Nabokov’s Double

In 1934 Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel Otchayanie (Отчаяние) in Russian. The English translation is Despair. I read the translation since as an American I don’t feel I need to learn the language of another country … just kidding, I’m too old and lazy. I suppose you should consider Despair to be an early work by the author, with most of the major works coming in the 1950s and 1960s.

When did you first read Lolita? I was in High School and just old enough to slip into the age restricted showing of the 1962 film adaptation. My fondest memory of the movie was that Sue Lyon was not old enough to see the movie she starred in … oh, and James Mason played a quite presentable dirty old man. I understand that the Jeremy Irons’ 1997 remake was superb but I haven’t seen it (I’ve been too busy being my own dirty old man).

But the subject is Despair. And the theme is the “double.” A German chocolate salesman wandering around a remote part of the country where his friend has quasi-acquired what is apparently a lake-view plot in a bankrupt land development, discovers a sleeping mendicant in the bushes who is his mirror image: his double. But even when being amazed at the spot-on resemblance, the chocolatier comments on the many differences between the two; but the differences don’t seem to count and the seeds of a sure-fire insurance scam begin to germinate.


This narrative is told in a manuscript the salesman writes after the fact to explain all the clever nuances of his life and his crime since the local gendarmes are too stupid or too unobservant to realize that the hobo is his exact double. Of course, throughout the narrative you begin to realize that only the chocolate salesman sees the uncanny resemblance.

The despair comes when the salesman realizes he has not committed the perfect crime and that it is only a matter of time before the authorities track him down. But even at the end, his mind floats off in another fantasy where he once again fools his pursuers and escapes.

Like much of Nabokov’s writing, Despair consists of several players of narrative. Of course Nabokov is writing the novel but the chocolate salesman is writing the book but the salesman constantly breaks into the narrative with opinions of current information to comment on the past action. And, then there’s that element of fantasy or mental instability that seems to plague the salesman.

Is it a fiction? A memoir? A diary? I don’t think we need to get too wonky and go diagraming the narrative structure or analyzing the subtext. Despair is a pretty good novel and one that many people will not read owing to the greatness of later novels like Lolita. However, I suggest you try Despair; in fact, Nabokov is such an important author, you should think about reading all of his novels.

This quick reference of Nabokov’s novels is from Wikipedia (go there for more works by the author).

Novels and novellas written in Russian

(1926) Mashen’ka (Машенька); English translation: Mary (1970)
(1928) Korol’ Dama Valet (Король, дама, валет); English translation: King, Queen, Knave (1968)
(1930) Zashchita Luzhina (Защита Лужина); English translation: The Luzhin Defense or The Defense (1964) (also adapted to film, The Luzhin Defence, in 2000)
(1930) Sogliadatai (Соглядатай (The Voyeur)), novella; first publication as a book 1938; English translation: The Eye (1965)
(1932) Podvig (Подвиг (Deed)); English translation: Glory (1971)
(1933) Kamera Obskura (Камера Обскура); English translations: Camera Obscura (1936), Laughter in the Dark (1938)
(1934) Otchayanie (Отчаяние); English translation: Despair (1937, 1965)
(1936) Priglasheniye na kazn’ (Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to an execution)); English translation: Invitation to a Beheading (1959)
(1938) Dar (Дар); English translation: The Gift (1963)
(Unpublished novella, written in 1939) Volshebnik (Волшебник); English translation: The Enchanter (1985)

Novels written in English

(1941) The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
(1947) Bend Sinister
(1955) Lolita, self-translated into Russian (1965)
(1957) Pnin
(1962) Pale Fire
(1969) Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
(1972) Transparent Things
(1974) Look at the Harlequins!
(2009) The Original of Laura (fragmentary, written during the mid-1970s and published posthumously)


5 thoughts on “Nabokov’s Double

  1. That come-down happened to me with Vonnegut. I read Slaughterhouse Five first and then Breakfast of Champions, and wasn´t able to finish it. Maybe something positive, though, is to find the seeds in the earlier works that later will grow into a plant or tree.

    About the developing of a style through an author career, I think I read something by Borges, where he said that it is more often that an author, with the years, tend to to write in a less “Baroque” way, and I think it is the case with him. I´m not sure, because I have only read his short stories from “El Aleph” and “Ficciones”. From what I know, it is not the case with Nabokov.

    Returning to “Despair” it strikes me the repetitive figure of a double in Nabokov´s work. In Lolita I remember that the narrator compare Clare Quilty with his uncle. And in Pnin, the protagonist even invited a professor to his party, thinking he was somebody else ha ha.


    1. Here’s an observation to contemplate: the concept of a novelist developing his or her craft so that reading the late works will spoil the earlier, less competent, works, as opposed to this age of creative writing schools where an author’s best work might be the first (and only) novel published: the one written, reviewed, revised, and polished by a veritable committee at the workshop.

      There are certainly exceptions but that doesn’t mean that, like ants at a picnic, there aren’t too many pesky writing school tyros buzzing in the publisher’s profit-seeking ears.


  2. This is fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m a huge Nabokov fan and this is awesome to see. If you’re ever interested in some sweet book reviews and literary musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!


  3. I am huge fan of Nabokov, and I have only read two of his novels: Lolita, of course, and Pnin. In my shelf I have Laugther in the Dark (it belongs to a friend) but I think I will pass on that because of the cruel plot, which, sadly for me, appears quite often in his work.

    How did you find the style in Dispair? I got the idea that it grow more intricated with his career, to probably its maximum point in Ada (I have seen the first pages in Amazon).


    1. Nabokov, like many writers, develops his style through the years of writing. But Despair still is recognizable Nabokov and some readers actually prefer the less dense works (Ada is a regular starter for me but I have yet to finish it). In general I prefer to read an author’s work in date order. I like to see the inevitable development, although with so many books and so little time, I often go straight for the later, more mature stuff.

      Imagine reading Middlemarch and then going back to readThe Mill On the Floss (what a come-down); but if you read Mill and Adam Bede before Middlemarch, you get a sense of growth and appreciate the author’s development and not just a single,albeit great, novel.

      I do not consider the plot of a novel, even one with an element of cruelty, as being relevant in my decision to read the book. My experience through the years is that many readers refuse to read Lolita because the subject matter is too upsetting (or they had to take a shower after reading each chapter to wash off the smut).

      So you read Lolita but shy away from Laughter In the Dark? Interesting …


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