Invitation to a Beheading

In his autobiography, Conclusive Evidence, Vladimir Nabokov devotes a few pages to discussing the emigre Russian writers whom he knew in Berlin and Paris before 1939: Bunin, Poplavski, Rodasevich, "But," he goes on,

"the author that interested me most was naturally Sirin. He belonged to my generation. Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one. Beginning with the appearance of his first novel in 1925 and throughout the next fifteen years, until he vanished as strangely as he had come, his work kept provoking an acute and rather morbid interest on the part of critics. Just as Marxist publicists of the eighties in old Russia would have denounced his' lack of concern with the economic structure of society, so the mystagogues of emigre letters deplored his lack of religious insight and of moral preoccupation. Everything about him was bound to offend Russian conventions and especially that Russian sense of decorum which, for example, an American shocks so dangerously today, when in the presence of Soviet military men of distinction he happens to lounge with both hands in his trouser pockets. Conversely, Sirin's admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing. Russian readers who had been raised on the sturdy straightforwardness of Russian realism and had called the bluff of decadent cheats, were impressed by the mirror-like angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed, in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to 'windows giving upon a contiguous world . . . a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.' Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness. His best works are those in which he condemns his people to the solitary confinement of their souls."

Sirin is, of course, Nabokov himself in his Russian-writing days, and the whole passage is typical of the elaborately joking manner which he likes to assume (compare the "Ph.D.'s" introduction to Lolita), and which one suspects is a very Russian kind of humor which English and American readers find amusing and irritating in about equal proportions. The quotation from "a critic" is no doubt all part of the joke, since "windows giving upon a contiguous world" is exactly the kind of pretentious phrase, reverberative but totally meaningless, which abound in the Higher Reviewing. Still, the general drift of the passage no doubt represents an attitude which Nabokov seriously holds; it is true that "Marxist" critics (whether of the "eighties" or the present day) would consider his work frivolous in its disregard of questions arising from social organization, and that critics of a contrasting tendency would see the same frivolity in his lack of religion and moral questioning. These elements are not absolutely banished from Nabokov's work, but they are certainly outweighed by thoughts and emotions of a more strictly subjective kind.

The chief of these is memory. As an emigre, compelled to leave his native country at the age of twenty or so and thereafter to regard it simply as a country that has vanished from the map, Mr. Nabokov is fascinated by the workings of his own memory, and thence in the psychology of memory in general. All his books are punctuated with little vignettes drawn from his recollections of the sights, sounds and tactile sensations, of those first twenty years, and some of the "stories" collected in Nabokov's Dozen (1958) are not stories at all but simply slabs of remembered detail. "First Love," for instance, is a jewel of this kind. Indeed, Nabokov does think of these objets trouves, lying about haphazard in the memory, as being like jewels, which he takes out, lingers fondly over for a moment, and then puts back in their box; he used these terms in a conversation I had with him in London last November. "Mademoiselle O," another of the sketches in that book, begins with an interesting statement on this theme:

"I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist. Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore; and the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own. The man in me revolts against the fictionists and here is my desperate, attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle."

Nabokov has expended a lifetime's devoted effort on the task of developing and refining an absolutely individual style, which will convey the thousand and one idiosyncratic nuances suggested by his imagination; both in English and (according to Marc Slonim) in Russian, he has brought this linguistic instrument to the pitch of utter perfection. And yet it is remarkable that he has never troubled to develop a style in which ordinary generalized thought (political opinions, for instance) can be conveyed. When he modulates from distilled impressions into the ordinary statement of an opinion, his writing plummets abruptly from the height of felicity into vagueness and fumbling.

In Conclusive Evidence, for instance, the sheer driving current of the narrative compels him, now and again, to make some kind of reference to his political attitudes; after all, he was a political refugee, his father was a statesman and a well-known political theorist who edited a great liberal newspaper. But--no doubt owing to Nabokov's distaste for anything so crude, so common, to all men, as political opinions—the prose collapses into this kind of thing:

“I soon became aware that if my views, the not unusual views of Russian democrats abroad, were received with pained surprise or polite sneers by English democrats in situ, another group, the English ultraconservatives, rallied eagerly to my side but did so from such crude reactionary motivation that I was only embarrassed by their despicable support. Indeed; I pride myself with having discerned even then the symptoms of what is so clear today, when a kind of family circle has gradually been formed, linking representatives of all nations--jolly Empire-builders in their jungle clearings, the unmentionable German product, the good old church-going Russian or Polish pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher, the man with the bad teeth who squirts anti-minority stories in the bar or the lavatory, and, at another point of the same sub-human circle, those ruthless, paste-faced automatons in singularly wide trousers and high-shouldered coats, those Sitzriesen whom--or shall I say which?--the Soviet State has brought out on such a scale after thirty years of selective breeding.”

This is going too far round: all Nabokov is saying is that people who oppose individual human freedom can be found at any point on the political spectrum, and that under their much-advertised differences resemble each other far more than they resemble the person who respects freedom; to say it in such an over-elaborate manner is like touching off a firework display merely to look at one's watch in a dark street.

I labor this point because it seems to offer a way into the heart of Nabokov's work. He has always been a favorite writer of mine, and yet, when I came to read a number of his books one after another in preparation for this article, I found the experience fatiguing and had to make frequent stops; it was like exercising one set of muscles while keeping the rest of my body still. There is too little break to his intolerable deal of sack. The author's passion for analyzing the minutiae of sensation and emotion will not allow him to go in a straight line from A to B. In the midst of an account of his studies at Cambridge, in those first years of exile in which he was haunted by the fear of losing "the only thing I had salvaged from Russia—her language," he will break off to describe the exact process of "drawing" a coal fire with a sheet of newspaper.

" . . . I would heap on more coals and help revive the flames by spreading a sheet of The London Times over the smoking black jaws of the fireplace, thus screening completely its open recess. A humming noise would start behind the taut paper, which would acquire the smoothness of drum-skin and the beauty of luminous parchment. Presently, as the hum turned into a roar, an orange-coloured spot would appear in the middle of the sheet, and whatever patch of print happened to be there [for example, 'The League does not command a guinea or a gun,’ o r '…the revenges that Nemesis has had upon Allied hesitation and indecision in Eastern and Central Europe…'] stood out with ominous clarity--until suddenly the orange spot bursts. Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney lo join the stars."

It is superb, of course, and to open a book of Nabokov's and come upon such a passage (as one never fails to do before reading far) is to feel a tingle of delight. But that tingle, endlessly repealed, becomes a kind of Chinese torture.

I don't, however, want to present a picture of Nabokov, as a mere aesthetic trifler. He may not be very interested in opinions, but a strong set of attitudes is clearly visible in his work, and the fatiguing, cloying flavor of his books is due more to an over-elaborate surface than to an inner emptiness. In "real life," Mr. Nabokov is a well-known lepidopterist, and he has picked up one habit from his pets: he cannot fly in a straight line. A butterfy's purposes are as serious as yours and mine, but it is condemned to give this impression of frivolity by the protective wavering of its flight. So with Nabokov. He cannot, under any circumstances, "get on." There are moments when the most patient reader longs to say to him (as some-body is supposed to have said to Henry James), "Cough it up in papa's hand!"

Nothing, I suppose, will change him, and indeed the idea of so delightful an author's being changed is an unwelcome one. But, change or not, there is certainly a development. It is a little hard to be certain without having read everything he has written, and for this we must wait until all the Russian novels, published in the thirties under the name of "Sirin," are translated and reissued, like this one. But I fancy that when Mr. Nabokov's oeuvre can be seen as a whole, the books of his "American period" will prove to have more substance, less of a ghost-like quality, than his "European" work. For one thing, America has given Mr. Nabokov a more stable and workaday life. Academic society may be artificial, but it can hardly be as artificial as the life of the emigre Russian colony in Berlin in the twenties, or the more dispersed and etiolated version of the same life in Paris a decade later. There is, in America, nothing strange about being an expatriate. The society is not yet tightly-woven enough to present a hard, impenetrable surface to the "foreigner"; even an Englishman can assimilate, and a cosmopolitan European more easily still. This means that Mr. Nabokov has now, in middle life, something definite to write about. Lolita, for example, has all the fanciful quality of his earlier books, but it is also a substantial work of social satire. Marc Slonim, another emigre in America, has said roundly that,

"Nabokov laughs at the smooth facade of American middle-class gentility which finds everything perfectly wonderful, at the routine of wonderful. . . He hits at the monotony and dullness of hotels and motels which encircle the vast continent, he derides the mixture of puritanism, Freudianism and shallowness which infects American colleges, and he debunks the big myths of a commercialized society of sellers, buyers, athletes and entertainers: the myth of youth which turns into perversion, the myth of optimism which refuses to face reality, and the myth of quantity which has drowned the idea of excellence in all areas of human endeavor. Lolita herself becomes a typical image of the American starlet--a mixture of external attractiveness and basic vulgarity, of sound rationality and senseless violence."

In the same way, Pnin (perhaps the most perfect of Nabokov's books) is not only the funniest of that curious subcategory of novels dealing with campus life, but also an unforgettable picture of a profound commentary on racial character: an old-fashioned liberal Russian patiently building a life on the alien planet of modern America. It is not satire; Pnin is homeless not because America cannot provide homes, but because for him the very idea of home has vanished--or rather, he carries the idea wherever he goes, but the reality to which it corresponds has been destroyed. That is why Pnin can be absurd, touching and lovable, while never ceasing to have genuine grandeur.

From what I have said up to now, a reader unfamiliar with Nabokov might have the impression of a dreamy, insubstantial writer, strong on the psychology of memory, on the less familiar reaches of the emotional life, and on certain imponderables such as the confrontation of different temperaments, racial and otherwise. All this is true, but there is one strong--indeed, blazing—emotion of a straight-forward, non-refined character that glows through all Nabokov's work, and that is hatred of tyranny. I use the word "tyranny" rather than some more 20th century term such as "totalitarianism," because the quality of Nabokov's feeling here seems to me immemorial, even archaic; as an artist (i.e. an individual who will cease to exist if he abandons his individuality) he hates the thought of a world in which the individual is denied the right to live anddevelop in his own way. An early short story, Cloud, Castle, Lake (1937) concerns a mild and thoughtful little man who is forced by a whimsical chance to accompany a party of hearty, leather-breeched tourists on a trip through Rhineland beauty spots; they arrive at one particular place where he feels an unearthly peace and serenity; he announces his intention of staying there for ever, but his touring companions will not hear of it, and drag him away, beating him up at the same time, just for luck.

"There will be beer at Ewald," said Schramm in a caressing voice. "Five hours by train. Hikes. A hunting lodge. Coal mines. Lots of interesting things."
"I shall complain," wailed Vassili Ivanovich. "Give me back my bag. I have the right to remain where I want. Oh, but this is nothing less than an invitation to a beheading."

The phrase forced from Vassili's lips as they drag him away is like a sign-post pointing backward to the novel, written three or four years previously. Evidently the theme is one that haunts Nabokov's imagination, or did until he exorcised it. Invitation to a Beheading is, on a first reading, less technically interesting than Nabokov's later work; "Sirin" was evidently a devotee of Kafka (though Nabokov denies that he knew Kafka at the time of the composition of this work) with whom he had many imaginative qualities in common. One senses a literary debt to The Trial and The Castle. But Invitation to a Beheading is a book that haunts the memory; it is only a few weeks since I first read it, but already I am beginning to suspect that it will stay in my mind, with a rather disconcerting tenacity. In his autobiography, Nabokov calls it "the most haunting" of Sirin's books, "which deals with the incarceration of a rebel in a picture-postcard fortress by the buffoons and bullies of a Communazist state." Cincinnatus, the victim, is a mild, dreaming, inoffensive man whose real crime is that he does not live in the glass-and-concrete world of his captors, any more than Pnin, Sebastian Knight, or--for that matter--Humbert could do. There is also an interesting anticipation of Lolita, in the shape of Emmie, the daughter of the prison governor, who has exactly that blend of depravity and genuine childishness. In one heartbreaking scene, Cincinnatus escapes for a few moments from the fortress, and finds himself on a rocky hillside overlooking the town in which his life has been lived, and which is inexpressibly dear to him as he stands looking down on it. Emmie appears, he trustfully lets her take his hand and lead him, and she takes him straight in through a door to a drawing-room where her father and the other prison officials are at tea. Emmie, in short, leads Cincinnatus back to his captivity and execution, just as Lolita pilots Humbert down into the slough of his neurosis. It doesn't strictly belong to the book Sirin was writing; but most genuinely interesting writers have, in their early work, certain passages of which the reader says "Yes, this is interesting--in view of what came later."

All in all, we must hope that Mr. Nabokov's son Dmitri, who shares the father's love of both the English and Russian languages, will continue his task until he has given us a complete translation of the works of Sirin. There is a place waiting for them on the shelf of contemporary fiction.

John Wain

By John Wain