Original title: Отчаяние
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Vladimir Nabokov, 1965
Page count: 222
The back says: Hermann, and apparently commonplace German chocolate manufacturer, lives in petit-bourgeois comfort in Berlin with his pleasing, but arrestingly stupid Russian wife, Lydia. Her drunken cousin, Ardalion, is their constant companion. One day, on a business trip to Prague, Hermann stumbles across a man he believes to be his double and starts plotting to turn this accidental encounter to his advantage...
‘Plain readers will welcome its plain structure and pleasing plot’ says the author in his forewords. But Nabokov readers, plain and fancy, will know better than to take this statement at its face value. A murder story? A thriller? A horror story? A study in alienation or the problems of identity? Despair is any of all these. It is hard to compare the present text with the Russian versions of 1934 and 1936, the English version of 1937, or the French translation of 1939, as Nabokov has now recast Otchayanie. It also contains at least one scene which could not have been published before the retreat from rigid puritan standards which may be thought to have started with the publication of Lolita. But none of these points will strike the plain reader: the pace, the suspense, the wit, the macabre intervention and the twists and turns of the plot will occupy all his attention from the first to the last page.
I say: The ending of this novel is beyond brilliant – it is epic – and I find myself laughing every time I think about it.
It’s just the thing that I love.
Which is more than I can say for the prose.
Oh, dear what a laborious read this was. Not because it was difficult, but because Nabokov does that which irks me to no end: his narrator constantly addresses the reader in an overly familiar manner, and, in a stream of consciousness move that I loathe, includes conversations with himself and comments to the reader about the text he is writing. In other words, our narrator Hermann is writing a book, and while writing this book he decides to comment on the process of writing itself. This did not bother me too much at the beginning, but it gets to a point where his digressions from the story overhaul the story without becoming a story in themselves – more like an essay on writing.
Metafiction in all its glory, but no.
Disregarding the literary aspects of the novel, the story itself didn’t particularly entertain me until the very end. The synopsis above speaks of “the pace, the suspense, the wit, the macabre intervention and the twists and turns of the plot” of which I only encountered the wit and the twist at the end. Perhaps I was too busy being annoyed at the narrator (and secretly wondering if I should write my essay on this novel) to notice the plot.
Ah well, good things come to those who wait, and the ending was definitely worth waiting for.
4/5 because even though I didn’t enjoy the writing I loved the ending and picking apart the metafictional aspects.