Front cover of first English-language edition
|Publisher||Sovremennye Zapiski Publishing House, Putnam (first English-language edition)|
|Published in English||1937 (revised by the author in 1965)|
Despair (Russian: Отчаяние, or Otchayanie) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov originally published as a serial in the politicized literary journal Sovremennye zapiski during 1934. It was then published as a book in 1936, and translated to English by the author in 1937. Most copies of the 1937 English edition were destroyed by German bombs during World War II; only a few copies remain. Nabokov published a second English translation in 1965; this is now the only English translation in print.
The narrator and protagonist of the story, Hermann Karlovich, a Russian emigre businessman, meets a tramp in the city of Prague, whom he believes to be his doppelgänger. Even though Felix, the supposed doppelgänger, is seemingly unaware of their resemblance, Hermann insists that their likeness is most striking. Hermann is married to Lydia, a sometimes silly and forgetful wife (according to Hermann) who has a cousin named Ardalion. It is insinuated at times that Lydia and Ardalion are, in fact, lovers, although Hermann continually stresses how much Lydia loves him. Ardalion is an awful artist, although he refuses to admit it. After some time, Hermann shares with Felix a plan for both of them to profit off their shared likeness by having Felix briefly pretend to be Hermann. But after Felix is disguised as Hermann, Hermann kills Felix in order to collect the insurance money on Hermann on March 9. Hermann considers the presumably perfect murder plot to be an artistical expression rather than a scheme to gain money. But as it turns out, there is no resemblance whatsoever between the two men, the murder is not 'perfect', and the murderer is about to be captured by the police in a small hotel in France, where he is hiding. Hermann who is writing the narrative switches to a diary mode at the very end just before his captivity, the last entry is on April 1.
Hermann is another example of Nabokov's use of the unreliable narrator. Throughout the novel, Hermann's perception is skewed and his word cannot be trusted—he admits as much in the beginning of the novel when he shares with the reader his love of spinning yarns. The reader can never be positive if Hermann is accurately narrating the events because he tends to conflate his own skills and talents while ignoring reality around him.
"Despair" is a story of false doubles, one of Nabokov's favorite themes. The very title of the novel announces this theme as French-speaking Nabokov chose a word (despair) which in French means 'some pairs', or simply 'pairs' (des paires). But is also means, so to speak, 'to undo a pair', to 'dis-pair', i.e. the process going on in the novel by which the pair Hermann thought did exist actually revealed itself false. In it, doubling seems to be only an obsession with physical resemblances. Almost all of Nabokov's fictions make ample use of doubling, duplication, and mirroring, mostly in Pale Fire and Lolita. "Despair" is a perfect introductory reading to the double topos in Nabokov's more complex novels, where other kinds of doubling (scenes, numbers, names, etc.) are brought into play.
Vladislav Khodasevich had pointed out that Nabokov is obsessed with a single theme: "the nature of the creative process and the solitary, freak-life role into which a man with such imagination is inevitably cast.." Hermann who sees himself as an artist composing the 'perfect murder' fits this description.
The book is rich in intertextual connections to Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, and Conan Doyle. The most important crossreference is to Dostoevsky, and Hermann carries certain similarities to Raskolnikov who had also planned a perfect murder in Crime and Punishment; this link, however, is not seen as an hommage but rather as an iconoclastic parody of "Dusty" Dostoevsky.
In 1978 the novel was adapted into the movie Despair, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 19 May, directed by the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Nabokov's novel was adapted by Tom Stoppard.