My brother gave me two books for Christmas, both by Nabokov. On the first, Lolita, he put a tiny Post-It note. It read, “I really enjoyed both of these books. This one’s CREEPY…” Then, when I lifted it to look at the second book, Invitation to a Beheading, I read, “And this one’s TRIPPY. I really like how it ends!”
Trippy. That’s as good a way as any to begin to think about Invitation to a Beheading, the first of Nabokov’s books that I’ve read translated from the Russian. The book revolves, or tilts, or whirls, around Cincinnatus C., who has been condemned to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” What this gradually turns out to mean is that Cincinnatus, unlike everything and everyone around him, is real:
From his earliest years Cincinnatus, by some strange and happy chance comprehending his danger, carefully managed to conceal a certain peculiarity. He was 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; he learned however to feign translucence, employing a complex system of optical illusions, as it were — but he had only to forget himself, to allow a momentary lapse in self control, in the manipulation of cunningly illuminated facets and angles at which he turned his soul, and immediately there was alarm.
(Notice what this implies: not just that Cincinnatus is different from all who surround him, but that he’s constantly watched. The tiniest lapse will be observed.)
The novel takes place in a strange and chimerical prison. Cincinnatus sees only a few people: his jailer, Rodion; his lawyer, Roman; the director, Rodrig, and the director’s small daughter, Emmie. Everything, from the fortress itself to the spider in the corner to the human relationships within it, is constructed so that at first it makes an effort at appearing to be real — it offers some hope — and then it betrays that hope, showing itself to be a facade, an elaborate construction. The clock in the corner marks time because someone comes and wipes out the clock hands and paints new ones on. The spider is a crude clockwork construction. No one ever answers any question Cincinnatus asks, not even the most vital: when will be the hour of his death?
I know. I know! You’re thinking Kafka, right? The Castle? The Trial? But Nabokov says in his foreword that he had not read any Kafka (or any modern German literature) when he wrote Invitation to a Beheading. And this is not much like any kind of political dystopia, not much like Orwell or Huxley. Nabokov points out in the Foreword that he composed this book “some fifteen years after escaping 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.”
And certainly this is not political allegory: there are no jackboots here. But Cincinnatus’s suffering is framed in terms of dull, beastly farce. This is more the oppression of a certain kind of middle-class morality. Here bureaucracy, rules, and paperwork reign supreme:
“All right, let’s have it,” said Cincinnatus, and tore the thick, stuffed envelope into crimpy scraps.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” cried the lawyer, on the verge of tears. “You shouldn’t have done that at all. You don’t even recognize what you’ve done. Perhaps there was a pardon in there. It won’t be possible to get another!”
Cincinnatus picked up a handful of scraps and tried to reconstruct at least one coherent sentence, but everything was mixed up, distorted, disjointed.
Cincinnatus must be cheerful at all times: his jailer constantly tells him not to mope and sulk. Cleanliness is everything (except the faux spiderweb.) When he has visitors, there’s never any hope of a real conversation; they crowd all their bourgeois furniture into his cell, along with their fear of his peculiarity. And when Cincinnatus believes he has drawn back the curtain to find the Great and Powerful Oz, he finds merely a bourgeois family eating their supper.
In the end, as each hope (another prisoner burrowing through the walls; the strangely lively Emmie; the passage that leads outside the fortress) reveals itself to be another betrayal, another piece of the unreality that surrounds him, nothing is left but the inner reality of Cincinnatus himself. The book evades a single interpretation (as I said, it’s not allegory), but it makes me think about Hannah Arendt’s report on Eichmann and the banality of evil.
The ending, though, reminded me not of Kafka but of Alice in Wonderland. (Nabokov translated Alice into Russian.) As Cincinnatus goes at last to his execution, the entire world is disintegrating around him — his prison cell, no longer needed, is simply gone. I won’t give away the actual ending, but it reminds me of Alice’s words as she goes to her own beheading: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” And of course, this leads directly back to Nabokov’s sly point in the foreword, in the words of the Red King: “If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”
Do I believe him, that there’s no meaning in it? No. Maybe there’s no politics in it, but there’s meaning. This glorious, sparkling, witty, heartbreaking, strange book steps away from unitary construction, but it offers this: if you’re real, you won’t be able to hide forever. You’ll be caught. And somewhere, there will be others like you.