“Despair” by Vladimir Nabokov, a Parody of ‘Dusty’ Dostoyevsky

“Despair” by Vladimir Nabokov  (1965) – 222 pages

 In the mid 1960s after having published five novels in English, Nabokov went back to one of his old Russian novels, “Despair”, which was originally published in 1934.  He revised and translated it into English, and “Despair” was re-released.   A movie version of the new version of  “Despair” was made by Rainier Werner Fassbinder in 1978 which just this week is now on re-release in a restored print. 

 “Despair” is a parody of the style of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, often referred to as ‘Dusty’ in the novel.  Dostoyevsky’s prestige was rising in the Western literary world in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and Nabokov did not think this new fame and acclaim for  Dostoyevsky was merited, so he went to work revising his old “Crime and Punishment” and “The Double” parody, “Despair”.  Nabokov ranked Dostoyevsky in the category of  “mediocre and overrated people”. 

 The plot of “Despair” revolves around the false double.  Our self-deluded German hero Hermann Karlovich meets a hobo named Felix whom he believes is his exact doppelganger.  Besides the ‘double’ plot, there also is a story line involving Hermann’s not-very-discreet wife Lydia and her implied lover, the lousy artist Ardalion.  Hermann thinks he is this great observer of people, but he can’t see what’s going on right in front of him.  One of the running jokes of the novel is that Lydia and Ardalion are doing all these sleazy romantic things, and Herman never once suspects them. The humor in the novel is broad and outrageous. 

 Nabokov had very strong contrarian opinions about Dostoyevsky and a lot of other literature.  He wrote the following.

 “A good third [of readers] do not know the difference between real literature and pseudo-literature, and to such readers Dostoevsky may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called From Here to Eternity and such like balderdash.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 The parody of Dostoyevsky’s style was lost on me, so I must be a member of the one-third of readers Nabokov was talking about. I have read a lot of Dostoyevsky but I suppose in a too reverent fashion, not as something to be joked around with.  Nabokov thought Dostoyevsky’s writing was a “melodramatic muddle and phony mysticism”.  Here is a Nabokov statement about Dostoyevsky’s novels.

 “I dislike intensely “The Karamazov Brothers” and the ghastly “Crime and Punishment” rigamarole.  No, I do not object to soul searching and self-revelation, but in those books the soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddle search.” 

 In Russia, Dostoyevsky is an old familiar face, a classic author whose style everyone knows and makes fun of.  We here in the West see Dostoyevsky as a revered literary figure, but most of us are not comfortable enough with his style to appreciate a parody of it.  Also how much of Dostoyevsky’s style in his novels is lost in translation?

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Nabokov had a spectacular run of novels in English with “Lolita”, “Pnin”, and my personal favorite “Pale Fire”.  For me, “Despair”  was not as enjoyable as these other novels.   Perhaps because I did not get into the spirit of the parody, I did not appreciate the humor as much as I otherwise would have. 

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