NABOKV-L post 0015480, Tue, 18 Sep 2007 09:43:49 -0500

THOUGHTS: Versipellis in Despair
As I've been working through the various lupine connections in PF, a few
passages in VN's _Despair_ have caught my attention. I was first attracted
to three of VN's descriptions of the novel in his 1965 foreword.

"The Russian text of Despair (Otchayanie--a far more sonorous howl)"

"At the end of 1936, while I was still living in Berlin--where another
beastliness had started to megaphone--"

"Despair . . . has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its

According to VN, then, Despair is a howling beast with teeth. Most people, I
think, would assign these descriptions to a wolf (or werewolf).

Far more important is the description given of Hermann in the mirror section
of Ch. 2 (p. 21):

"[F]or that beard of mine has done jolly well, and in such a short time too!
I am disguised so perfectly, as to be invisible to my own self. Hair comes
sprouting out of every pore. There must have been a tremendous stock of shag
inside me. I hide in the natural jungle that has grown out of me. There is
nothing to fear. Silly superstition!"

What is the superstition of which Hermann speaks? A selection from Fiske's
_Myths & Myth-Makers_ tells us that "By the ancient Romans the werewolf was
commonly called a 'skin-changer'or 'turn-coat' (versipellis), and similar
epithets were applied to him in the Middle Ages. The mediaeval theory was
that, while the werewolf kept his human form, his hair grew inwards; when he
wished to become a wolf, he simply turned himself inside out" (89). Is this
not the very image evoked by Hermann's description of his beard? After his
"natural jungle" comment, he realizes that he is giving himself away, so he
quickly tries to laugh it off.

Much has been made of Hermann's relationship to the "Vampire of Dusseldorf"
but I would like to suggest that VN had a different beast in mind. (Btw, I'd
be interested to know if the original Russian passage reads similarly.)

Matt Roth

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