NABOKV-L post 0020245, Sat, 26 Jun 2010 07:11:57 -0400

REVIEW: Invitation to a Beheading ...

REVIEW: Invitation to a Beheading
by Sean Clark, on June 16th, 2010

Author: Vladimir Nabokov, translated from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov

1935, G. P. Putnam’s Sons

There’s something I need to get out of the way before I begin this review in earnest. I know this book is pretty old, and that its readership is primarily an academic one that has some notion of the plot/theme going into it. However, the most important aspect of this book occurs on the final 2 pages. And the jacket copy spoiled it for me…

Publishers: please stop doing this.

Anyway, in the interest of writing a complete review, I’m going to do a 180 and touch on that which was spoiled, despite that plea to the publishers. But I’ll keep it contained and skippable. If you want to hear about this book, but keep the ending a secret, skip the last sentence of the next paragraph.

This is the least realistic Nabokov book I’ve yet read. That’s not a bad thing. I’m the last person to say a book needs realism to be good, but it’s lack here caught me by surprise. Cincinnatus C. is tossed in jail for “gnostical turpitude”–a term that makes little sense when approached practically, and less in the murky context Nabokov utilizes–and sentenced to death. The world in which this book is set is chock full of vagary and borderline nonsense, contradiction and doublespeak. Cincinnatus doesn’t fit in. He has a hard time believing in the world around him, making sense of it and contextualizing it. In the end (here comes the aforementioned spoiler), this disbelief manifests physically; the world around him dissolves revealing a new, or at least different, reality.

So yeah, that’s a little wacky. As is the whole book. Not much makes sense here: many of the characters are Mad Hatters in a mid-century dystopia. Invitiation is very different from the Nabokov works I’m accustomed to. Few and far between are the strings of alliteration and patches of flowery verbiage that seem to work for him and him alone. Instead this book read much more like many of the French and Irish novels I’ve read. Quite often I found myself thinking of different Sam Beckett novels and plays. For instance, my very favorite line is perhaps the most sparse, lonely, and un-Nabokovian Nabokov line I’ve ever come across:

Lost in sadness, Cincinnatus said nothing.

There are of course, still plenty Nabokovian fingerprints, such as this excellent description (of a zany moment quite typical of this book):

Throwing him the handkerchief, M’sieur Pierre shouted a French exclamation and suddenly was standing on his hands. His spherical head gradually became suffused with beautiful rosy blood; his left trouser leg slid down, exposing his ankle; his upside-down eyes–as happens with anyone in this position–looked like the eyes of an octopus.

All told, this is a very good book, and I enjoyed reading it. Despite its wobbly boundaries of reality, it is very tightly written. That is, there is a very different kind of authorial control going on here. A careful balancing act was required to make H.H.’s compulsiveness and lyrical flamboyance work together in Lolita. Instead Invitiation sticks very close to its core ideas. The plot of Lolita had to work very hard to contain the language, here the opposite is happening: the language reins the plot.

Though it might be hard to say precisely what, it is more clear here than in any of his other works (that I’ve so far read) that Nabokov has something to say about something. The obvious target is Soviet Russia. I’ll admit it though: to be honest, I don’t care that much. I read Nabokov for the language. Here it is subdued, efficient, effective, but not worse. (It is only fair to note that this could partially be a result of translation, but language of origin aside, there is far less world play exercised here.) In this novel Nabokov puts language to work in a way I haven’t seen him do before.

This is different than I expected, but it remains, of course, excellent.

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