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Nabokov and Invitation to a Beheading

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 Playboy 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 as well as his parents he spoke three languages (English and French, besides Russian) more or less natively. The family left Russia in 1919. Nabokov'is 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 when he threw himself in front of Pavel Miliukov to thwart an attempted assassination, he ook 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 taught at Wellesley College for a bit and 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.) (Interesting tidbit: the first paperback edition of his translation of Hero of Our Time had cover art by Edward Gorey: as the Russians say, it's a cramped world.)

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, and its speculative elements were and 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. Although I would argue that Chernyshevsky is not the only operative subtext among the texts we have read so far.

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? On the other hand, does it matter whether an author considers a particular work to be SF?
  2. How does the luscious style shape 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? What briefly flickering allusions?
  4. Who was Cincinnatus? (Feel free to pause here and Google.) 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 of its composition or publication 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). To what cultural works would you compare that aspect of the novel?
  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. Which other characters might be similarly opaque? (If we assume that they must have learned to dissemble to survive, and thus might not look opaque to Cincinnatus.)
  10. What folktales or operas do you know where the jailer's daughter releases the prisoner? - What other plots (be they stereotypes or not) might be mobilized in this work?
  11. 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. (Vissarionovich is also Stalin's patronymic, so who knows!)
  12. How does having We in your memory impact your reading of Invitation? Another subtext is Charles Beaudelaire's poem "L'Invitation au voyage" ("The Invitation to a Voyage," see for the original and four different translations into English; this poem also casts a less creepy light on the character of Emmie).
  13. What other subtexts do you notice - literary or historical?
  14. How do you react to learning more about M'sieur Pierre's identity?
  15. Some scholars have suggested that M'sieur Pierre is to some extent a parody of Porfiry Petrovich, the persistent police detective in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. ("Petrovich" is a patronymic formed from "Pëtr," the Russian form of Peter, whose French form is Pierre...) Porfiry Petrovich is overweight and comments on how it's bad for him; he ties Raskolnikov up in small talk; he irritates Raskolnikov by calling him "голубчик" (literally "little pigeon" or "little dove," but "Duckie" isn't a bad translation, as Dmitri Nabokov renders it towards the end of this book). If you've read Crime and Punishment, do you see any merit to that suggestion? (Although Nabokov pricklily denies that his work is comparable to anything from "Tolstoevsky.")
  16. Note how often it happens that the reader can't be certain what is "really" happening, or has to decide among several options, or decide to suspend judgment. (Does this aspect of the work cause you difficulty?)
  17. To what extent does it matter that the novel is set in a distant future? Does the degeneration of aesthetic heighten the pathos of the moral and intellectual drop we see, or should we read them as explaining one another?
  18. If you have read The Gift (Дар), how would you compare the scaffold at the end to the description of Chernyshevsky's scaffold (at his civil execution) in that novel?
  19. Note the open-ended ending: would you say this is typical of SF? How does the effect of the ending on the reader compare to that of the ending of We?


picture of Nabokov from the front of a book


Sibelan Forrester

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