I’m trying to remember if this is my fifteenth or sixteenth Navokov, but at any rate, it’s the weakest, although that on its own doesn’t say much. The weakest Nabokov is still stronger than the best work many other authors produce. Invitation to a Beheading was translated from the Russian (and quite ably, I must say) by Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son. It reads very much like Nabokov’s later English-language novels.
Invitation to a Beheading follows Cincinnatus C. as he spends three weeks on death row at a dream-like prison in an equally dream-like country. His crime is “gnostical turpitude,” a concept that is never fully explained, but based on the little information made available in the novel, has something to do with his being “opaque” at the level of his soul. What this actually means, I have no idea, but it frightens the other characters in the novel, who all live their lives based on a kind of dream logic that Cincinnatus can’t seem to participate in with any success. It’s actually that inability to mesh entirely with the dreamworld that saves him from his decided fate.
Much of the action of the novel, if you can really call it that (Nabokov’s novels aren’t really about “action” in the sense of events of consequence moving the plot forward), involves Cincinnatus, his jailer Rodion, fellow prisoner M’sieur Pierre (who also happens to be the executioner) and a few others whiling away the hours until the beheading, the exact date and time of which is kept hidden virtually until the moment itself. What Nabokov gives us is as much Alice in Wonderland as it is Kafka or Dostoyevsky, the dream-logic of the novel cheerfully thwarting any attempt at clarity or humanity, keeping Cincinnatus as off-balance as possible, he being the only conspicuously sane person in the novel.
I say this is Nabokov’s weakest novel, or at least the weakest that I have read, because I think that he is at his best when his work is rooted firmly in the logic of things, and Invitation to a Beheading defies that, although the prose (even through Dmitri’s translation) is brilliant, glittering stuff. This is a novel of strange juxtapositions and half-finished sentences, always skirting sense and clarity, but never quite hitting the mark. This is not a deficiency; it’s obviously the whole point. I just don’t think it’s how Nabokov functions best. Either way, it was an incredibly satisfying read, as his books always are.
Next: The Republic of Love, by Carol Shields.