I picked up this particular book for no other reason than I liked the sound of it – I’ve gradually been reading more Nabokov over the years (particularly loving “Pnin” recently) and this one intrigued me. It’s one of Nabokov’s Russian-written titles, translated (and revised) by himself later, and my edition is a nice old Penguin with a very atmospheric painting on the cover!
The book is set in 1930s Germany and Hermann Hermann is a Russian émigré who works as a chocolate salesman. He lives with his wife Lydia, and a regular visitor is her cousin, the artist Ardalion – it is hinted that they might be lovers, but never made clear. On a business trip to Prague, Hermann encounters a man who he believes to be his double – a tramp called Felix. Hermann is attracted and repelled by Felix, but eventually hatches a plan to use his double in an insurance fraud. But all does not go as planned.
That’s a short summary of what is a complex piece of work, and one that cannot easily be pinned down! From the start, we are aware that Hermann is a very unreliable narrator, and particularly in the early chapters he finds it hard to set down his story in a coherent way. There are constant digressions, discussions of the best way to tell a story, and it seems that Hermann is in some ways trying to avoid getting to the point. And as with “Pnin”, there are times when Nabokov seems to be positioning himself between the narrator and the author, putting an extra layer of storytelling into the mix.
It’s perhaps a little trite and obvious to draw comparisons with other Russian authors, but the story is strongly concerned with doppelgängers and there is much referring to Dostoevsky (as well as many other classic Russian writers). However, with “The Double” it was unclear if the second version of the narrator existed; in this story Felix definitely exists, but his resemblance to Hermann is what is in doubt.
“A few days before the first of October, I happened to walk with my wife through the Tiergarten; there on a footbridge we stopped, with our elbows on the railing. Below, on the still surface of the water, we admired the exact replica (ignoring the model, of course) of the park’s autumn tapestry of many-hued foliage, the glassy blue of the sky, the dark outlines of the parapet and of our inclined faces. When a slow leaf fell, there would flutter up to meet it, out of the water’s shadowy depths, its unavoidable double. Their meeting was soundless. The leaf came twirling down, and twirling up there would rise towards it, eagerly, its exact, beautiful, lethal reflection.”
In essence, this is a fascinating look inside the mind of a deranged killer – Hermann obviously believes Felix to be his exact double, which is revealed to be false as the story goes on. He has based his whole perfect murder plot on this resemblance, and so the whole plan collapses like a house of cards when it comes to fruition, owing to his mistaken impression. But the narration is very unsettling in that we are never sure whether Hermann is telling the truth, whether his perceptions are accurate and indeed at one point he almost insinuates that the two men have changed places and he is Felix! By the end of the story, our views of both Lydia and Ardalion have changed and they seem completely different to the portraits painted by Hermann – Lydia becoming a bullied, crushed woman and Ardalion having more strength of mind than Herman would admit.
Like all mad murderers, Hermann thinks he is an artist – that his plot is perfect – and he cannot cope when everything goes wrong. The final chapters are written in diary form as it is revealed that Hermann has made a fatal mistake in his plan and is being pursued by the authorities. The story ends on April 1st and in many ways we are still unsure of the truth of anything we have read. What the title refers to becomes clear during the finale of the story, but could also be a pun on the concept of twins, particularly as Nabokov was fluent in French and so would have understood the phrase “des pair”…
“Woe to the fancy which is not accompanied by wit.”
The theme of doubles obviously obsesses Hermann (he senses splits in his personality concerning his relationship with Lydia), and it is obviously a theme which interests Nabokov too. There is constant play with the imagery of mirrors and also prominently the portrait of Hermann painted by Ardalion, which our narrator disparages – but we are left wondering if it is a truer picture of him than he would like to admit!
Nabokov’s use of language is deliberate and precise, very clever and quite beautiful in places. This is not an easy book to read, but rewarding and involving, and towards the end very exciting. I think there are many deep themes being explored here and that it would take another read for me to really get to the bottom of it. Certainly “Despair” has made me even keener to read more Nabokov.