Vladimir Nabokov is a genius. In Lolita
his genius is manifest in the perversion of human sympathies, the seduction of language, the durability of art (yet also the mortality of beauty). In Despair
, one of Nabokov's first forays into English prose, there is an early adumbration of what will become the enchanting monster, Humbert Humbert, found in the narrator-murderer Hermann. But aside from the faint outline of what is to come, Despair
is a brilliant novel in itself, removed from the nympholeptic successors which follow in the Nabokovian oeuvre. The narrative is a simple one, Hermann happens upon a man whom he believes is his perfect double, and resolves to commit the "perfect murder" - killing his double and cashing in on his own life insurance. But like Humbert, and their mutual progenitor, Hermann is an aesthete: Despair
is not merely a novel of mistaken identity, of false doubles, of murder-plot high-jinx, but a novel about art - the reach of art beyond medium into life. Is not the "perfect murder" as much a work of art, of deliberate purpose and imagination, as the "perfect novel" or the "perfect painting"?
To anyone with a passing interest in the masterful Nabokov, his extreme views on literature should be no mystery. He was a combative proponent of "art for art's sake," he believed that the purpose of fiction is to enchant and not to evoke empathy. In his lectures on literature at Wellesley and at Cornell he examined literature as he examined his lepidopteran specimens: with a microscope. Art in fiction, for Nabokov, is the successive accumulation of detail, of a fractal perfection which pervaded through all layers of the narrative and opened a world before the reader which has an almost tactile realism, but which also enchanted, which was fantastic, which was beyond reality
, which was art. Hermann represents a perversion of this view on art, for though he seeks the perfection down to the detail, he fails to view with honesty the overall picture. His art is never perfection because while he is a devil for details, he is lost in the greater art of life, which he fails to appreciate.
Throughout Nabokov, we see the butterfly, his passion, as a symbol for the complete cycle of artistic creation. When Lolita is playing tennis, her fleeting poses are beautiful but manifestly useless in the pursuit of victory - a sportsman's manifestation of art for art's sake - and while she plays "an inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.
" (This scene parallels the interloping butterfly in the ultimate episode of Pale Fire
) The butterfly as a symbol for the ideal art - life imitating art, imitating life, so to speak - coincides with the belief that art is mortality. "Death is the mother of beauty,
" as Wallace Stevens said, a claim with which Nabokov was sure to agree (note the fateful end of Lolita
's titular character). To pervert this belief, to parody his own views on art, Nabokov brings forth Hermann, who sees a beauty in death, in destruction of life (much like Humbert's destruction of Lolita's innocence and life):
...what is death, if not a face at peace – its artistic perfection? Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus; thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous flush of unbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.
This is a telling insight into the creation of Hermann - the pleasure he sees in death, the reference to Narcissus and to "artistic perfection," are all relevant to the character of Hermann, and significant to the novel's thematic development.
The great irony of Hermann as an artist is his poor consistency with his own dogma. Despite his search for artistic perfection, despite his attention to detail, it is precisely the details which he overlooks, and in doing so gives himself away completely. Rather than devising the perfect murder, he devises the perfect blunder. Not only does he fail to achieve his financial goals, but he ensures his identification as the murderer. He is not a poor bluff, but rather plays cards with his cards face up on the table. The pivotal element, the crux of his entire plan, is the similarity of himself with his victim. He is convinced he has found is perfect Doppelgänger
, only to discover that he is the only one who sees any similarity at all. Isn't this the great crisis of artists? The fear that no one will appreciate their art but themselves? For many artists, this is not a hindrance, they create art for themselves - it is a release - it is for it's own sake
. Hermann, while having a seemingly genuine appreciation for artistic perfection, prostitutes his artistic efforts for financial gain, and as a result of doing so is doubly foiled.Despair
is not Nabokov's greatest, I cannot argue that. It pales next to florid perfection of Lolita
, next to the experimental risks of Pale Fire
, and next to the playful game of history and nostalgia, fiction and biography, in Speak, Memory
- but it is a great novel, it is worthy of the Nabokovian credit. It is immensely enjoyable to read, as a parodic game on the Crime and Punishment
legacy, and also as a mock-treatise on the failures and purposes of art.