In my last blog post, I reviewed Vladimir Nabokov’s most controversial work of fiction, Lolita. Prior to that, I reviewed Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and today I’ll be completing this three-book review series by covering Invitation to a Beheading. I recommend reading these reviews in order, because I’ll also be covering how the author’s past seeps into his writing and criticizing some of his common themes.
Content warning for mention of pedophilia.
Invitation to a Beheading is probably the most unconventional of the three books I read. It’s also the earliest, having been originally published as a serial in Russian and only released in English following the success of Lolita.
The main character of Invitation is an imprisoned man named Cincinnatus– although it is never particularly clear what, exactly, our protagonist was imprisoned for. We are told that he has been sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude,” a crime left unexplained in the novel and which people still aren’t exactly sure how to define.
Unable to fit into the world around him, Cincinnatus is described as having a “certain peculiarity” that makes him “impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another.” Although he tries to “feign translucence,” people are uncomfortable around him. We get it, he’s different.
The protagonist’s main complaint and struggle is his desire to know the time and date of his execution, which his jailers –as well as all the other actors in the story– frustratingly keep secret. He wants to spend his final days writing (like his author, the protagonist is once again a writer), but struggles to do so within the setting of the prison.
It has been suggested by other reviewers that Cincinnatus may be mentally ill, and I don’t think that’s an inaccurate interpretation. The narrator wanders through an unreliable world of fancy and imagination where what is actually going on around him and what he imagines to be going on are often simultaneously incompatible and indistinguishable.
For example, the prison director brings Cincinnatus a companion, another male inmate who is treated like an honored guest by the prison staff, and is later revealed to be the executioner. The executioner digs an escape tunnel for Cincinnatus– or so he hopes. Instead, it is a tunnel to the other inmate’s cell. However, when Cincinnatus follows the tunnel, he instead ends up in a hallway, where he bumps into a jailer’s child and is taken to join a banquet.
Each chapter heaps more surreal events atop an already strange and unbelievable narrative. One of the residents of the prison is Emmie, the young daughter of one of the jailers. She plays in the hallways, and occasionally visits Cincinnatus in his cell.
The prisoner’s lawyer is utterly ineffective. The laws governing his captivity and impending execution are byzantine and poorly understood by everyone involved. There are peculiar visitations, including one where Cincinnatus’s wife and her lover, as well as her entire extended family, come to visit at once.
Many of these scenes have the frustrating futility and warped reality of a fever dream. Cincinnatus cannot actually visit with his wife, because his tiny cell is too crowded with her relatives and all their furniture.
When the time of the execution finally arrives and it appears that Cincinnatus is about to be beheaded, he instead skips off to join “beings akin to him.”
Criticism of Invitation to a Beheading
Many reviewers have tried to figure out where the author was going with this story and what its point is. Invitation has been described as Kafkaesque, but Nabokov claimed that at the time he wrote the book, he was completely unfamiliar with Kafka’s work. Nabokov also described his creation of the first draft as “one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration” –although what that inspiration was, he seemed to have declined to say.
Some scholars have argued that the central plot of Invitation to a Beheading has its roots in Chernyshevski, a character from The Gift. Another view is that the novel “functions as a roman à clef with the Platonic Socrates as its target.” Personally, I suspect that no one has any idea what this novel was actually about– possibly not even the author himself. The person who wrote the back cover copy for Invitation to a Beheading certainly seemed to hold it in high regard, though.
During the years he spent in Germany and France prior to his coming to the United States, Mr. Nabokov wrote a series of novels in Russian–among the finest ever written in that language–which were largely published in Berlin and Paris, under the pseudonym of Sirin. INVITATION TO A BEHEADING, first published serially in a Russian emigre magazine, was the first of these novels to be translated into English. The translation, the result of a collaboration between the author and his son Dmitri, demonstrates to American readers that this book–hailed as a farce, an allegory and a specific study in terrorism–is, however classified, a masterpiece of prose writing.
Even without having read other Russian works of fiction from the same period, I feel like calling Invitation “among the finest ever written in that language” is a gross insult to Russian fiction. A farce– as in something that probably shouldn’t have been published– it most certainly is. An allegory– for what exactly? And a “specific study in terrorism”– I’m sorry, how?
Cincinnatus’s jailers are incredibly gentle with him, inviting him to dinners and checking to make sure that he is comfortable. His cell is cleaned regularly, and he is given walks and even the occasional freedom to roam the “prison” (which takes the form of an old castle on a hill) unsupervised. He is allowed visits from his family. He is not beaten, chained, or otherwise tortured. Abu Ghraib, this prison certainly is not.
While Cincinnatus isn’t quite living in the lap of luxury, his treatment would have seemed luxurious to many. Both Cincinnatus in Invitation and Humbert in Lolita are treated like royalty by their keepers, despite the fact that treatment of prison inmates and patients in sanatoria in that time period was typically fairly horrific. As I noted in my review of Lolita, Nabokov clearly led a charmed life even after his family fled the Russian revolution.
Like Nabokov’s other works, Invitation isn’t very good. The writing isn’t brilliant or compelling. The scenes aren’t vivid or striking, and the main character isn’t particularly sympathetic or relatable. He’s an off-putting individual who has made little attempt to fit in, and now finds himself at the end of his welcome and feeling very sorry for himself.
As far as pointless reads go, Invitation to a Beheading is one of the worst offenders I’ve read. It’s bland, flavorless, and utterly forgettable.
Criticism of Nabokov’s Writing
While there isn’t a lot to be said about Invitation to a Beheading specifically, there’s plenty that can be said about Nabokov’s writing in general.
Favors word count over substance.
As I mentioned in my review of Pale Fire, that novel could have been condensed to a third of its published length without losing any of its meaning. A vastly more readable narrative would have resulted. While I was reading Pale Fire, I entertained the possibility that the novel might be the only one of the author’s works with that affliction. Sadly that was not the case.
All of the author’s books that I read had a bad case of wordiness. In the case of the English translation of Invitation, actually making sense seemed to have been of secondary importance to putting a lot of words on a page. Take this excerpt from Invitation’s Foreword, for example:
My favorite author (1768-1849) once said of a novel now utterly forgotten “Il a tout pour tous. Ill fait rire l’enfant et frissonner la femme. Il donne a l’homme du monde u vertige salutaire et fait rever ceux qui ne revent jamais.” Invitation to a Beheading can claim nothing of the kind. It is a violin in a void. The worlding will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures. No clubwoman will thrill. The evil-minded will perceive in little Emmie a sister of little Lolita, and the disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education. But (as the author of Discours sur les ombres said in reference to another lamp-light): I know (je connais) a few (quelques) readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair. –Vladimir Nabokov, “Invitation to a Beheading”
In terms of what the author’s actually trying to say here, your guess is as good as mine. Between the inclusion of unexplained words and passages in other languages, typos, inside references, and jabs at unnamed individuals the author feuded with, this passage is largely nonsensical.
And speaking of which…
We get it. You’re very proud of the fact that you know French.
One of Nabokov’s favorite conceits is the inclusion of French words and phrases. These are completely unnecessary to the plot and aren’t explained in any way, so the only way for the reader to get any benefit out of their inclusion is to either A) know French, or B) to be reading Nabokov’s works after the invention of the internet, and run the phrases through a translation program.
Even worse, many of these phrases seem to be some form of slang, and as we all know, slang evolves. What the phrase meant in 1940 is usually nothing close to what the phrase means today, lending extra confusion to the situation.
Peppering your writing with unexplained examples of the second or third language you’re very proud of knowing is probably one of the best examples of things you absolutely should not do as a writer.
Multiple consecutive pages without paragraph breaks.
In Pale Fire, this often occurs as “editor” Kinbote subjects the reader to his every wandering thought, no matter how inconsequential or off-topic. In Lolita, the narrator spends solid pages detailing his sick obsession with twelve-year-old Dolores. In Invitation, the author was similarly in love with the inclusion of the run-on paragraph. No stray thought or unnecessary observation was left behind.
One of the longest I found in Invitation was seven pages long and constituted an entire chapter. James Joyce called– he wants his writing style back. This is hilarious in light of that fact that Nabokov was compared to Joyce during his lifetime, and evidently did not consider the comparison flattering.
Subpar and badly in need of an editor.
Nabokov’s work is a great example of something I’ve seen a lot in the literature of the early to mid 1900s: it’s just not very good. It’s dull. It’s wordy. It meanders aimlessly. It’s badly in need of a good editor, and the versions of these books that went to print absolutely would not have met the standards of today’s professional publishing industry.
Condemnation of the Author Himself
There are a million mediocre authors out there. There are thousands that need better editors; whose work is dull, wordy, and uninspired; who just aren’t very good. That in itself isn’t in the least bit exceptional, and some of those will actually practice their way into being halfway decent– after all, we all sucked when we started.
That in itself isn’t worthy of condemnation. Even the fact that Nabokov was everything the Russion working class rose up against isn’t enough to really earn him much condemnation. It just makes his so-called struggles that much less relevant to us today.
Even the author’s casual misogyny and racism aren’t that remarkable. There were many like him– utterly forgettable writers who most have already condemned to the dustbin of history. No, what makes Vladimir Nabokov really stand out versus his contemporaries is his stance on pedophilia.
Was Vladimir Nabokov A Pedophile?
We’ll probably never know for certain, but it’s certainly interesting that the backgrounds of the main characters of all three books that I read bear a strong resemblance to the author’s own.
Kinbote, Humbert, and Cincinnatus are all writers and teachers. Kinbote in Pale Fire is basically a stand-in for the author, as his life and journey closely matches the author’s. Kinbote, like Humbert in Lolita and the author himself, fled his home country, lived in France, and emigrated to the US to become a teacher. Cincinnatus, like the others, is portrayed as being unfairly persecuted and imprisoned.
The fact that Nabokov’s characters often read like versions of the author himself should make one wonder what other traits the author and his characters share in common. Pedophilia crops up in all three of Nabokov’s books which I read; was this perhaps another of the author’s own traits projected onto his characters?
Kinbote and the deposed king in Pale Fire share a disturbing interest in young men and boys. Lolita is dedicated to a pedophile’s grooming, abduction, and sexual assault of a twelve year old girl. And in Invitation to a Beheading, even poor, meandering Cincinnatus has a strange fascination with the jailer’s young daughter.
My suspicions about Cincinnatus’s interest in Emmie partly arise from a statement made by the author himself in the foreword to Invitation: “The evil-minded will perceive in little Emmie a sister of little Lolita.”
I’m not sure I would have spotted this similarity if the author hadn’t specifically pointed it out. Perhaps Nabokov is telling us something.
While it’s very tempting to believe that characters like Kinbote and Humbert were deliberately written to be loathsome, it’s harder to make that argument when pedophilia is the standard rather than the exception. No one wants to think that someone deliberately tried to write a pedophile as a relatable character– but that appears to be exactly what Vladimir Nabokov attempted to do in Lolita.
There seem to be quite a few reviewers who’ve read Lolita, and possibly only Lolita, and attempted to separate the author from his work. However, even after the novel’s publication and public reception, Nabokov stated in an interview that of all his novels, he held the greatest affection for Lolita. That is, to say the least, telling.
Here’s the thing. As an author, I’ve written from the perspective of some characters who were absolutely disgusting people. I hated it. I hated being inside their heads, even briefly for a short story. I really don’t think I could have worn their skin for an entire book. It was a massively unpleasant experience, and I definitely don’t feel like those were my finest or most enjoyable works.
Those stories don’t have my “greatest affection.” Perhaps if an author’s favorite work is about a pedophile grooming, abducting, and raping a twelve-year-old, that should tell you something important about them.
How Do We Approach This Author’s Work Going Forward?
As I mentioned in my review of Lolita, the way we frame this novel needs to change– and the same can be said of its author. Alongside the great writing of today, Vladimir Nabokov’s writing is mediocre at best. Instead of framing this guy as “one of the leading prose stylists of the 20th century,” we should be talking about his promotion of pedophilia and his casual racism and misogyny.
The sooner we stop putting not-so-great “greats” like Nabokov on a pedestal, the sooner we can begin changing the erroneous belief that these men’s disgusting tendencies were great too.
All excerpts used under Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and commentary.