Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading

Imagine a novel that combines the intelligence of Kafka with the imagination of Marquez. Imagine a novel that blends a vision of helpless despair with some laugh-out-loud writing. Imagine a novel that is at once brilliantly intellectual and intensely human. Imagine a novel that manages to be both a savage satire of social mores and a meditation on the meaning of human existence.

Or, if your imagination won’t take you that far, just read Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. A mindbending marvel of a book, Invitation to a Beheading is the story of one Cincinattus C., who has been condemned to be executed on the inexplicable charge of ‘gnostic turpitude’ but whose real crime is that he is an opaque person in a transparent world, a thinker in world where everything is appearances. The novel tracks C’s last days in prison, from the time of his sentencing to the day of his execution. We share in the despair of these days, the many false hopes that rise in C’s heart, the petty indignities, C’s bewildered refusal to participate in the rituals of his own death (at one point, for instance, he is expected to join in a merry toast to his forthcoming death with his laughing executioner) and the disappointment of those around him with his ‘uncooperative’ attitude. It’s almost as though someone had taken those last few pages of Camus’ L’Etranger and made a novel out of them.

If all this sounds rather dark and gloomy, it’s only because I’m not describing it well. Nabokov’s great gift (as always) is to make this desolate scenario seem entertaining, even funny. The characters of the executioner and the prison director, for instance, are sketched with a sense of humour worthy of Gogol. There is a sense, throughout the novel, of living in a dream world (a sense one shares in fact, with C himself) – as though all these solid, unspeakable things were actually phantoms of one’s own imagination. Whatever terror there is in C.’s situation comes entirely from within our own heads (in one brilliant paragraph that almost seems like a premonition of the Matrix, C. realises that the things around him are real only because his fear makes them so; if he cannot stop himself from believing in his executioners, they will destroy him). This dream like state is enhanced by the wealth of poetic detail that Nabokov heaps on the story. There are mirrors that hold on to their reflections no matter where they are taken, there is a night when the password is silence, so the guards let everyone pass without saying a word, C’s cell comes equipped with an official pet spider. Nabokov is writing magic realism before magic realism really exists – every interaction that C has is at once deeply metaphorical, hilariously funny and vividly imagined (when his in-laws come to meet him in prison they bring all their furniture and luggage with them).

Invitation to a Beheading is also a stunning demonstration of just why Nabokov is one of the richest, most immaculate prose stylists of the last century. As a textbook example of good writing, this (like most of Nabokov’s other novels – see the incredible Pale Fire) is hard to match. It combines some of the most brilliant use of dialogue with long soliloquies, breathtaking descriptions of people and situations, some wonderful imagery and a true poet’s gift for conveying emotion. Nabokov literally takes your breath away and then gives it back to you to laugh with.

But there is also substance to this book – it’s not all style. In fact, Invitation to a Beheading is a wonderful meditation on the nature of existence, with C.’s prison cell as a microcosm of human life. There is the same certainty of an end coupled with the uncertainty of its exact timing, the same cycle of hope and despair. Death looms over this cell, but in its shadow life goes on in all its petty silliness, its inadvertant comedy – social norms are foolish, and emotions are not really any better, yet logic alone can show us no hope of escape. The contrast between C.’s sensation of being the only substantial person in a world of surfaces and the vagueness and transparency of his dreams of escape is one that we can all relate to.

Bottomline: If you are (like me) a die-hard worshipper of Nabokov, then this is a book you cannot afford to miss. If, on the other hand, you’ve never got around to reading the great man, this might be a good reason to start.