Book Review: Invitation To A Beheading

Invitation To A Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov

Although many have labeled this strange work of magical realism as Kafkaesque, that is not an entirely just comparison.  To be sure, this book is strange and its protagonist, Cincinnatus, is seemingly trapped in a bizarre world where for the crime of gnostical turptitude (whatever that means) he is sentenced to death with the penalty of beheading.  Nabokov is, as one might expect, somewhat cagey about the inspiration for his writings, considering his own fecund resources of imagination sufficient, but this book does have at least some resemblance to other books about prison [1] and it is clear that the author is drawing from history and culture in his look at the way that virtuous and decent people in corrupt regimes are prey to prisons and executions in areas like Germany and Soviet Russia, but also in historical revolutionary regimes like that of late Republican Rome or Revolutionary France, both of which seem to be alluded to here as well.  This reader at least tends to think that the dream-like ending with its optimism reflect perhaps a wish on the part of the author for the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism to be the sort of nightmare that someone could wake up from as if it had never happened at all.

The book itself is, as I have remarked, somewhat strange.  Much of it is told in rambling fashion from the point of view of a slightly unreliable narrator, one Cincinnatus, who finds himself to be alone in a prison for a crime that no one, least of all himself, can understand.  He longs for occasional visits from his indolent wife and her strange family and has an odd and flirtatious relationship with the young daughter of his jailer.  All kinds of strange things happen to make the prison seem more like a maze as he waits for his day of execution and the carrying out of the sentence of beheading, and he finds that the person who is supposed to behead him ends up, for reasons unknown, residing in the prison with him and seeking to befriend him as if he was a fellow prisoner.  Meanwhile, Cincinnatus struggles with virtue and has strange encounters with others, including his mother, that suggest to him that his imprisonment may be affecting his sanity, although it does not affect his skill at chess.  Humorously enough, the prisoner chooses as his last request a few minutes more to finish what he was writing, only to find an ending that is somewhat unexpected given his long isolation.

This novel presents some major challenges to being understood.  Perhaps the author did not mean for this novel to be understood, but merely enjoyed.  On the one hand, the novel is certainly very much like Nabokov’s work in general in dealing with themes of isolation from society as well as his playful writing about the line between fantasy and reality and real and fiction.  While it is clear that Nabokov is drawing from his own personal history as a Russian exile struggling with the government-sanctioned violence of the 20th century, it is also clear that this novel is more than merely a political screed disguised as a novel.  It is more complex than that, as the novel seems to ponder the prison of the mind and the way that we are imprisoned by our own thoughts and our own experiences and backgrounds as much as we are imprisoned by our own unjust governments.  Moreover, Nabokov shows himself here to be rather conservative, as his hero is no revolutionary with soaring rhetoric but rather a decent man who seems confused about how he got caught up in the cruel machinery of the state, and whose last act is to seek out other voices so that he may enjoy the free company of other people in contrast to the forced company of those who he has no wish to be around.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Invitation To A Beheading

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The House Of The Dead, Or Prison Life In Siberia | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Learn Chess From The Greats | Edge Induced Cohesion

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