Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov (1938/1959)

That’s a picture of the first page of the Nabokov’s draft of this novel.

“I composed the Russian original . . . in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” Thus Nabokov instructs us in his foreword to the first English translation of his Russian novel Priglash na kazn’. We are not to read the story of Cincinnatus C., imprisoned and sentenced to die for the ill-defined crime of “gnostical turpitude,” as any kind of political allegory. The thing about prohibitions, though, is that they’re so much fun to violate. And in fact it’s not hard at all to read Invitation to a Beheading as political allegory, though not of the individual-at-mercy-of-unfeeling-and-incomprehensible-monolithic-power variety, but rather the the-state-decides-what’s-real type. Cincinnatus’s crime is that he’s interested in the actual that lurks beneath the apparent. (Thus his crime’s name. “Gnostic” is that which pertains to knowledge, and Cincinnatus wants to know.) His misfortune is that he’s found himself in a novel by Nabokov, who enjoys nothing more than the idea that what we take to be the actual is in fact imaginary. Nabokov, of course, means to—such trepidation, beginning a sentence in that manner, since Nabokov would almost certainly insist that he doesn’t mean anything at all—suggest, as Wallace Stevens did, that this is good news, since the imaginary is a lot more fun than the real anyway. But we mustn’t forget that totalitarians, too, often find it useful to offer up the imaginary and call it real. While Cincinnatus awaits execution, a whole cast of characters parade through his cell—wife, mother, sympathetic jailer, cunning fellow prisoner, respectful warden, and even a Lolita-like nymphet—but it becomes increasingly clear that all of these are simply actors playing roles, ala The Truman Show. The only real things are Cincinnatus’s desires to know the hour of his death, and to record for posterity, in writing, his thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The fun conundrum for Nabokov (here and everywhere) is that artifice and imagination are the only available entry points into the real and/or are themselves all the real there is. But this can be construed as a political problem as well as an aesthetic or philosophical one. By convincing Cincinnatus that the imaginary world constructed to delude him is the real world, his jailers cut him off from the actual, and, worse, lead him into a space where he can no longer tell the difference between the real and the imaginary. This, I’d argue, is pretty much exactly what any totalized political structure does for—or rather to—its citizens. And, frankly, while I enjoy Lolita as much as the next aesthete, and adored teaching Pale Fire in my Reiteration class, Nabokov’s jewelly prose is harder to take when the context evokes political prisoners instead of suburban Lotharios or kooky professors.

Damn. Nearly got through an entire paragraph about Nabokov without using some effing fancy adjective, only to blow it in the very last sentence.