02 September 2009

Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is an absolutely incredible prosaist. I mean, it's really amazing the way he can just conjure up this terrifically vivid scene is the most perfect words in a way that comes across as completely effortless. And then can flip it and show you how he does it, and say something like no no no, let's do it like this instead, and pull out another one, simultaneously pulling you into this fictional universe and then taunting you with a reminder that he's the one running the show. It's incredible, but unfortunately, after awhile you find yourself less impressed with his artistry, and more irritated with the way he jerks you around. He's a little too pleased with himself, particularly in this novel. I still maintain that his autobiography, Speak, Memory, is a dazzling, poignant piece of artistry, but honestly, his novels - well, this one and Lolita anyhow - are just not as good.

Despair is particularly irritating because it feels like such a rip off of Dostoevsky. It's like Crime and Punishment, Notes from the Underground, and The Double all rolled into one. Although you're initially sort of intrigued (and impressed by the prose), it rapidly becomes sort of predictable and ho-hum. Not to mention, the main character becomes more and more irritating as the novel progresses. Actually, it reads like something that an adolescent who loved Crime and Punishment but largely missed the point of it would write. Or maybe I just have less patience with mind-of-a-murderer stories than I used to. In any case, it was unconvincing, and just not that compelling. Next!

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