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)
(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)