Monday, August 09, 2010

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading one book often leads to another. With Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, it is leading to several - but not Lolita itself. Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, a title I did not recognize, was his book that called to me.

Now that I have read Invitation to a Beheading, I am a bit confused. What was it about? How did it end? I read the ending pages twice trying to work it out. Typical reader that I am, I want to understand.

Despite being unsure of Nabokov's intent, I can see why students in Iran could appreciate his tale. The main character Cincinnatus is arrested, tried, and convicted for charges that are only vaguely described as being out of step with everyone else. He is repeatedly accused of being difficult, uncooperative, and trying to disappear. His jailer and the prison director seem to notice whenever Cincinnatus begins to dream about how life could be better; they intervene to keep him from breaking the expressly-stated prison rules against dreaming. False accusations, unjust sentences, self-congratulating officials - the plot sounds a lot like Nafisi's Iran under the Shah and after the Islamic Revolution.

For not being like everyone else, Cincinnatus was sentenced to be beheaded, but no date of execution was announced. Discovering the date and time for his death became his obsession. It also became his excuse for never starting any projects, such as writing his memoir. What if he had not enough time to finish? He chose never to start. Of course, he came to regret that he had not done anything with all the time he wasted. His excuse: if only he had known when he would die, he would have used his time well.

What is Invitation to a Beheading? Time and space and physics are a bit bent. Is the book magical realism? Farce? Satire? Though written in the 1930s (translated into English by Nabokov's son in 1959) and seeming to be set in a small Russian community, the newspapers that Cincinnatus reads are filled with color illustrations. Does this mean the story is set in the future? Why does Nabokov continually bring us back to the spider in Cincinnatus's cell? There is much to wonder about.

Conversations about Invitation to a Beheading can go in many directions. It is a good selection for book clubs that likes challenges.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1959.


laura said...

If you'd like to read some more comprehensible Nabokov (though actually I haven't read Invitation to a Beheading), I think you'd really like Speak, Memory, which is a sort of memoir in essays and which is just gorgeous.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks, Laura. That sounds like something I would like more.