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Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (read in 2015)

Published by marco on

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of an unreasonably vain Russian man Hermann who meets a homeless man Felix, whom Hermann is convinced is his doppelgänger. Hermann lives with his wife Lydia. He thinks her lovely, pudgy, stupid, but loves her very much. Her cousin Ardalion is also quite close to the family—quite close to her, in ways luridly hinted at. Hermann is in despair with his life and wants to move on, so comes up with the plan to pay Felix to pretend to be him, but then he would kill Felix and allow the world to think Hermann dead. Hermann and Lydia would then abscond with the insurance money. Hermann, it turns out to no-one’s surprise is a good deal less clever than he thought. Felix is absolutely not a doppelgänger for him, his plan for the perfect murder is an absolute shambles and Hermann, who escapes to France, is captured soon after. In Hermann’s absence, Ardalion swoops in on Lydia.


“The ecstatic love of a young writer for the old writer he will be some day is ambition in its most laudable form. This love is not reciprocated by the older man in his larger library, for even if he does recall with regret a naked palate and a rheumless eye, he has nothing but an impatient shrug for the bungling apprentice of his youth.”
Page 2
“These opinions of hers stand as stiff as statues in their niches.”
Page 22
“Giving her a letter to post was equal to throwing it into the river, leaving the rest to the acumen of the stream and the recipient’s piscatorial leisure.”
Page 26
“[…] and a very simple world it was, with the greatest complication in it amounting to a search for the telephone number which she had jotted down on one of the pages of a library book, borrowed by the very person whom she wished to ring up.”
Page 26
“Thus we sat and I kept up my persuasive drone; I am a bad speaker, and the oration which I seem to render word by word did not flow with the lissom glide it has on paper. Indeed, it is not really possible to set down my incoherent speech, that tumble and jumble of words, the forlornness of subordinated clauses, which have lost their masters and strayed away, and all the superfluous gibber that gives words a support or a creep hole; but my mind worked so rhythmically and pursued its quarry at such a steady pace, that the impression now left me by the trend of my own words is anything but tangled or garbled. My object, however, was still out of reach. The fellow’s”
Page 89
“There is yet another reason why I cannot, nor wish to, believe in God: the fairy tale about him is not really mine, it belongs to strangers, to all men; it is soaked through by the evil-smelling effluvia of millions of other souls that have spun about a little under the sun and then burst; it swarms with primordial fears; there echoes in it a confused choir of numberless voices striving to drown one another; I hear in it the boom and pant of the organ, the roar of the orthodox deacon, the croon of the cantor, Negroes wailing, the flowing eloquency of the Protestant preacher, gongs, thunderclaps, spasms of epileptic women; I see shining through it the pallid pages of all philosophies like the foam of long-spent waves; it is foreign to me, and odious and absolutely useless.”
Page 101
“If the deed is planned and performed correctly, then the force of creative art is such, that were the criminal to give himself up on the very next morning, none would believe him, the invention of art containing far more intrinsical truth than life’s reality.”
Page 122
“all this was revealed by the fact that even the official definitions in the brief list of personal features did not quite correspond with the epithets in my own passport (left at home). A trifle to be sure, but a characteristic one.”
Page 173

He thinks himself amazing in all ways, and his wife faithful, himself affluent and bright and successful. even his resemblance to Felix is invented and exaggerated. He even thinks his wife loves him enough to not run off with Ardalion and the insurance money.

“Apart, alone, surrounded by cork oaks, stood a decent-looking hotel, the greater part still shuttered (the season beginning only in summer). A strong wind from Spain worried the chick fluff of the mimosas. In a pavilion, reminding one of a chapel, a spring of curative water gushed, and cobwebs hung in the corners of its ruby dark windows.”
Page 181
“And I was unspeakably shocked by the tone of the thing: it was in fact so improper, so impossible in regard to me, that for a moment I even thought it might refer to a person bearing the same name as I; for such a tone is used when writing of some halfwit hacking to bits a whole family. I understand now. It was, I guess, a ruse on the part of the international police; a silly attempt to frighten and rattle me;”
Page 185
“expressed their surprise at my having hoped to deceive the world simply by dressing up in my clothes an individual who was not in the least like me. The imbecility and blatant unfairness of such reasoning are highly comic. The next logical step was to make me mentally deficient; they even went so far as to suppose I was not quite sane and certain persons knowing me confirmed this—that ass Orlovius among others (wonder who the others were), his story being that I used to write letters to myself (rather unexpected).”
Page 191