, Edward. I’m a huge Nabokov reader and I couldn’t agree with you more that Despair is a noirish novel. Murder and madness and obsession feature in a number of his books, really, so he’s not that far from noir and crime novels in a number of works, but of course, he’s such a literary giant that he’s not looked at that way. Lolita is a murder story among many other things (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”) and so is Pale Fire. King, Queen, Knave has a three way affair thing going on that’s definitely on the noir/crime side. Anyway, loved the piece. Have you seen the film version of Despair? It stars Dirk Bogarde as Herman and was directed by Rainer Fassbinder. Screenplay by none other than Tom Stoppard. It works much better than you think it might. Worth checking out. Great performance by Bogart.

  13. David Cranmer

    Scott, I planned on watching the film version of Despair before long and you have piqued my interest even further in Fassbinder’s take. I just didn’t want to be influenced by the picture before reading the novel. And I’m working on a review of King, Queen, Knave which as you noted is “definitely on the noir/crime side.” I might add that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is another offering we could file under mystery. Yeah, as you guessed, I’m also a card carrying Nabokov fan.

  14. Scott Adlerberg

    Looking forward to the King, Queen, Knave review. And I agree: Sebastian Knight definitely has a lot of mystery story stuff in it. What’s both funny and a bit maddening about it is that the “fake mystery novels” Nabokov summarizes in Sebastian Knight sound so good, you just wish that if he’d been so inclined he would have written them.

  15. David Cranmer

    Love those tease, fake Knight novels! Agreed it would have been something special if he had taken the time to make one or two a reality. Btw a friend of mine, Ron Scheer, reviewed that novel today at The Fall Creek Review
    And, as you probably already know, April 22nd is VN’s b-day.

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