Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026389, Mon, 24 Aug 2015 21:09:27 -0300

Rapid considerations about Fassbinder's "Despair"
While working on Fassbinder’s movie related to Nabokov’s novel “Despair,” I
couldnÂ’t fail to notice the visual games and montages, puns and quips
inserted by the screenwriter, Tom Stoppard and by Fassbinder himself. These
specific puns and innuendoes cannot be found in the novel for, in the movie,
the words merely “match the tone of the original” (Vincent Canby,1979). The
most interesting one offers a fore glimpse of the storyÂ’s ending in one of
the painted alpine scenes in a mural that can be seen at the start of the
film in a German tavern. The landscape evades the regular movie-goerÂ’s
notice and so does the inclusion of its painter (Ardalion), lightly sketched
in by means of a stickman at his easel. In the mural Ardalion is standing at
the exact position from where he will be watching HermannÂ’s future arrest
and be seen by Hermann in turn.* The compound image follows the spirit of
V.NabokovÂ’s productions, but not the letter.

In the internet I located one of these comedic moments when the main
character, Herman Herman, confuses an insurance salesman with a “Viennese
quack,” with an ironical “doubling” when he asks the “ ‘doctor’ about split
personality: “I’m thinking of doing a book about it. Maybe, he adds, ‘two
books’. [The Filmmuseum audience mock-groaned at that one.]” -
http://www.dcfilmsociety.org/storyboard1209.htm. Then, thereÂ’s his silly
wife Lydia when she interprets the stock market crash in Wall Street as an
accident involving the collapse of a wall, or enjoys the slip that relates
“merger” and “murder” innocently preannouncing her husband’s crime. “Merger”
and “murder” may also serve as allusions to Herman’s plans to take over the
identity of his double by murdering him.

Another review (from the late seventies by V. Canby) refers to StoppardÂ’s
creative alterations clearly shoving aside V.NabokovÂ’s actual novel and the
authorÂ’s very pointed parodies and references to Russian symbolists and to
Dostoevsky**. The reviewer writes:

"Despair" will do for both the novel and for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's
elegant, comic, purposely precious film version, adapted by the playwright
Tom Stoppard, who has been inspired by Nabokov to attain new heights of
splendid lunacy, and acted by Dirk Bogarde, who gives one of the wittiest
performances of his entire career.[ ] When Hermann makes love to Lydia,
his plump, pretty wife who has a fondness for baby talk ("intelligence" says
Hermann, "would take the bloom off your carnality"), he mentally separates
himself from the scene, sitting in the living room of their flat while he
watches and stage-manages their play in the bedroom.[ ] "How dare you come
into the room partly clothed," he yells at Lydia when she enters their
bedroom dressed only in a black slip. "Off with it!" (“Have you no sense of
indecency?”) [ ] The Stoppard script is a joy for anyone who likes the
English language. There are very few puns here. Instead, he has miraculously
turned Nabokov's exposition into spoken dialogue that matches the tone of
the original. "A line has length but no breadth," says Hermann. "If you
could see it, it wouldn't be a line." That's pure Stoppard, inspired by
Nabokov, and the result is perfectly seamless.

Stoppard’s and Fassbinder’s recreation of V.Nabokov’s “Despair” glosses over
the authorÂ’s references to his lost country and to his original intent
concerning a parody of Dostoevsky and of other Russian writers. Even the
focus changes: the scenery is one of Nazi Berlin with allusions to the rise
of Hitler, his armies or his massified victims parading on a conveyor belt
at a chocolate factory in Prague, from where the defective figurines are
selected to be discarded in a dump. I used the expression “recreation of ”
but I don’t know how the movie “Despair,” with its additional words “A
Journey Into Light” in the title, should be considered. Is it another “false
double” of Nabokov’s novel, at least as it’s seen from a “literary”
perspective (the ekphrastic representation of a novel that refers to the
motion pictures, to paintings and to mirrors, in a movie that inserts glass
partitions, reflections, visual exchanges and painting in the plot, or
whateverÂ…), is it an homage or an appropriation?***


*Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject by Thomas Elsaesser – “The
Alpine scene in which it takes place can be recognized, not without a
certain shocked surprise, as the landscape prefigured in the painting of
Ardalion that we see, half-finished, on the wall of the restaurant [ ] So
while in one respect Hermann ‘returns the look’ and addresses the camera
head-on after having sought to appropriate it as a mirror, in another
respect “Despair”, too, is a film in which the closure is achieved by
leaving a substitute gaze in the frame. More ironic still, the last scene
can be read in terms that make both Herman and Ardalion delegates of the
authorÂ’s look, even though in the fiction, they functioned as each otherÂ’s
adversaries [ ].”
Btw: what is described as “Herman and Ardalion” as “delegates of the
author’s look” in the movie’s last scene (by author I suppose the critic is
indicating Fassbinder, not VN) could be seen as an “authorial intrusion,”
had it taken place in the novel and been conveyed by words.

** “The Caning of Modernist Profaners: Parody in “Despair” by Alexander
Dolinin: “Numerous critics have noted that Despair is the first major work
by Nabokov in which the author resorts to intertextual strategies and
stratagems--to literary parody, disguised polemic, cunning play with several
superimposed subtexts, and so on. "Behind Despair stands a nexus of
allusions so dense, so rich, that progressing through their labyrinth would
require another Holmes," wrote William C. Carroll
<http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/doli1.htm#FOOT1> 1 in a pioneering
article that tracks some very important routes inside this labyrinth leading
to Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, and Conan Doyle.[ ]

The derogatory paronomasia semanticizing the very name of Dostoevsky as
connected with "dust" and "dusk"[ ]not only injects more venom into
Hermann's iconoclastic stingers but also becomes a part of the deeper
semantic layers of the text controlled by the auctor rather than the
narrator. Thus when Hermann in the English translation complains of being
unable to free his "dusty, dusky soul" through a "refined self-torture" of
writing (118), this addition to the original ex post facto becomes a
defamatory authorial allusion to the soul-searching of Dostoevsky's heroes
and, by implication, to the popular Western concept of the Russian (or
Slavic) Soul associated with Dostoevsky's writings.[ ] For Nabokov in the
1960s, Dostoevsky was a clear and present peril, an immediate enemy, as well
as a very strong irritant, and he used the English translation of Despair as
a weapon in his fight; with the book he meant to lampoon the darling of the
existentialist crowd and thereby to overbear the artistic authority of his
inflated compatriot.[ ] Among numerous cognitive and interpretative
blunders he (Hermann) makes there is one that betrays his misreading of
Dostoevsky. "I do not accept your sympathy," Hermann warns his hypothetical
readers, "for among you there are sure to be a few souls who will pity
me--me, a poet misunderstood. "Mist, vapor ... in the mist a chord that
quivers " [Dym, tuman, struna drozhit v tumane] No, that's not verse, that's
from old Dusty's book Crime and Slime. Sorry: Schuld and SĂĽhne (German
edition)" (177). The gleeful narrator thinks that he is quoting (or, better,
misquoting, as he changes "twangs" for "quivers") the expressions of pity
and sympathy addressed by Porfiry Petrovich to Raskolnikov in Part Six of
Crime and Punishment.What he does not suspect, though, is that the phrase
quoted is, in its turn, an intentional paraphrase of Gogol's "Memoirs of a
Madman"--a desperate cry for help reverberating in the deranged mind of a
lunatic. Thus Hermann reads Dostoevsky only on the surface level, missing
the artistic subtleties of the text, and the quotation backfires,
undermining his inflated self-image and revealing who he really is: a
pathetic madman on a par with Gogol's hero rather than a triumphant
destroyer of Russian classics.” [ ] Generally speaking, in Nabokov's
Ich-Erzählungs an incriminating quotation of this kind, unwittingly botched,
misapplied or misunderstood by a narrator, often serves as an implanted clue
that can lead the reader to the discovery of what the writer called "the
inner scheme" of the story (see Selected Letters, 117). Alluding to some
text, the narrator believes he is in control of all its meanings and
implications but, in fact, does not realize that the quotation in itself
exposes his lies, pretensions, and crimes. Other examples of this device
(or, as it were, this intertextual trap) in Despair are Hermann's quotations
of Pushkin's poetry [ ] In the context of the novel, Dostoevsky, together
with Pushkin, represents Russian literary heritage abused and misapprehended
by the arrogant impostor, and hence cannot be the target of Nabokov's
parody. Like his paper on The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian version of
Despair seems to attack not Dostoevsky but "dostoevshchina," that is the
strong Dostoevskian trend in contemporary Russian literature [ ] If in the
English version of Despair Hermann notices with horror that his writing has
become "too literary ... smacking of thumb-screw conversations in those
stage taverns where Dostoevsky is at home" (98), the Russian original
defines the stock conversation scene in a slightly different way:
"butaforskie kabaki imeni Dostoevskogo," that is "taverns named after
Dostoevsky." This discrepancy is significant insofar as it reflects a very
important change in parodic targeting of English Despair--a shift from the
progeny to the progenitor, from the contemporary "dostoevshchina" to
Dostoevsky.[ ] The entrapment of Hermann in Bely's stock images and
situations, in their turn derivative of Dostoevsky, reflects and comments
upon the depravities of his insane creative mind. Unable to free itself from
secondhand clichés, stale fancies and solipsistic platitudes, Hermann's
artistic imagination generates only an eclectic mixture of incongruous
imitations, counterfeits, fake "doubles"--the pseudo-innovative hodgepodge
in which Leonid Andreev's "dostoevshchina" commingles with Andrei Bely's
self-conscious fictions, and Briusov's or Savinkov's trite narcissism merges
with plots of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and tabloid journalism.”

*** Returning to Thomas Elsaesser’s book on Fassbinder: “Despair is an art
film, in so far as its self-reflexivity, its use of Ardalion’s ‘bad
paintingÂ’ as a frame-within-a-frame-within-a-frame, are a comment on
‘representation’ from within the perspectival-illusionist paradigm; yet it
is an anti-art film in so far as the impasse of Hermann’s ‘coming out’
demands a more radical re-thinking of this specular paradigm itself. From
one side of the divide, Hermann’s fate is one of ‘despair’, but from
another, it is ‘eine Reise ins Licht’,a journey into light [ ] In
“Despair”, the realization that Hermann may be leaving the space of the
narrative is undercut by the knowledge that he is still inside the world of
Ardalion, another space of representation: there is no ‘outside’ to this
‘inside’…” (Murder,Merger, Suicide, p.90)

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