I derive most value from this short novel in the language. Those sentences and the visuals they evoke really sift through my mind. Which is largely all I ask.
Everything therein feels veiled through some literary device: allegory, surrealism, or the filters of imagination. Take nothing at face value.
In fact, I prefer to consider the novel an allegorical opera. The question remains, what composer would accept such a commission?
Additionally, it’s a chamber work. The protagonist occupies a prison cell (chamber), awaiting execution the entire time. The nature of the crime, although never made explicit, elicits enough clues to recognize the totalitarian state of society and the means of disappearing persons deemed undesirable.
Feel free to draw parallels with the Soviet regime which Nabokov evidently drew upon (at this point long emigrated, the novel written in Berlin circa 1935), or any abstract dystopian regime of your fancy.
Whatever mode of expression the author caters to at any given moment, whether we find ourselves in the cell, in close periphery, or in the hazy consciousness of the protagonist, the aura feels uncomfortably claustrophobic.
In that respect I can’t avoid identifying a semblance to Kafka’s major oeuvre. And however more intimately familiar and even preferable I find Kafka’s staging, I still rather leverage Nabokov’s prose untranslated. The (unhampered) language prevails.
Right, so we feel Kafka’s dry alienation, absurdity and surrealism as early as the first chapter. But varying influences soon come to intermingle.
There’s a significant satirical undertone which permeates and contrasts much of the repressive palette. Gogol and Bulgakov (ie Дьяволиада and М и М) readily come to mind. I also identified early Dostoevsky (thinking of Двойник), whose prose Nabokov didn’t however much esteem. Somewhere along, Borges’s short story El milagro secreto even came manifest. The surreal aspect strangely evoked something of Carroll’s Alice on a handful of occasions.
The narrative packs much of the bizarre. Take, for starters, the element of duality. The protagonist often splits in two, one doing deeds that never happen, the other remaining passive and docile.
Sometimes the protagonist embarks on long, uninterrupted strands of imagination that beautifully blend with the present moment as if never having at all occurred.
And the theatrics conveyed at hyperbolic whimsicality … And that resident spider …
Strong imagery pervades in painstaking detail: shadows, in constant reverberation; the gigantic rock atop a mound comprising the prison world; the bridge leading into the void beyond. The forests, the threatening moonlight, the baroque features and the ambiguous societal portrayal: more suggestive to me of a grisly German dystopian landscape than a Soviet.
Nabokov really plows through the gutter and dissects each dismal, degraded feature in the morbid confines. He extends the same due diligence to the dignitaries and latent characters inhabiting the prison world. Added the satirical humour, and the environment acquires a deceptively jolly atmosphere.
The drama is not without visitors. And though a chamber work, it’s ultimately not a closet drama in space nor time, however artificial you may find the distinction. In fact, the day of execution is also kept obscure, much to the protagonist’s recurring dismay.
Let’s speak of voices. I detected three types throughout the narrative, each complimenting each other to keep dynamic varied:
The protagonist’s inner voice consisting of self-reflections, imaginings, reveries. Though transparent, not necessarily the most reliable. The voice, however, makes for the most beautiful passages.
The protagonist’s biographer. Most objective, most transparent, though by no means the most prudent, sparing no person nor detail in the harsh, satirical, Kafkaesque critique.
The playwright. While humorous and quirky dialogue interweaves, we find the protagonist most subdued, nearly silent, nearly translucent and, at the same time, most opaque.
Overall, pretty damn good writing. And challenging: Nabokov’s prose (not the earlier Russian, not the later English) has never come to me without severe effort. Inexhaustible stretches of poetry. Technically, among the best.
Yet for reasons I can’t articulate but through a painting metaphor, I generally prefer the palette and textural mastery of other authors if given the choice: the same Gogol, Bulgakov, Dostoevsky; or the English-language prose of Joseph Heller, some of whose existential parallels conveyed in Catch 22 just now occurred to me.
But that’s neither here nor there. And perhaps I read this work at the wrong time: oppression, alienation, liberation, all motifs for an acquired humour. Doing best to remain objective, I recommend this strongly.
Questions, comments? Connect.