Despair by V. Nabokov; Vintage International

Despair was first published (in Russian) in 1936, Nabokov edited and revised it for the English translation in 1965.  This is the second Nabokov novel that I have read, the first was Lolita; although, I do own Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading.  I absolutely despise Lolita and am not sure that Despair is any better of a novel.  I do want to read The Defense.  I do not honestly know how much more Nabokov I can take – if The Defense is no good, I swear off of the author forever.

I know that by saying anything against Nabokov, it is almost as if I am making myself into some sort of literature-pariah and that I chance no one taking seriously anything that I further say.  Make no mistake, I understand Nabokov’s literature – I understand his writing, the allegories, themes, color, lyricism, etc.  I just do not like it.  I find his writing to be tedious, interruptive, stupid, and immoral.  Without a doubt, the feeling I get from reading Nabokov’s writing is that he is unbearably arrogant and obnoxious.

I have read Russians – the classic group of them (no need to list them) – and I think they are the greatest of writers. Nabokov does not deserve, in my opinion, to be counted among them.  I never can see what readers find in his work. I am beginning to suspect that actually no one really likes his work, they just feel it is their duty to nod their heads and agree with everyone else.  I cannot be one of those people – I dislike Nabokov’s writing and reserve the right to do so in the future.

Reading Despair was a chore. It was a bore – I hated the narrator-character immensely.  Actually, there wasn’t a single character I liked at all. The writing (supposedly that of the main character) was wretched and all over the place (presumably to designate his state of mind or WHATEVER…) but through it all, once again, seeped Nabokov’s wretched arrogance.

So, why did the main character plot and carry out his own murder? Was it for the insurance money? The thrill of it all? Because he fancied himself part of the great mystery-drama that he was writing?  Frankly, I just don’t care.  I am sure in stuffy classrooms across the globe students attempt to plum possible responses to these questions for their mid-term papers.  However, I just don’t care why the character did it.

Maybe there was no actual murder and such. Maybe it was all part of the story-within-a-story. Again, I really don’t give a rip.  Just like the idea that the main character has a double who looks like him – but only to him. Everyone else fails to see the resemblance. Was there a resemblance or wasn’t there? And just why does the main character think there is one? And, most important, does anyone care? Not I, surely.

I was uninterested in the tribulations of a self-congratulatory author (main character), the arrogance of Nabokov’s writing, the attempts at vaguely replaying Crime & Punishment, the pseudo-mental anguish of the main character.  Nabokov, you waste my time – I despair of reading any more of your works.

2 stars

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by A. Solzhenitsyn; Signet

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and was first published in 1962.  The novel takes place in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, describing a single day of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  The author, Solzhenitsyn was himself imprisoned in the Gulag camps between 1945 and 1953.  The edition I read is the Signet Classics 2008 and it is this cover that is my favorite among all the editions.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in the Gulag labor camp.  He is a member of the twenty-four man squad called the 104th.  Formerly, he was a farmer and soldier who was arrested falsely on the charge of being a spy.  On the day the novel takes place, Shukhov is already a veteran of these labor camps and is in the process of serving a ten-year sentence.

The story begins at 5:00am when the prisoners are awoken for a long day of hard labor.  The reader learns about the process of the labor camp through the thoughts and actions of Shukhov.  When this book was first published, it was a shocking revelation of the corruption and abuses in the Soviet system. However, reading it in 2012, it’s pretty much exactly what one would expect from the book.  The book ends somewhere close to 11:00pm, with Shukhov fallen asleep in his barracks bunk.

In the book, we learn about the society within a society that forms in prison.  The reader is given to understand the level of corruption that occurs from the highest level, to the lowest level in the penal system.  The prisoners are constantly harassed and monitored, so that they have no free time, no rest, and no escape.  The guards who run the prison are corrupt and harsh, but they are, in essence, stuck in their own prison – since they have no real desire to work at the Gulag in the cold, either.

Daily, after being frisked, corralled, and searched, the squads march to a new location in the freezing bitter cold where they begin their day of work.  The work is designed to be inefficient and tedious.  The materials and tools needed to accomplish any sort of productive work are lacking.  Food is dolled out in scarce, weak portions.  None of the prisoners have proper garments, nutrition, or equipment.

This particular day is a relatively good one for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  He falls asleep at the end of the day fairly content with the events of his day.  Throughout the day, we follow his efforts to survive in the subculture that is his squad and the larger culture that is the entire prison.  The devil is in the details for his survival – how many ounces of bread is he allotted? How can he best ration his bread, clothing, tobacco, and rags?  Who can be barter with?  Who can be trusted and who is hazardous for his survival?   Basically, the day is a good one because Shukhov is able to stay warmer than others by a few degrees, get a few extra ounces of bread, and have an extra cigarette or two.  These, for him, are major wins, though looking from the outside in, they do not seem that important.  In the Gulag, it is all about daily survival – and most of that means being smart and careful.  Arrogance, stubborness, and foolishness are all pitfalls that usually spell the end of prisoners before their term is up.  However, in order to gain such little bonuses, it requires great cunning and effort on the prisoners’ part – is it worth it?

Toward the end of the book, another prisoner puts a question to Shukhov – has Shukhov so adapted to prison life that he actually does not wish to be free anymore? Was hoping for his release to freedom anything but a boring hindrance? Is it better to focus on daily survival?  Shukhov’s contented sleep at the end seems to almost signify that he has been truly broken, since it seems that his complete acceptance of the prison life means that he would not escape or choose to be released even if he was given that option.  That, it seems, is the real terror of the labor camps – not the physical strains and struggles.

4 stars


WeZamyatin finished this novel, in Russian, in 1921.  It was suppressed in Russia for a long time, only being published there in 1988.  Meanwhile, it was published in English in 1924.  I read this Penguin Classics edition with the really awesome cover.  The cover is from Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City by Anton Brzezinski.   There is another edition from Penguin Classics that’s cover is Georgii Petrusov’s Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko, but I find that artwork icky and disturbing and I love the colors and vision of the copy I have.

We takes place in the 26th Century – which is largely why it is considered a science fiction novel, I think.  To be honest, I feel like most people place dystopian novels in science fiction because they just do not know where else to put them.  While this takes place in the future, it does not contain any truly science fiction elements.  I read this novel for two reasons: (1.) I am plodding through a stack of Russian literature; (2.) I am reading all the dystopian literature available.

This book is not for everyone – I can see how any variety of readers would become frustrated or bored by the novel. Also, if you had no fun reading Brave New World or 1984, then you will probably dislike We as well.  However, it should be noted that We was actually published prior to either of those novels.  Orwell openly admits that he was “inspired” by We, Vonnegut admits stealing some of the ideas in it, and Huxley (Brave New World) has been accused of plagiarism from many novels including We.

The narrative is written in the form of diary entries by D-503, there are 40 entries in total.  Through the character’s diary, we learn much about the form of society in the 26th Century.   D-503 lives in a place called OneState.  OneState is the totalitarian society governed by the Benefactor and his Guardians.  The entire urban society is constructed out of a type of clear glass – which allows the Guardians to police and spy on all of the citizens, even in their private apartments.  The structure of society is regulated by the Table of Hours, which details what activity each citizen should be doing at what specific time.  Naturally, throughout the book we see that citizens work for the sake of OneState because it is their duty and responsibility – they do not work for personal accomplishment or personal finance.  Work tends to be the focus around which the lives of the citizens are built.

Except for Sex Day.  We are told that after the 200-Years War, society split into factions.  OneState developed while hunger was being eradicated and after that, the Lex sexualis was promulgated.  In OneState, any citizen has the right of access to any other citizen as a sexual product.  This plays somewhat of a large role in the book because on Sex Day, for an hour the couple is allowed to drop blinds in their apartment, thus being able to hide from the authorities for the time.  I find it vaguely significant that in all of the major dystopian novels, sex plays such an important role.  One might think it would be food, education, technology, etc. But it’s usually sex.  Anyway, this control of sex in dystopian novels has the effect of removing crime and disorder from the society (no more jealousy or rape) and it also micro-manages the births and generations of new citizens.

All the citizens of OneState are given a letter-hyphen-number as their “name.”  They are not called “citizens,” but rather are referred to as Numbers.

D-503 is a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics.  He understands numbers and formulae quickly and on a deeper level than most of his fellows.  He has been put in charge of building OneState’s latest project:  the INTEGRAL.  This machine is something like a spacecraft, it’s purpose is to spread the values and commands of OneState to all other nations/planets.  Of course, at the start of the novel, D-503 is pleased with this work and spends his day dutifully carrying out his assigned task.  D-503 encounters the revolutionary and disobedient I-303.  He falls in love with this woman.  D-503 begins to have dreams, he loses his focus on purely rational thinking and logical explanations, and he begins to be an accomplice to her deviations.

I-303 takes D-503 out from OneState.  OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates OneState from the remainder of the planet.  There, D-503 realizes that there are humans living outside of the boundaries and forces of OneState and that there are many Numbers who wish to rebel against OneState and rejoin the rest of humanity.  D-503 blames his law-breaking on the fact that he is ill.  Having dreams and ruminating on love and drinking alcohol are all symptoms of his having developed a soul.  Throughout the novel, D-503 grapples with what this means.   Late in the novel, OneState makes its citizens undergo the Operation (something like a lobotomy) which removes people’s imaginations.  By doing this, the effort is to squash any notions of revolution or hope.

There are two main questions that move throughout the novel in order to answer the ultimate problematic presented here.  The first is what it means to be We or I.  Some of this shows through in terms of the “we” between D-503 and I-303 versus the “we” between D-503 and the whole revolutionary group.  D-503 frequently latches on to the concept of “we” and wonders how his allegiances have shifted and what it is that constitutes the “we” anyway.  The second main question deals with the concept of revolution.  Some of this is historically relevant to the Russian Revolution, but the point is the same:  one must think that either there can be a last/final revolution, or there is no limit to revolutions possible.  By forming another revolution, I-303 shows D-503 that it is always possible to overcome the authority of the State.  The State tends to dupe its citizens into thinking that the revolution that brought it into existence is the last/final revolution, so that it can secure itself from any uprisings.

The overarching problematic of the novel is the comparison and contrast of the idea that happiness = freedom or the exact opposite.

I am giving this novel four stars because it is the genesis of 1984, Brave New World, etc.  I like the themes and concepts that Zamyatin plays with here and I think it is definitely a book one should read and then re-read.  However, I withhold a star because some of the writing itself is tedious.  The character D-503 tends to be a bit whiny and babbles a bit more than he should.  There are some sections where I lost track of the story and what D-503 was even trying to get across.  The novel uses plenty of the technique of not finishing sentences except for a series of ellipses.  This is okay, but after awhile, a little grating on the nerves.  Anyway, I recommend this one for the smart people, the fans of Russia, and the dystopian-lovers.

4 stars