Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In and Out of the Castle with Vladimir

There's a sequence in Nabokov's Invitation To A Beheading where the protagonist, Cincinnatus C., crawls through a tunnel in an attempt to go from a fellow prisoner's cell back to his own, but instead finds a way out of the castle in which he's being held. He scrambles into the early evening light and looks around at the beautiful world, the sky deepening into purple to the west, the river and its bridge hazy and shadowed at the foot of the mountain and, beyond the bridge, the city where Cincinnatus lived unhappily free. It's a very nice, quiet moment in an otherwise frenetic narrative.

I was imagining that Cincinnatus would sit on the mountainside, his back to the oppressive prison tower, and consider his life, possibly living through significant events again and fantasizing about his future as a man escaped from the clutches of a tyrannical government. Naturally there is no place in the world for Cincinnatus and, I imagined, after some time he'd resign himself to his fate and crawl back into the tunnel and find his cell, there to await his execution.

That's not what happens, because this isn't that sort of novel, and Cincinnatus isn't that sort of character. Nabokov's people in this book are all symbols; not one of them has blood or a heart. Invitation to a Beheading is a novel about ideas, not a novel about people. Repressive regimes are horrific farces staged by men who rarely show their true faces, who bend truth to fit the fairy tale of institutional happiness, who claim to own Progress while leading nations into barbarism, &cet &cet &cet. Yes, we know this. And yes, the novel's power lies in showing us this horrific farce, but the lack of people (as opposed to puppets) is leaving me with an empty feeling. So a good book, certainly (and if I had to choose between this and, say, Gulag Archipelago, I'd pick Nabokov nine times out of ten), but Beheading is probably a minor novel. It's no Lolita, that's for sure. Maybe if Nabokov had given Cincinnatus a sense of humor or at least an awareness of irony, I'd be enjoying this more.

Anyway, the book where the prisoner escapes from prison, reflects on his past and supposes his future and then returns to the prison? I might write that one myself, unless I have stolen the premise from someone and just can't remember who.

1 comment:

  1. It is also possible, I see, to read the novel as a version of "Hamlet." More on that later, maybe.

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