Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

Nabokov (pronounced Na-BOE-kuff, 1899-1977) is one of the best-known writers we'll read this spring, with unusually important works in both Russian (up to 1940 or so) and English (beginning with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, but bringing him fame and fortune (and an interview in Playbor magazine) with Lolita (1955). It is not at all hard to find information about his life and works, but here is a brief outline, Nabokov came from a tremendously wealthy family; he grew up in comfort, and thanks to various governesses he spoke three languages (English and French, besides Russian) more or less natively. His undergraduate degree was from Cambridge University. Nabokov set out to be a poet, but his prose writing was much more successful; he settled in Berlin after graduation and made money writing chess problems for newspapers, among other things. (This is about the same time that he translated Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, for which he changed the heroine's name to a comfortable Russian Anya.) Nabokov faced terrible family tragedies: beyond having to scrounge a living in Berlin, where he didn't ever really learn to speak German, he lost his father in 1922 (Vladimir Nabokov senior had been an active centrist politician in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and he threw himself in front of Pavel Miliukov to thwart an attempted assassination, but took the bullet), and his brother died in a Nazi concentration camp. Nabokov (with his Jewish wife Vera and their son Dmitry, born 1934) fled to Paris in 1937 and then (with a loan from Rachmaninoff) to the US in 1940. He eventually became a tenured professor of Russian literature at Cornell University and a well-regarded translator of Russian literature (more well-regarded for Lermontov's Hero of Our Time, less so for his unpoetic, densely annotated version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin). He wrote several novels in English before achieving fame - plus, his discoveries as a mostly self-taught lepidopterist are now at last being fully appreciated. Once he became wealthy, after Lolita was published, he happily retired and moved to Switzerland. (Because he sort of scorned the Americans too.)

Invitation to a Beheading (Приглашение на казнь) was drafted in 1934 and completed in 1935-6, after Nabokov had already written several novels in Russian. It is more political than his earlier work had been, and its speculative elements remained a departure for him. Scholars consider it a response at once to the Stalinization of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Nazis in Germany (you can imagine how Nabokov scorned them!). He was researching the life of our friend Nikolai Chernyshevsky for what became his finest novel in Russian, The Gift (Дар), and you should recognize traces of Vera Pavlovna's fourth dream in many of its angles. To avoid spoilers I provide questions here only up to p. 90.

Questions for Reading:

  1. Nabokov was a science fiction writer much less than were Čapek or Bulgakov - is it projecting SF-ality onto a text that isn't to read it in the context of this class?
  2. How does the luscious style change your experience as a reader? Do you find that it distracts you from the ideas, or does it make them more powerful?
  3. What literary influences do you see as you read?
  4. Who was Cincinnatus? What are the implications of that association for the reader, and for the culture we see?
  5. This is clearly a distant future; what traces of the present do you see in it? How does its relationship to the present compare to those in Kuprin's "The Toast," Briusov's "Republic of the Southern Cross," Čapek's R.U.R. or Zamyatin's We?
  6. In this distant future, technology has largely been abandoned (instead of coming to dominate and leading to flabby, decadent humans). What cultural works would you compare it to?
  7. If you have read Kafka's Castle, which Nabokov denied was a source, how would you compare the two works?
  8. Is the reader led to sympathize with any of the characters other than Cincinnatus?
  9. What folktales or operas do you know where the jailer's daughter releases the prisoner? - What other plots might be mobilized in this work?
  10. Do any of the "talking names" speak to you? - For example, Rodion is Raskolnikov's first name; Roman is Raskolnikov's father's name, and Vissarion is the first name of Belinsky, the leftist literary critic and publicistika writer who was associated with Chernyshevsky and his group.

Return to the syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.