Friday, November 17, 2006

Notes on re-reading Nabokov's Despair

Soon after starting this blog, I posted about revisiting Nabokov. I'd begun re-reading Despair, which had been one of the first few Nabokov books I'd ever read. Alas, I was in a total haze as I started reading it, so I put it aside for a bit. In the meantime, I mentioned having come across this interesting paper, in which the author, Alexander Dolinin, discusses parody in the book, as well as Nabokov's evolving critical attitude towards Dostoevski. So I decided to read some Dostoevski, something I hadn't done since I'd read The Brothers Karamazov some twelve years back (not long before I'd read Despair, as it happens), very early in my serious reading life. I read Notes from the Underground and then returned to Despair itself. I'd meant to post about that experience, but time got away from me. Time always seems to be getting away from me.

Around that time, I also started to dip into Michael Wood's The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. In the preface to his wonderful book, Wood writes about Nabokov's self-imposed loss of the Russian language for the purpose of his prose writing. He says that what was ultimately important about this loss (which Nabokov saw as necessary) was that it produced a
...fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English which (probably) made even his most marvelous Russian seem poor, and therefore meant that the terrible decision of his early years in America had been right, that the second language could flower for him only at the cost of the first; had to become itself a new language, a language to write in.
Wood closes his preface by telling us that he is focusing on the novels written in English but that "the shadow of his Russian helps us with the shadow of his English. The absent language reminds us of the many absences in Nabokov's seemingly so complete and confident later prose." Unfortunately, this means that he does not discuss Despair, which was originally published in Russian in 1932 and first translated into English (by Nabokov) in 1937. For the American release of the novel in the mid-1960s, Nabokov returned to the book and extensively re-wrote it. This is Nabokov not only after having given up Russian, but also after the major successes of Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. It seems to me that Despair would have been an interesting novel to look at in this context, how the novel relates to Nabokov's English-language work. No doubt there is plenty of work out there comparing it with Nabokov's other Russian novels.

Ok, moving on to the novel itself; I'm not intending a cohesive review of it here, but I was leafing through my notebook recently and thought I'd share some of my observations.

Anyway, the story. On a business trip to Prague, our narrator, Hermann, encounters a man who he takes to be his twin. From the beginning he expends a lot of energy telling us how obvious it is that the man looks like him, could easily be mistaken for him. Eventually, he devises a standard-issue murder-for-insurance-money plan that he thinks is not only brilliant but will be a great work of art. I hope it's not giving too much away to say that things don't quite go according to plan. In and of itself, the novel is an entertaining thriller of sorts. But this being Nabokov, there's a lot more to it than that. Hermann is not only an unreliable narrator, but he virtually shouts "unreliable narrator" throughout, he's almost too obvious about being unreliable, from his declarations at certain points that he is lying, to the manner in which he repeatedly records, to his evident surprise, that no one has noticed the resemblance between him and his double (how convenient for his scheme!).

After reading Notes from the Underground, immediately it seemed clear to me that, in part, Nabokov is parodying it in Despair. This is how I put it before: "superficial similarities are obvious, from the 'confession' addressed to some unnamed accuser ("gentlemen" in Notes, "reader" in Despair), to the narrator's exaggeratedly high opinion of himself and repeated backtrackings and claims that he is lying." It also occurred to me that this novel is in some sense a dry run for Lolita, not in the latter novel's lurid subject matter (that dubious honor goes to the inferior novella The Enchanter), but in the form, as well as the character of Hermann, who seems like a prototype for Humbert--again, the apparently hyperliterate confession, the unreliable narrator who is quite full of himself (bragging about odd things that come off sounding like bullshit, for example claiming to "have exactly twenty-five types of handwriting" before proceeding to describe several of them). Hermann fancies himself smarter than everyone around him, as a keen observer of people, when in reality he is unable to notice many obvious things right in front of him (for example, an affair between his wife and the artist Ardalion). I say "apparently hyperliterate" because, while Hermann makes a number of overt literary references and goes on and on about art versus life, his allusions are inept. Nabokov gives us something of a hint on this front in his introduction to this edition where he provides the full text of the Pushkin poem that Hermann quotes partially in chapter four. Dolinin writes that the portion of the poem omitted by Hermann shows that Hermann misunderstands Pushkin's point, and he points out a similarly inept reference to Gogol.

Returning here to the idea of parody, in his discussion of Lolita, Wood spends some time exploring the ways in which Quilty acts as Humbert's double. Quilty is Humbert's "sleazy alter ego, his monstrous dream-double" but not a figment of Humbert's imagination; he is "an aspect of Humbert's self-image that has got loose, seceded, and taken over a part of the plot. Or he is Nabokov's answer to Humbert, the case Humbert can't make against himself." When Humbert recognizes with pleasure the name of his secret tormenter, his pleasure is weird, but Wood relates it to Kafka and "the pure perfection of everything going entirely wrong"; Quilty is "objective proof (in the world of the novel) of the conspiracy we thought we had only dreamed." And here is where Wood addresses the parodic elements of that novel, and makes me wish again that he had included a chapter on Despair in his book:
I seem to have slithered over the element of literary parody in all this, but that is easier to see. Lolita is not only a book with a manically material double in it, it is a joke about books which allow such creatures any sort of run. Nabokov would expect us to remember Dostoevsky, who wrote a novel called The Double and whose reputation in the West, Nabokov thought, was hugely inflated. That inflation itself might have seemed enough to secure the allusion, even if we didn't know that Stavrogin's almost unnameable sin, in The Possessed, is the molestation of a little girl; and Humbert himself, in case we need a hint, says he feels a 'Dostoyevskian grin dawning . . . like a distant and terrible sun'. The clue to Conrad, another specialist in doubling, is stealthier. Humbert imagines Quilty as 'that secret agent, or secret lover, or prankster, or hallucination, or whatever he was'. 'Secret sharer' is the phrase Humbert has left out, but he wouldn't want us to prompt him. When Humbert speaks of Quilty as 'my brother', the fun piles up in several tiers.
Etc. Nabokov obviously has great fun in layering this stuff like this. Naturally, I haven't read either The Double or The Possessed; even so, Nabokov provides enough surface references to make you wonder what he's doing in Despair. There are constant overt references to Dostoevski and to a "Russian psychological novelist".

Given Dostoevski's reputation as a great writer of the "novel of ideas" and Nabokov's famous disdain of same, it seemed obvious to me that the latter is poking fun at the concept in Despair. Hermann expresses and explores a lot of ideas, many of which are just plain idiotic, or if they aren't idiotic, he doesn't have anything interesting to say about them. For example, in chapter two, he describes his wife, Lydia, and her hatred for the Bolsheviks. He then says:
When I used to say that Communism in the long run was a great and necessary thing; that young, new Russia was producing wonderful values, although unintelligible to Western minds and unacceptable to destitute and embittered exiles; that history had never yet known such enthusiasm, asceticism, and unselfishness, such faith in the impending sameness of us all--when I used to talk like this, my wife would answer serenely: "I think you are saying it to tease me, and I think it's not kind." But really I was quite serious for I have always believed that the mottled tangle of our elusive lives demands such essential change; that Communism shall indeed create a beautifully square world of identical brawny fellows, broad-shouldered and microcephalous; and that a hostile attitude toward it is both childish and preconceived...
That a supporter of Communism would say this strikes me as highly unlikely--it sounds like a parody of Bolshevik claims as expressed by one with contempt for their ideas and methods. At first I thought this was an example of Nabokov allowing his own opinions to color his writing, but he probably knew what he was doing. That the narrator is something of a pompous idiot tells me that Nabokov knew full well that no real advocate of the Bolsheviks would use these kinds of words in support of them (microcephalous?).

But I think it's a little too easy to think that Nabokov is simply having a go at Dostoevski. There are several superficial digs; for example:
Did it actually go on like this? Am I faithfully following the lead of my memory, or has perchance my pen mixed the steps and wantonly danced away? There is something a shade too literary about that talk of ours, smacking of thumb-screw conversations in those stage taverns where Dostoevski is at home; a little more of it and we should hear that sibilant whisper of false humility, that catch in the breath, those repetitions of incantatory adverbs--and then all the rest of it would come, the mystical trimming dear to that famous writer of Russian thrillers.
As I read this, it occurred to me that Nabokov himself would not have found the conversations in Dostoevski "literary", would have found them staged, contrived, "political", characters as mouthpieces for so-called ideas. Or would he? Dolinin compares the American version of Despair with its Russian predecessor and identifies some clear differences in the object of Nabokov's parody. In the US, Nabokov is famously dismissive of Dostoevski, but Dolinin shows that it wasn't always thus. Dolinin cites a paper Nabokov wrote in 1931, while living in Berlin as part of the Russian emigre literary community, in which he praised Dostoevski's ability for "keen sight". For Nabokov "keen sight" is where the art lies in literature, the well-observed detail, for example, whereas "insight", into human psychology, or via other great ideas, is the province of Dostoevski at his worst, what he would have called "Dostoevskian stuff". It would appear that Nabokov, in 1931 anyway, thought highly of Dostoevski's abilities, but felt that he too often chose to work elsewhere, to lard his fiction with all of this psychological business. Dolinin suggests that Nabokov's position in the US compelled him to switch the object of parody from "Dostoevskian stuff" to Dostoevski himself. He writes:
The reorientation of the English Despair toward Dostoevsky was undoubtedly prompted by the Western cultural context of the 1960's in which (and for which) Nabokov was rewriting his thirty-year-old novel. By this time Nabokov had severed his ties to contemporary Russian literature, whether written by émigrés or Soviet nationals.[...]In America Nabokov wanted to play the role of the last survivor and representative of the great Russian literary tradition, the ambassador plenipotentiary of the mutilated Russian culture and language, the sole peer and interlocutor of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov rather than Pasternak (as the author of Doctor Zhivago) or Solzhenitsyn. This is why he was so enraged when in the 1950's and 1960's the American intellectual elite, under the influence of French existentialists, began to venerate Dostoevsky, whom they proclaimed the father of existentialism and the only Russian writer of genius. The main aim of Nabokov's individual crusade against Dostoevsky was not so much to dethrone the mighty predecessor as to undermine his uncritical cult in America, which tended to reduce all Russian cultural heritage to the soul-searching of Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
I have not read a lot of the critical apparatus around either Dostoevski or Nabokov (pretty much just the ones I'm quoting here and stray other pieces), but the narrator of Despair, Hermann, is a doof, so perhaps by putting these comments in this idiot's mouth, he is sort of discrediting the ideas--maybe Nabokov was still not so down on Dostoevski as he claimed or he simply conceals the "good" he may have still found in Dostoevski. Or, he lampoons his own excessive dismissal of Dostoevski, while writing a novel that mimics the "Dostoevskian-stuff" he actually disliked in Dostoevski's writing--to the point of having Ardalion (an actual artist) criticize Hermann (who has artistic pretensions) for the Dostoevskian-stuff. Also, remember, Hermann thinks of his crime as a work of art, and accordingly he thinks that his "confession" is prime material for a great novel and claims to be unconcerned with whether he is credited or not. He writes about what a certain psychological novelist he has in mind might do with his book, referring variously to his "first reader" or "that Russian author to whom my manuscript will be forwarded when the time comes". Perhaps Nabokov here is having fun both with his character, who is not as smart as he thinks he is, while again skewering the idea that a crime can even be a work of art, as he does in Lolita (Humbert is monstrous, not an artist, no matter his refinements), and also nodding again in the direction of Dostoevski, positing one like him perhaps, who might try to make use of such material as this.

Also related to this question of Dostoevski and what might be the object of Nabokov's parody in Despair is some interesting stuff in Dolinin's paper about the differing literary camps in the aforementioned Russian emigre community in Berlin. He cites many examples of stories and novels that followed various trendy models, including those that were heavy on the "Dostoevskian stuff", the "inner 'irrepressible light' of Dostoevsky's insights", and he says that it is very likely that various aspects of Despair were specifically parodying some of these works. I often talk about my own anxieties about alluson, how I always worry that I'm going to miss something, and this would appear to be a case in point of a huge amount of allusion and intertextuality necessarily passing me by. But, of course, the American reader is highly unlikely to have any acquaintance with this stuff and Nabokov would have known it, and I suspect he modified his text accordingly to focus on Dostoevski, in the process bringing it more in line with his contemporaneous rhetorical stance. I think Nabokov is also having fun with those in America who venerate Dostoevski (and the existentialist or psychological treatment of art--he makes fun of Sartre in his introduction to Despair and is constanly railing against Freud)--either for doing so at all, or for missing what art there actually is in Dostoevski. He wants people to be able to notice the difference, but is happy to have a joke at their expense if they do not.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic article, lots of food for thought...

cam said...

It was quite ironic that Nabokov railed against what I think he regarded as Dostoevsky's tabloidesque writing of the 'issues of the day' - Nabokov contrasts this at one point to writing of 'the issues of the future' (which was in fact one of Dostoevsky's talents). And yet to understand Nabokov's contemptuous reaction to Dostoevsky one must understand the 'issues of the day' and his distaste for the faddishness of existentialism.

You raise the question here of whether Nabokov was criticising the reception of Dostoevsky rather than Dostoevsky himself: if that was the case he didn't do so with great sophistication.

I'd like to hear more about Nabokov's pre-American thoughts on Dostoevsky. I wasn't aware of this before.

cam said...

I have just restumbled upon your blog (bookmarked on an old computer).

(was it only 3 years ago I wrote the comment above?)

Excellent post. Very detailed, well considered.

Richard said...

Hah, sometimes I think I only stumble on my own blog myself :)

Thanks for the kind words (as well as your comment from three years ago, which I neglected to respond to).