my nice Vintage International copy of Nabokov’s INVITATION spoils the whole plot on the back cover. ready?
Like Kafka’s The Castle, Invitation to a Beheading embodies a vision of a bizarre and irrational world. In an unnamed dream country, the young man Cincinnatus C. is condemned to death by beheading for “gnostical turpitude,” an imaginary crime that defies definition. Cincinnatus spends his last days in an absurd jail, where he is visited by chimerical jailers, an executioner who masquerades as a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who lug their furniture with them into his cell. When Cincinnatus is led out to be executed, he simply wills his executioners out of existence; they disappear, along with the whole world they inhabit.
some were deeply annoyed. but i say have no fear. this novel is spoiler proof. it isnt really about all that stuff above. if it’s about anything, it’s about its own aboutness. knowing the plot in advance, including the “twist” that his inmate Pierre is actually his executioner, does nothing to dilute the reading experience. INVITATION is so much fun, so packed with energy, and so effortless in its execution. im disgusted that Nabokov wrote it in a two-week flight of inspiration.
what “gnostical turpitude” crudely means is that Cincinnatus is opaque, while everyone around him is transparent. the wacky society the novel constructs is mired in mediocrity from which C. stands out. but it’s not like C. is all that exceptional — he just doesnt feel like going along with all this bourgeois bullshit.
poshlost is a lovely and useful term from VN’s vocab. he has a wide and detailed definition of it, which you can find in his Paris Review interview. he undoubtedly would have considered everything ive ever written here and every political value i have to be poshlost. this was a man who had to flee from two consecutive totalitarian states, and then happily supported American foreign policy all through the sixties. but im not here to talk about his politics. we artists are only concerned with beyooty!
all we really need from poshlost for this post is that it describes smug simple-mindedness — you know it when you see it. it plagues all geniuses everywhere. there’s a whiff of poshlost in the title: an invitation (how civil, how charming) to a beheading (horrible!). but dont question it. it is gauche to make the good well-behaved patriots actually smell the cheap blood they revel in. the way Nabokov represents poshlost here in all its absurdity is so subtle and skillful i closed the book convinced that political satire is superfluous compared to the “pure literature” of INVITATION.
we follow C. in his prison, each chapter devoted to a day, until his final one. for company he has the janitor, the warden, the warden’s daughter, and a spider (all of these characters become complicated, not their characterization, but their entire ontological status in the story world). nothing seems consistent: on some nights C. seems free to wander outside the fortress into town. he kills a lot of time writing longhand, and here we get lovely moments about the struggle of writing. writing is demanding work in the best of times, but this is more like the anguish of Kafka and Beckett, writers who are too self-conscious to strut on the illusory ground of naturalism and bang out some best-sellers.
I know something. I know something. But expression of it comes so hard! No, I cannot…I would like to give up — yet I have the feeling of boiling and rising, a tickling, which may drive you mad if you do not express it somehow.
Wait! There, I feel once again that I shall really express myself, shall bring the words to bay. Alas, no one taught me this kind of chase, and the ancient inborn art of writing is long since forgotten — forgotten are the days when it needed no schooling, but ignited and blazed like a forest fire — today it seems just as incredible as the music that once used to be extracted from a monstrous pianoforte, music that would nimbly ripple or suddenly hack the world into great, gleaming blocks — I myself picture all this so clearly, but you are not I, and therein lies the irreparable calamity. Not knowing how to write, but sensing with my criminal intuition how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor’s sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbor and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence; while I sense the nature of this kind of word propinquity, I am nevertheless unable to achieve it, yet that is what is indispensable to me for my task, a task of not now and not here. Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is encarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me.
the horrible here. the alternative to which me must strive is the there. (im told here and there has a cute visual joke in Cyrillic.) the truth is over there, the writer is here, and the writer builds their way to the there, but can never really make it, for the there would be a lie. words falsify. the fundamental paradox that the late 19th/early 20th century modernists grasped to their horror is that the train tracks to Truth and Meaning are built from the steel bars of mythology, our only material. the experiments of modernism not only peel back mythology (revealing…more mythology) but to try, in a really complex way and for out own good, to offer experience (there) without the bad faith of knowledge (here).
among all the other things Nabokov may be up to in INVITATION — i glossed an article arguing that the whole novel is a rehearsal of Platonic concepts (i for one am comforted by the notion that the text is merely an academic contrivance rather than the sheer horsepower of Nabokov’s imaginative genius) — he’s dropping notes towards an literary manifesto.
take for instance the novel Cincinnatus checks out from the prison library:
The novel was the famous Quercus, and Cincinnatus had already read a good third of it, or about a thousand pages. Its protagonist was an oak. The novel was a biography of that oak. At the place where Cincinnatus had stopped the oak was just starting on its third century; a simple calculation suggested that by the end of the book it would reach the age of six hundred at least.
The idea of the novel was considered to be the acme of modern thought. Employing the gradual development of the tree (growing lone and mighty at the edge of a canyon at whose bottom the waters never ceased to din), the author unfolded all the historic events — or shadows of events — of which the oak could have been a witness; now it was a dialogue between two warriors dismounted from their steeds — one dappled, the other dun — so as to rest under the cool ceil of its noble foliage; now highwaymen stopping by and the song of a wild-haired fugitive damsel; now, beneath the storm’s blue zigzag, the hasty passage of a lord escaping from royal wrath; now, upon a spread cloak a corpse, still quivering with the throb of the leafy shadows; now a brief drama in the life of some villagers. There was a paragraph a page and a half long in which all the words began with “p.”
the inevitable downtime when no one’s hanging out by the quercus tree is filled in with encyclopedic details of “dendrology, ornithology, coleopterology, mythology.” maybe this is the totalitarian novel with its imperialist drive to contain everything, though the real fascist novel might be closer to that UN dystopia airport thriller written by a woman before Glenn Beck pasted his name over it. and there’s the bit with the p-words, which sounds like Oulipo-style gimmickry. Nabokov wants a third option from these two paths for 20th century western lit.
how to write one’s way out of the poshlost around us? damned if i know, but we can be happy for Cincinnatus. he (more specifically his doppleganger who accompanies him) breaks free of his status as a fictional character (and is there any prospect more horrifying than being a fictional character?) . As the human figures around him devolve into fetuses and the world collapses like so much set dressing, he “made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.” Are those beings you and me?
there’s a lot i havent talked about, like the hilarious dinner scene with some town officials, and the horoscope Pierre makes with the warden’s daughter (a proto Lolita sort of thing).
this was a great translation by Dmitri Nabokov. i heartily agree with Nabokov’s opinion on translation in the preface: “fidelity to one’s author comes first, no matter how bizarre the result.” Sounds more fun than what Luc Sante called the International Literature in Translation voice.