Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Don't fall into the lazy-readers' trap of thinking that Invitation to a Beheading is just some pastiche of Kafka. This was my misconception for the first 70 pages or so. Nabokov claims not to have read The Trial before writing this work, and I am inclined to believe him, given the limited availability of Kafka's text outside of the German language at that time (Nabokov did not read German). But the close kinship these texts have is very apparent . . .
. . . at first.
It is not too long, however, before Nabokov's softer "touch" becomes apparent. The protagonist, Cincinnatus, is held captive under what may or may not be a trumped-up charge that really is not a charge at all, or at least not one that has a slippery definition, if any definition at all. Some readers excoriate his lack of emotion, his stupidity, but I felt some deep pity for the man. Again, things are not quite as they appear on the surface. A more careful reading reveals a man who is paralyzed by his fear of execution, but who buffers himself from that fear by probing for the answer to the question "when?". This dissociation of emotion is Cincinnatus' central conceit. But what appears on the surface as a lack of emotion is really a manifestation of his subconscious attempts to stifle the fear of death within him. By asking the question "when?" and receiving no answer, his attempts to know when "his time" will come serve to heighten his fears, rather than ameliorate them . . .
. . . at first.
The style throughout is varied. If pinned down to use one word to describe the oeuvre of the work, I would use "dreamlike". In fact, Cincinnatus, who sometimes acts as the directly stream-of-conscious narrator (but only sometimes), himself admits his penchant for dream:
But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is, they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind.
This preference for the dream-state is another defense mechanism used by Cincinnatus to push away the angst brought on by his very real situation. Through this intentional dulling of the waking world's reality, Cincinattus shields himself from the lingering background horror of his sentence . . .
. . . at first.
But one of the more poignant scenes, for me, a heartbreaking scene, wherein Cecilia C., a woman who may or may not be his actual mother, enters the cell to speak with him, heralds the implosion of his shields, not by crushing his hopes. Not initially. But by giving him hope. Hope here, is the enemy, and ultimately, it opens the abyss of disappointment beneath him. As part of their awkward conversation, he asks "What's the point of all this? Don't you know that one of these days, perhaps tomorrow . . ."
He suddenly noticed the expression in Cecilia C.'s eyes - just for an instant, an instant - but it was as if something real, unquestionable (in this world, where everything was subject to question), had passed through, as if a corner of this horrible life had curled up, and there was a glimpse of the lining. In his mother's gaze, Cincinnatus suddenly saw that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also. What was this spark so piercingly expressing now? It does not mater what - call it horror, or pity . . . but rather let us say this: the spark proclaimed such a tumult of truth that Cincinnatus's soul could not help leaping for joy. The instant flashed and was gone. Cecilia C. got up, making an incredible little gesture, namely, holding her hands apart with index fingers extended, as if indicating size - the length, say, of a babe . . . Then she immediately began fussing, picking up from the floor her plump black bag, adjusting the lining of her pocket.
"There now," she said, in her former prattling tone, "I've stayed a while and now I'll be going. Eat my candy. I've overstayed. I'll be going, it's time."
The solemnity of this scene contrasts sharply with the tone of bureaucratic silliness that pervades the actions of the government officials throughout. There are too many such instances to mention here. Suffice it to say that the utter ridiculousness of these antagonists are somewhat reminiscent of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces . This is yet more evidence of Nabokov's ability to write in several "voices," startlingly different, yet of a piece. At one point, my reading notes comment on Chapter 8: "Beautiful angst, like Beckett and Calvino conspiring on a stream of consciousness riff of awe with baroque frills" - a contrast to the whiffs of
that I occasionally smelled while reading. Which just goes to show Nabokov's skill in switching from tone to tone in the same novel while maintaining a feeling of wholeness. The man can WRITE! Often, though, I found myself wishing that David Lynch might do the world a favor and offer up a cinematic version of Invitation to a Beheading. He would be one of the few directors who could actually pull it off. Lynch's ability to portray what I will call "timeslips" on the big screen would be needed and tested. For example, imagine who you would film the following, a scene wherein Cincinnatus is escorted to a "farewell visit" with the city officials:
This nocturnal promenade which had promised to be so rich with sad, carefree, singing, murmuring impressions - for what is a recollection, if not the soul of an impression? - proved in reality to be vague and insignificant and flashed by so quickly as happens only amid very familiar surroundings, in the dark, when the varicolored fractions of day are replaced by the integers of night.
Many have called this novel a work of existentialism. And this is not incorrect. However, it is not a nihilistic work. What starts out floundering in captivity and darkness, with an increasing fear of inevitable doom billowing up into storm clouds in the background, resolves (a word you will rarely hear being used to describe a work of existentialist literature) into a manifesto of self-sufficiency ("By myself," becomes Cincinnatus's refrain) and a profound statement on grasping one's own destiny, embracing it, and stepping off into the unknown, with confidence and surety of purpose, with full freedom of being one's self . . .
. . . at last.
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