Hermann Karlovich, an unsuccessful businessman and wannabe artist, meets who he believes to be his physically identical doppleganger and is inspired to commit the perfect crime/artistic act: murdering "himself." As with most of Nabokov's work, DESPAIR is an extended meditation on artists, the mutability of perception, and the fictional artifice that structures both the life an artist and his artistic creations. Hermann Karlovich is an extreme manifestation of all of these themes.
Despite being a failed businessman, with little outward proof of any artist inclination, he believes he is a true artist at heart, one who was simply waiting for the right opportunity to employ his talents. But as the novel progresses, he proves himself to be an increasingly unreliable narrator. His perceptions are clouded and, where they are not flat out wrong, they are clearly biased. He perpetually overstates his own merits, actions, etc. and downplays those of everyone else. The reader is constantly forced to peek through what he says to deduce the actual state of affairs.
For example, Hermann continually states how much his wife Lydia loves and cherishes him, even though it's fairly obvious that she's having an affair with her cousin, an artist named Ardalion. Hermann believes her to be a silly, unintelligent woman, but she's clearly smart enough to fool him. Hermann also goes on at length about Ardalion's trivial talents as an artist, but here Hermann, who has delusions about his own artistic genius, has petty reasons to convince us (and himself) of what a fraud and hack Ardalion truly is.
All of these thematic elements gird, and delightfully complicate, what is an otherwise straightforward plot.
The narrative begins with Hermann visiting Prague and running into a vagrant named Felix, whom Hermann is shocked to see is his perfect double. Even though Felix doesn't seem to agree with this assessment, Hermann is convinced that him and Felix could easily pass as twins. Playing on Felix's hardships, Hermann argues that they can find all sorts of ways to profit from this uncanny likeness, and ultimately convinces Felix to pretend to be Hermann for a short while. While Felix is pretending to be him, Hermann murders "himself" and attempts to collect the insurance money.
Hermann believes this to be not only the perfect crime, but the perfect artistic act. Again, he attempts to convince us (and himself) that there is no higher expressionistic act than this artificial manipulation of the self as an other (which is essentially what a novelist does: he creates shades of himself in his characters, then makes them dance).
Unfortunately for Hermann, though, he has only fooled himself. His master plan falls apart over one crucial problem: Felix, in actuality, looks nothing like Hermann. This failed recognition of himself in another proves his failure as criminal and artist both. The final pages reveal that Hermann is writing/telling this story from a hotel room in France, just as the police are closing in.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's not my favorite of Nabokov's novels, but you can see, even in this earlier work, the first attempts to execute what Nabokov fully masters in his later novels, PALE FIRE in particular. That's not say DESPAIR isn't worth reading on its own terms. It is...though maybe only if you haven't read PALE FIRE and don't already know the twist ending.
Best scene in story:
I love the scene where Hermann first meets Felix. It's early enough in the novel that we haven't quite lost faith in Hermann as a narrator, and, like Hermann, we get caught up in the eeriness of this encounter and ignore Felix's protests that the two men look nothing alike.
Opinion about the main character:
Unreliable narrators live or die on how interesting they are, and Hermann, despite all his other faults, is pretty damn funny.
Vladimir Nabakov's Despair is a story of a man's obsession with his physical likeness and livelihood. To actually describe the plotline would be to spoil the narrative and thus, the appeal of this "mystery." All that can be said is that Hermann, the main character, undertakes an "impossible" murder: his own.
The review of this Book prepared by Janet Alejandro