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Posted September 3, 2016 by

Invitation to a Beheading – Vladimir Nabokov – 1935

Posted by Chris on 3/2/2003, 21:05:13

 I read Invitation with the kind of relish which I typically am able to employ with Nabokov. All the usual hallmarks were present – unique images and metaphors, engaging wit and wordplay, and characters so odd and unbelievable that you cannot help but take them seriously – that make Nabakov such a joy to read.

 As should be obvious, I approached this book with a bias and an expectation of enjoying it. After finishing the book, I was not surprised to find that I did like it, but was surprised to find that I could not say exactly why.

The story was straight-forward enough, with an imprisoned young man awaiting his execution, but the characters and the course of events were so bizarre that little can be said in the usual ways about plot and theme. I do find, however, that there were certain aspects to the story that I found fascinating. Amoung them:

1. The prisoner-cum-executioner Pierre, and his insistence upon ingratiating himself to Cincinnatus, was a lot of fun. Pierre believed, as did all the characters (Cincinnatus excepted, of course, but more on that later) that establishing a friendly relationship between the executioner and executionee was not only vital, it was essential. This symbiotic relationship between the two men who participate in the act of destroying life was an interesting point upon which Nabokov lingered for much of the second half of the book. He seemed to say that, no matter Cincinnatus’ distaste for it, there is a metaphysical relationship between he who kills and he who is killed that cannot be escaped or denied. I was reminded of the Land Dayaks of Borneo who believed that the spirit of the murdered man becomes a part of the killer’s family circle. In this sense Pierre and Rodrig (the director) seemed to be “rehabilitating” Cincinnatus by attempting to gain his acceptance of this relationship which was an accepted part of the society’s code.

2. Cincinnatus and his “guilt.” Nabokov’s rendering of Cincinnatus’ crime and guilt were brilliant, and show a commentary on the nature of behavior and law within any society. C. was convicted of “gnostical turpitude,” which, to the best of my estimation, merely means that he refused to go along with the norms of his society. He refused to become one of them, and in doing so proved himself to be a deviant worthy of punishment. Nabokov satirises the notion of law and normalcy by demonstrating that “deviant” is entirely in the eye of the examiner, and that if an individual voluntarily (or even involuntarily) does not conform to the thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and conclusions of the broader society, he/she is not worthy of a place in that society. Cincinnatus’ insistence on not “playing along” even during his incarceration only prove the point that he IS guilty of his crime. A brilliant satire of the notion that laws and normalcy are not arbitrary and are based on a ‘universal’ code.

I truly wish that I had something intelligent to say about the book’s ending, but somehow the metaphor escapes me, and so I’ll leave it up to the rest of you to help me out here. Cincinnatus managed to “will them out of existence,” but does that mean that they never truly existed, or otherwise that C. instead willed himself out of existence? Thoughts?

Posted by Dave on 4/2/2003, 5:22:04

Chris, your general comments ignite my own thoughts about the book, and your closing comments encourage me that at least one other person found certain things a bit elusive, in this case, the ending. I too wondered at this point if the final disintegration meant that the preceding events did not even take place.

You comment that “establishing a friendly relationship between the executioner and executionee was not only vital, it was essential” is something that I also found relevant. There is some key idea going on with this, but I’m still trying to formulate what exactly it is. For me, the major “feeling” throughout the story was something like “lack of empathy.” That’s how I would describe it. “Empathy” as my little desk dictionary describes it is “capacity for participating in the feelings or ideas of another.”

NEVER did anyone sympathize with Cincinattus. In fact, they deliberately antagonized (exacerbated) his alienation and despair. “Here… suck this candy” his wife suggests, as though this will take his mind off the fact that they’re going to chop his head off soon!

And perhaps the most cruel example of this torture is when M’sieur Pierre and Rodrig Ivanovich dig the tunnel to his cell.

And, so far as we know, it’s not even April 1st! No, there’s just nothing nice about this tunnel.

At the same time, it’s amazing how everyone treats Cincinattus as though being in prison is some sort of privilege, how he ought to be so thankful to everyone else…while he remains unaware of the precise nature of his crime. Poor Cincinattus, he feels that he is in this “whole, terrible, striped world” through an error.

I guess one aspect where Nabokov succeeded with the novel was in making ME sympathize (and empathize) with C.

My favorite line comes after one of M’sieur Pierre’s weary speeches, when he asks C. “what will you say to all this?”

And C. replies, “What am I supposed to say? Dreary, obtrusive nonsense.”

This response from C. reassured me of his sanity. From then on I thought of C. as the only thing (or person) credible and logical, in a world that is incredible and illogical. He seemed to me to be the only character that posessed normal mental faculties.

I’m sure this is Nabokov’s intent, but I did not read into his metaphors with the interpretation they deserve. I lack the power. Felt like things were always one or two steps ahead of me…

So the novel as a whole escaped me, (lost me) and, it was not a “pageturner” for me.

However, it is well-manicured WRITING (no doubt)… and I look forward to other comments from readers here that may be able to raise the novel’s level of MEANING in my estimation.

One peculiar thing I noticed in Cincinattus… he alternated between this incredibly lucid, communicative, intelligent type of person at times… (notice when he was making his demands known, writing his notes, or ordering library books etc.) to this sudden incoherent, mute-type of person… back and forth. I kept searching for what set him off, one way or the other? What is the trigger that makes C. retreat back into himself, and be no more communicative than the dangling spider in the cell? Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of not knowing the day or the hour of his execution and his general disgust of these chimerical characters that hounded him?

This, and other things, I still do not know.

Did Emmie ever intend to rescue him, or was this just another nail in his psyche?

~

Posted by Hanh on 4/2/2003, 6:28:44

If I concentrate too much on the story, or try to make sense out of it, it goes nowhere for me. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

However, at the end of the book, the whole thing washes over me: the vision in exquisite Nabokovian prose of an alternate reality that is possible, but not inevitable — an alternate reality made possible by the ignorance, arrogance, and blind obsequiousness that are intractable in Man. Yet, it is a path that is not inevitable. That we can recognize it for the ludicrousness that it is (i.e., that we can see the OTHER, sane reality), empowers us to free ourselves from that path. So in the end, Cincinnatus, having understood that this is not the reality he chooses, breaks free from it. I think, therefore I am.

 Plus, I do dig the Nabokov humor. The Prison Rules. The description of C’s slutty wife. GOTZ. A hoot!!

 We can choose the reality others create for us, or we can choose our own reality.

 ~

Posted by Hanh on 4/2/2003, 6:06:24

Last Sunday, the show 60-minutes in the U.S. aired a segment on a C.I.A. agent named Brian Kelley. What does this have to do with “Invitation to a Beheading”, you ask? Ah, now that your curiosity is pricked, read on my friends.

This story reminds me of ItaB because it’s almost a real-life parody of it, comical because it’s so ludicrous, tragic because it tramples so wrecklessly on reason and civil liberties.

For 4 years before the F.B.I turncoat Robert Hansen was caught for espionage (an act which, among other consequences, resulted in numerous “eliminations” of U.S. under-cover agents), the F.B.I concentrated solely on Brian Kelley.

The F.B.I. first suspected Kelley as the mole because he was on the cases where leaks occured. Robert Hansen was also on the same cases but was ignored because the F.B.I. did not believe it “possible” that the mole could be in the F.B.I. Hansen was in the C.I.A.

The strategy to smoke him out was single-minded and insistent.

First, Kelley was asked to take a lie detector test before taking on a new assignment (not standard procedure). He took; he passed. The passage of the test, rather than vindicate him, tells the F.B.I. that wow, this guy is really CLEVER. He fooled the lie detector with flying colors!

 Then a “sting” operation was set up to flush him out. A “Russian” agent came to his door, told him that “he knows”, and to meet him at a park. Kelley had no idea who this guy is, so gave no indication of knowing what’s going on. What does this tell the F.B.I? That this guy is really a super-spy, man he’s REALLY clever. He’s even onto the fact that we’re trying to sting him!

Then, the F.B.I. got a recording of the real spy Hansen talking with his Russian handlers. The conclusion? This Kelley guy is REALLY clever, he knows he could be recorded, so he got SOMEONE ELSE to pick up and deliver his packages for him to the Russians! But then (Deus Ex Machina) one of the agents on the team finally said, “That’s Bob Hansen”, recognizing his voice.

Even after it was determined beyond a doubt that the spy was Hansen, noone bothered to tell Brian Kelley that he is no longer suspect. For 4 months he did not know. He found out from reading it in the news.

 Life imitates art, huh? CAN life be as ludicrous as portrayed in ItaB? By golly, it CAN! Nabokov is not writing fiction, he’s writing a parody of reality. There is ignorance in the world that does not sleep. And supported/condoned by bureaucracy, arrogance, and lack of concern for individual suffering, it can bring horrifyingly comic endings to hapless people.

I can’t help but think of parallels in the book while watching this 60-minutes segment.

 1. The F.B.I. is like the Rodrig and Rodion. They “schmooze” Cincinnatus (Kelley). It’s important to them that he thinks they’re the good guys, but they care squat about him. All while trying to entrap/toy with him, they act as if he’s one of their own, his well-being of importance to them, yet all they are doing is playing with him for their own pleasure/purposes.

2. Yet, the hypocrisy of their speech and actions betray them, to those who can observe. They blindly follow a “randomly” selected path and deviate not from it, even at the cost of Reason.

3. And in the end, there is a Deus Ex Machina, where reality intrudes and the dream/nightmare melts away.

Now, before you’re all thinking that I’m a bleeding-heart leftist anti-government anarchist, I assure you I am not. I respect our political institutions and I thank my stars pretty darn often for the Rule of Law. But, there are flaws even in our greatest endeavors, and Truth must be accepted in its full glaring, head-aching, eye-wounding, vividness.

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 10:28:58

: Nabokov is

: not writing fiction, he’s writing a parody of

: reality.

This summarizes (and renders unnecessary) my long-winded commentary on the book. This is exactly what I thought about the Beheading. It is a parody of reality, of justice system, of hospitals, of self-centered relatives, of teachers ignorant of children’s pysche, of authority, of lack of our empathy. It is a parody of our indifference to the “doomed”.

Absurdities happen all the time, especially in the legal system (and more so in some countries) and this was Nabokov’s way of provoking the reader to find similarities (as Hanh did) with real life.

I found this posting very relevant. It made me find my own word about the book. I didn’t know how to define my thoughts before.

It also reminded me a million absurdities I see in my own or in my friends’ lives. Each of these are as bizarre as the things happen in Beheading. The only difference is all those things do not happen all to the same person and all at the same time. Nabokov simply took ridiculousness, padded it up, and concentrated it all in one cell.

Lale

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 11:34:53

: 2. Cincinnatus and his “guilt.” Nabokov’s

: rendering of Cincinnatus’ crime and guilt were

: brilliant, and show a commentary on the nature of

: behavior and law within any society. C. was

: convicted of “gnostical turpitude,” which,

: to the best of my estimation, merely means that he

: refused to go along with the norms of his society.

: He refused to become one of them, and in doing so

: proved himself to be a deviant worthy of punishment.

: Nabokov satirises the notion of law and normalcy by

: demonstrating that “deviant” is entirely

: in the eye of the examiner, and that if an

: individual voluntarily (or even involuntarily) does

: not conform to the thoughts, beliefs, assumptions,

: and conclusions of the broader society, he/she is

: not worthy of a place in that society. Cincinnatus’

: insistence on not “playing along” even

: during his incarceration only prove the point that

: he IS guilty of his crime. A brilliant satire of

: the notion that laws and normalcy are not arbitrary

: and are based on a ‘universal’ code.

I agree with this one hundred percent. It is one of my favourite topics: The Different and how we deal with The Different. I have always loved reading about the misery reserved for The Different. I find this theme in many books, in Camus’ L’Etranger, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case… It fascinates me, our lack of will and skill to accept the different.

The book was funny but painfully so. How they tortured Cincinnatus! How cruel that tunnel “joke” was! I am sure we torture all the Cincinnatuses, not by digging “joke” tunnels but in very many other ingenious ways.

 There were some hilarious sections like when the entire household complete with furniture, kittens and wife’s new beau, come to visit. The father-in-law keeps shaking his cane at Cincin and saying “woe woe”.

My favourite part of the book is when Cincin’s mother comes to visit him. This is what he says:

“… And why is your raincoat wet when your shoes are dry – see, that’s careless. Tell the prop man for me.”

Even he cannot help but think that it’s all a play.

“No, no, don’t let it degenerate into farce. Remember, this is a drama. A little comedy is all right, but still you ought not to walk too far from the station – the drama might leave without you.”

Did anyone else think that Rodion the guard and Rodrig Ivanovich the director were the same person? Or is that just an editorial mistake. There are two parts where Rodion and Rodrig get mixed up. For instance Rodion takes Cin down from the chair which he had put on the table and then climbed on. Then, the director says “I just got him down from the chair myself, he was about to fall.” Then, a little later, the lawyer, the director and Cin are going up to the terrace. All of a sudden, the director becomes Rodion. Could you please re-read pages 33-34 and let me know, and I the one who is confused?

Lale

~

Posted by Hanh on 5/2/2003, 2:42:59

: Did anyone else think that Rodion the guard and Rodrig

: Ivanovich the director were the same person? Or is

: that just an editorial mistake. There are two parts

: where Rodion and Rodrig get mixed up. For instance

: Rodion takes Cin down from the chair which he had

: put on the table and then climbed on. Then, the

: director says “I just got him down from the

: chair myself, he was about to fall.” Then, a

: little later, the lawyer, the director and Cin are

: going up to the terrace. All of a sudden, the

: director becomes Rodion. Could you please re-read

: pages 33-34 and let me know, amd I the one who is

: confused?

 Lale, my pages 33-34 are different. I have the Vintage International publication. Which chapter is that section in? I’ll look by that.

~

Posted by Lale on 6/2/2003, 11:51:37

: Lale, my pages 33-34 are different. I have the Vintage

: International publication. Which chapter is that

: section in? I’ll look by that.

The problem is in Chapter Three. It is only 8 pages long. If you can re-read it (especially the first few pages), paying extra attention to Rodrig the director and Rodion the guard, you will see that, either by mistake or intentionally, they become interchangeable.

 At the very end of Chapter Two:

“Rodion the jailer brought a dozen yellow plums in a round basket lined with grape leaves, a present from the director’s wife.”

Then, in Chapter Three:

‘Listen to him,’ chuckled the director —–

‘Oh, my friend, —–‘ sighed the lawyer.

‘Yes, sir,’ continued the former, ‘———–Last night I brought him some of them plums ———-‘

And from that point on the director becomes Rodion.

Lale

Posted by Hanh on 8/2/2003, 21:36:48

: The problem is in Chapter Three. It is only 8 pages

: long. If you can re-read it (especially the first

: few pages), paying extra attention to Rodrig the

: director and Rodion the guard, you will see that,

: either by mistake or intentionally, they become

: interchangeable.

I think this is intentionally, Lale. Perhaps it serves to show that Cincinnatus does see the fabric of the Absurb world fraying, even as early as Chapter 3.

This occurs again more obviously in the very end (last page), after C stood up from the chopping block and sees the whole canvas of the Absurb reality unraveling.

“Cincinnatus slowly descended from the platform and walked off through the shifting debris. He was overtaken by Roman, who was now many times smaller and who was at the same time Rodrig. … The last to rush past was a woman in a black shawl, carrying the tiny executioner like a larva in her arms.”

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 11:47:49

Poll: How many of you who have read Beheading, also read Kafka’s The Trial?

The two books are amazingly similar, in style and in concept. In fact, if one took out passages from one book and inserted them into the other book, maybe with slight changes such as the names, the reader could just as easily keep reading without suspecting any irregularity.

The same satire of the legal system, the disregard for the situation of the doomed, the similar absurd, surreal events and people.

Cincinnatus C. and Joseph K. are trapped in a condemnation that they don’t quite understand and they are both doing their best to get out of it, but everyone they encounter just seems to be a part a play or a nightmare.

Did Nabokov really not know about The Trial? I guess so. Coincidence is the best way to explain it. Otherwise, what did Nabokov do? He read The Trial and said “what a great book, I must write one exactly like it!” ???

 Lale

~

Posted by Hanh on 4/2/2003, 15:56:01

: Poll: How many of you who have read Beheading, also read

: Kafka’s The Trial?

Nabokov himself wrote in the foreword of my copy of the book:

“Emigre reviewers, who were puzzled but liked it, thought they distinguished in it a ‘Kafkaesque’train, not knowing that I had no German, was completely ignorant of modern German literature, and had not yet read any French or English translations of Kafka’s works. No doubt there do exist certain stylistic links between this book and, say, my earlier stories (or my later ‘Bend Sinister’); but there are none between it and ‘Le chateau’ or ‘The Trial’. Spiritual affinities have no place inmy concept of literary criticism,”

The similarities are probably coincidental, unusual as it may seem, similar to the simultaneous discovery of Calculus

He also said:

“I composed the Russian original exactly a quarter of a century ago in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.”

Hmm … This is both a guide and a dead end. Of all the obvious observations, Nabokov comes right out and said: NOT it! 🙂

~

Posted by Henrik on 3/2/2003, 23:37:31

I must admit I’m having a few problems reading the whole Beheading with enthusiasm. I mostly read it on the subway on my way to the office and back, and my own cell is not too different from that of Cincinnatus. And as for management and co-prisoners…

Furthermore, I’m not quite sure if I appreciate the mix of gloom and humor. The prison rules made me laugh out loud on the train. Any other views on this aspect?

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 11:54:03

: I must admit I’m having a few problems reading

: the whole Beheading with enthusiasm. I mostly read

Even though I finished the book in less than a week, I know what you mean. It is a small book, yet, it can get difficult at times. Especially when Cin is philosophizing all by himself. I found myself distracted too.

Lale

~

Posted by Hanh on 4/2/2003, 18:01:22

To me, I see in the novel 2 realities in which the characters flit about: one Absurd, and one Sane. The progression C makes from the one, to realization of the other, to a decision to choose is, I find, a delicately and superbly crafted mental journey.

 For all except Cincinnatus, the reality of the Absurd is 100% real. They live it like it was drama (serious), and not a farce. Crazy rules are religiously observed. “In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper”. It all makes sense to them, the world is as it should be. It is only the Sane that sees insanity in the Insane.

C however, is not completely emersed in the Absurd reality although he’s caught in it. He only has one foot in it, the other is in the Sane reality (the Tamara Gardens). He senses something not right, but in the beginning simply accepted it, albeit in disgust. “I am surrounded by some sort of wretched specters, not by people. They torment me as can torment only senseless visions, bad dreams, dregs of delirium, the drivel of nightmares and everything that passes down here for real life.”

He let himself be captured by it like a daily-fed tamed spider. There are times when he glimpses the Tamara Gardens, the Sane reality (it is the only organic, living thing in the novel– everything else is man-made), but he always fell back again to the Absurd.

Rather than leave the Absurd, at first he tried to the Sane into it, insisting that there be rationality, that promises are kept, that he be told the hour of his death. The problem is that the 2 cannot merge. The Absurd cannot be made logical. So the only way to escape is to leave it entirely. Even his lawyer foreshadowed it: “Perhaps your salvation was right in your very hands.”

In the beginning, the Absurd reality is more real to C. As the novel progresses, he shifts back and forth more frequently between the 2 realities (by the exercise of mental reflection via his writings). “Cincinnatus did not sleep, did not sleep, did not sleep–no, he was asleep, but with a moan scrambled out again — and now again he did not sleep, slept, did not sleep, and everything was jumbled.”

Further on, he sees more light, through reflections.

“I had a strange sensation last night — and it was not the first time –: I am taking off layer after layer, until at last … I do not know how to describe it, but I know this: through the process of gradual divestment I reach the final, indivisible, firm, radiant point, and this point says: I am! … I have been my own accomplice, who knows too much, and therefore is dangerous. I issue from such burning blackness, I spin like a top, with such propelling force, such tongues of flame, that to this day I occasionally feel (sometimes during sleep, sometimes while immersing myself in very hot water) that primordial palpitation of mine, that first branding contact, the mainspring of my ‘I’. How I wriggled out, slippery, naked! Yes, from a realm forbidden and inaccessible to others, yes. I know something, yes …”

He glimpses of the Sane reality, and knows he needs time to hash it out. “a little time gained, time, which is now so precious to me that I value every respite, every postponement … I mean time allotted to thinking … I know something. I know something. But expression of it comes so hard!”

He gets closer …

“I am here through an error — not in this prison, specifically — but in this whole terrible, striped world; a world which seems not a bad example of amateur craftsmanship, but is in reality calamity, horror, madness, error — and look, the curio slays the tourist, the gigantic carved bear brings its wooden mallet down upon me.”

(This is a reality which he now remembers that he’s known of since early childhood but had ignored, forgotten. “And yet, ever since early childhood, I have had dreams … In my dreams the world was ennobled, spiritualized; people whom in the waking state I feared so much appeared there in a shimmering fraction.”)

Further on, his mind becomes more certain of the Sane reality. “I repeat: there is something I know, there is something I know, there is something …”

Finally, in the end, he sees the truth in full, that both realities are equally real, that he has the choice of which he wants for himself.

“with a clarity he had never experienced before — at first most painful, so suddenly did it come, but then suffusing him with joy, he reflected: why am I here? Why am I lying like this? And having asked himself these simple questions, he answered them by getting up and looking around.”

And so he left the Absurd.

  ~

Posted by Hanh on 4/2/2003, 18:05:28

And Emmie, how does she tie in? To me, she is like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. She’s a creature of the Absurd world, but somehow has a link to the Sane (can leave Wonderland and come back).

From her ball playing (C hears the tap tap), C is lured to the wall where he sees a mural of the Tamara Gardens. He knew intuitively that she too can grasp the existence of the Sane reality. “‘Won’t you please take me out there?’ whispered Cincinnatus. ‘I beseech you'”.

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 22:56:00

: And Emmie, how does she tie in? To me, she is like the

Nabie, as I like calling him, in his foreword says: “The evilminded will perceive in little Emmie a sister of little Lolita …”

I must be one of the evilminded, I did see a little Lolita in Emmie.

The best page in the whole book is the first page. I loved this on page 1:

“So we are nearing the end. The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left …”

We are on the first page and Nabie says “we are nearing the end”, isn’t that marvelous? He did a similar thing in Laughter in the Dark, told the whole story in the first paragraph.

 And what about the “right hand holding the untasted part of the novel”? Has anyone ever thought of the right hand as testing the unread thickness of the book?

Brilliant.

Lale

 ~

Posted by moana on 5/2/2003, 2:15:32

I also loved the beginning of the book. Much more than the rest of it. The writing and characters were interesting and outright funny, but I liked Nabokov’s style much better than his story. Perhaps I’m not so much of an absurdist; the sorting out of reality vs absurdity seemed to take (my) focus away from the writing. I liked the end, though. Shoot, it’s just the middle part that I thought lacked something. 🙂

As for Emmie, I just really liked her character. She was one of the best parts of the entire story – just running around this empty fortress… She was loosely tied into the plot by Cincinnattus’ own mind, but in reality she was most like an observer than anything else.

Hmmm. Absurdism. I like magical realism better. Though that’s just my own preference. 3 stars.

~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 4/2/2003, 18:32:31

The really important things have already been said by all those readers in the western hemisphere, who were diligently posting impressive analyses of the book while I was asleep.

Still, you might like to read what I jotted down last week on the way the book was written, not necessarily what it all means (the others have already done that), but what Nabokov seems to have been doing. So what follows is not a coherent essay but just disjointed notes.

Somewhat puzzling book. Alienating.

The town and its inhabitant radiate a snug bourgeoisdom that harks back to the most narrowminded recesses of the nineteenth century, yet at the same time there are several hints that we are somewhere in the future – for instance, people used to fly aeroplanes but they have stopped using them, letting them rust away on the ground. All this is definitely alienating.

Cincinnatus’s world is populated by people unlike him: men and women full of false good cheer, who have developed skimming over the surfaces into an art, or more accurately: a way of life and, even worse than that, the only way of life allowed by law.

Cincinnatus’s crime is that he is not “transparent” like everybody else. They cannot read his thoughts/feelings. He has private thoughts, deep thoughts, maybe unpleasant thoughts! For this he must die.

Cincinnatus seems literally to be a prisoner of the mind, a virtual prisoner almost, at least that’s what the ending suggests, when everything disintegrates.

Nothing is real. Even the spider turns out to be a stuffed toy.

Like Henrik I am not entirely sure what to make of the book, but then maybe because this I too do a lot my reading while commuting 😉 The book was in turns intriguing, baffling, funny, profound, weird and I was never quite sure of its direction or of what Nabokov wanted with it. I did find it a worthwhile read, though, lest anyone think I did not appreciate the book. I am sure it will linger in my mind for a while.

~

Posted by Lale on 4/2/2003, 22:58:47

: future – for instance, people used to fly aeroplanes

: but they have stopped using them, letting them rust

: away on the ground.

(…)

: Nothing is real. Even the spider turns out to be a

: stuffed toy.

Anna, good points. I have missed both of these completely.

Lale

~

Posted by Dave on 5/2/2003, 4:31:28

 The time frame of the novel was sort of ambiguous, it seemed like something set in the 19th or early 20th Century, yet there were these hints, as Anna suggests, that the whole thing was going in the future.

For instance, when C. is creating a mental picture of what is going on in the city during his confinement, he imagines the people zipping about in “the electric wagonets in the shape of swans or gondolas” and then he describes the “clocklets” which click along the pavement, and adds “to think that these are the degenerate descendants of the machines of the past, of those splendid lacquered stream-lined automobiles” (p.74, Vintage edition).

~

Posted by moana on 5/2/2003, 2:17:46

: Cincinnatus’s crime is that he is not

: “transparent” like everybody else. They

: cannot read his thoughts/feelings. He has private

: thoughts, deep thoughts, maybe unpleasant thoughts!

: For this he must die.

reminded me a lot of Camus’ The Stranger. Simply because he doesn’t think the same way or let his feelings show, he is sentenced to die. Gnostical turpitude, indeed!

~

Posted by Hanh on 5/2/2003, 3:19:46

Anna, your post opened up an aspect of the novel I had not previously thought of.

I saw the novel purely from the perspective of Cinncinatus, how HE viewed his reality. But there is much more depth than that: how the OTHERS around him view THEIR reality. That’s a big bulk of the novel, which I almost ignored!

The prison staff is probably just as exasperated with Cincinnatus as he is with them. To them, he’s incorrigible, ungrateful, unreasonable. If the reality they live in IS the “correct” one, those criticisms WOULD be correct.

There IS logic in insanity, as long as the rules are consistent (if p then q). The rules, naturally, in a mad world, would also themselves be mad, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily illogical.

In our (real) world, the sane and insane collide, causing endless frustrations for both sets. If we were ALL sane, or ALL insane, there would be much less stress. 😉

Do you think that Nabokov is saying that one way is BETTER than the other? i.e., would he be comfortable with the choice of the word “insane” to describe how the prison staff sees how things should be, and “sane” to describe how C sees how things should be?

 Or, would Nabokov be more neutral about it, and simply say: that’s the way things are, choose your poison.

For the prison staff, IS the world they live in “bad” for THEM? Would the injection of sanity actually create chaos in their world?

~

Posted by Hanh on 5/2/2003, 3:30:40

: Do you think that Nabokov is saying that one way is

: BETTER than the other? i.e., would he be

Is Nabokov an author who writes with the aim of telling his readers that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to live in the world?

Of his works, I’ve only read “Lolita”, but my impression is that he is not. “Lolita” is not written by a man overly obsessed with morality, righteousness, or the right way man should live.

But hey, I could be an idiot.

 ~

Posted by Rizwan on 5/2/2003, 20:21:29

I think you’re right, Hanh. In fact, I think Nabokov would find repulsive the idea that literature in general (let alone his own work) might have some sort of moral component. I don’t think he, at least, is in the business of telling the reader what is right or wrong. Famously, “Lolita” dealt with pedophilia, and “Ada” deals with incest, but I don’t believe Nabokov presents these things in either case for the sake of condemning them.

From what I know of him and his novels, Nabokov tried to present invented worlds that were set apart from reality. Any similarities between the world of the novel and the real world were strictly coincidental, in a sense. The world of one of his novels existed in a bubble, and was self-contained. Any questions presented were left for the reader to determine the answer, if there was one. No judgements were made by Nabokov whatsoever, because doing so would have destroyed the idea of that world being self-contained, set apart from reality.

This is especially true of his later, English language novels–which “Invitation” was admittedly not among. But not having read “Invitation” myself, I don’t know if this book is an exception to his overall philosophy of literature or not. Like you, however, I doubt it. But then, maybe I’m an idiot as well! Very likely, actually…

BTW, sorry for interjecting in this discussion without having read the book. Feel free to let me know if you would like me to refrain from doing so again. I will understand completely.

~

Posted by Hanh on 6/2/2003, 5:40:58

: BTW, sorry for interjecting in this discussion without

: having read the book. Feel free to let me know if

What’s this, what’s this? Slacking off on your social and literary obligations? What’s the excuse, Rizwan?

~

Posted by Lale on 6/2/2003, 11:17:29

: What’s this, what’s this? Slacking off on your social

: and literary obligations? What’s the excuse,

: Rizwan?

The new prof is cracking the whips.

We were in need of that kind of authorithy in here.

(He has no excuse, Prof, he publicly admitted that he was out dining with the person who actually chose this book.)

Lale

~

Posted by Rizwan on 6/2/2003, 17:42:31

Um…hmmm…how to get myself out of this one? Hey, I liked it better when I was professor! Then I could slack off whenever I wanted, and nobody could say a thing. But these days, with Professor Hanh and her dutiful graduate assistant Lale running the show, now it’s all work work work!

Seriously though, I’m sorry for being such a slacker. I have plenty of good excuses for this, but I won’t burden you with those right now. I’ll just promise not to let it happen again. 😉

~

Posted by Hanh on 6/2/2003, 18:34:22

: (He has no excuse, Prof, he publicly admitted that he

: was out dining with the person who actually chose

: this book.)

I smell a collusion.

… A diner in DC

[Chris] So, you read “Invitation”?

[Rizwan] Pppffff. Right.

[Chris] Me either. I bet everybody else did though, ha ha. At first I thought making them read “Infinite Jest” was a stroke of comic genius, but this one! They’re probably all just glad to be saved from my first choice.

[Rizwan] You still should have chosen “The Sheltering Sky”. There’s 20 bucks in there for you. Standing offer.

[Chris] I can’t do that to the poor souls, then leave the country so I can’t be tracked down. You like that excuse about not having Internet access, eh?

[Rizwan] Yes, good one. So you’ll have a T1 to your room?

[Chris] Yeah, but I have to share with another guy. Government budget for ya.

~

Posted by Hanh on 6/2/2003, 5:44:11

: BTW, sorry for interjecting in this discussion without

: having read the book. Feel free to let me know if

: you would like me to refrain from doing so again. I

: will understand completely.

The only thing I want you to refrain from is from refraining to post. How can you have such bright insights into the book from NOT having read the book? It’s almost scary, you know. 😉

I do find that the exercise of comparing different works of same authorship can be as enjoyable as the books themselves. Especially an author of extraordinary style.

Great insights, Rizwan. More is better. Brain works good. Keep it coming. 😉

~

Posted by Lale on 6/2/2003, 11:22:39

: I do find that the exercise of comparing different

: works of same authorship can be as enjoyable as the

: books themselves.

I agree.

Participation is better than no-participation. The more the merrier.

Lale

~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 5/2/2003, 12:17:11

Hanh wrote:

: Do you think that Nabokov is saying that one way is

: BETTER than the other? i.e., would he be

: comfortable with the choice of the word

: “insane” to describe how the prison staff

: sees how things should be, and “sane” to

: describe how C sees how things should be?

: Or, would Nabokov be more neutral about it, and simply

: say: that’s the way things are, choose your poison.

Hm, good question. First of all, I wouldn’t automatically qualify Cincin as sane and the rest of his world as insane. To us of course he is the only sane person in a world that doesn’t make sense. We automatically identify with the only person that to us acts and thinks normally, but from the perspective of the novel it is the other way around: Cincin is the weirdo, the rest is sane. Strictly from this viewpoint it is hard to say which of the two is “right”. All those men and women that we think act absurdly and insanely are obviously happy and functioning well within their world. And as Hanh pointed out this world is consistent enough: it is only absurd from where we stand. Nevertheless, I think Nabokov does condemn them, namely for their incapacity to tolerate “deviants”. Eradicating someone who cannot be understood, who is not permanently chipper and cheerful (never mind that he has never harmed anybody), is not the sign of a viable society.

Now about the ending. Hanh writes “Finally, in the end, he sees the truth in full, that both realities are equally real, that he has the choice of which he wants for himself.” That seems the right interpretation to me, but it also poses more questions. Does Nabokov mean to say that we can really be only prisoners of our own mind? That respressive societies, such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany at the time of writing, can be escaped from in this way? That this is just a matter of choice? Or does this novel have nothing to do with totalitarian regimes but just with the (rather more trivial) pressures of society to conform?

~

Posted by Hanh on 6/2/2003, 8:36:32

: questions. Does Nabokov mean to say that we can

: really be only prisoners of our own mind? That

: respressive societies, such as Soviet Russia and

: Nazi Germany at the time of writing, can be escaped

: from in this way? That this is just a matter of

: choice? Or does this novel have nothing to do with

: totalitarian regimes but just with the (rather more

: trivial) pressures of society to conform?

In the novel, I think Cincinnatus’ choices are limited by a cloud of ignorance (in his own mind). He did not know that he had a choice of exiting. That ability to choose is a truth hidden in his mind–he had to delve into himself to find it.

However, in real life (our world), I think that we know (intellectually) that we have choices. What we do NOT have is:

1. the will or courage to choose a path regardless of consequences,

and

2. the freedom from human attachments — those bonds (love of children, money, comfort, etc.) which make some choices simply emotionally unsustainable. (Hence many people cannot think of death as a choice).

Having said that, I’ll get back on-track to the question at hand: I don’t think Nabokov aims to consider ALL situations where choices are made (e.g. those made in the face of real evil). He created a highly fanciful world perhaps so that it could not possibly be identified as real, and hence extrapolated with specificity.

 Still, lack of expansiveness aside, I find the ending especially wonderful and valid in real life: the more vital the decision, the more we DON’T know, until the very end, what we are capable of doing (just like Cincinnatus).

Would I hide a Jewish family in 1944 Germany? I cannot answer to myself this question with truth. I simply do not know! How can I possibly know? Unless I were there, then, looking into the eyes of my family, and hearing the knocks at the door.

Posted by Lale on 6/2/2003, 11:08:56

: Would I hide a Jewish family in 1944 Germany? I cannot answer to myself this question with truth. I simply do not know! How can I possibly know? unless I were there, then, looking into the eyes of my family, and hearing the knocks at the door.

I often ask these kinds of questions to myself too. I’d like to think I would say “yes, yes, a million times yes, of course I would, I wouldn’t even think twice”, but the real answer is “I don’t know”.

Lale

~

Posted by Rizwan on 6/2/2003, 20:42:16

Like both of you, Hanh and Lale, I’ve thought many times about what I would do in such a situation. Of course, my first instinct is to say, no doubt, there is no choice but to hide Jewish families. How could I live with myself if I didn’t?

But then I start thinking about how much courage doing something like that would really take. It’s easy to be courageous in hypothetical situations, but when it comes to the real thing, what would I really do? Would I really exhibit the type of courage and conviction necessary to do such a thing? And what if other factors were involved. What if I had small children of my own, or a wife pregnant with our first child–would I then decide to put their safety in jeopardy to help people I don’t even know? I still want to say yes, but I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know for sure…

~

Posted by Hanh on 7/2/2003, 19:53:07

: question at hand: I don’t think Nabokov aims to

: consider ALL situations where choices are made (e.g.

: those made in the face of real evil). He created a

: highly fanciful world perhaps so that it could not

: possibly be identified as real, and hence

: extrapolated with specificity.

In other words, Anna, I think that Nabokov is refering to the Prison of the Mind– the psychological limits which man permits in himself–and not to the physical duress in the real world. In that mental prison, we have the power to escape, but the effort is not without toil.

We cannot “think” real suffering out of existence. The book leaves all indications of real suffering unsaid because they are not relevant. There is no exposition of emotional elements, such as true grief, pain, suffering, despair, because the journey is one of the mind. (Where emotions are touched upon, they are light and dominated by logic. This is purposely done, I think. Nabokov can certainly make any emotional visceral had he aimed to do so.)

The others do not imprison (the mind of) Cincinnatus. It is C who allows himself to be in the prison where they habituate — they are merely props. He could have left any time, if he saw the truth that his being there is of his own permission.

I think the novel hints that the theme that, like Cincinnatus, we also can extract ourselves from the limits we allow in our own minds. When people do not live up to their potential, that is due to the mental limits they place on themselves (of their own choosing), and not to external limitations.

~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/2/2003, 20:28:55

Very good thinking, Hanh. I am impressed and you’ve convinced me. The novel is beginning to make more and more sense to me, as I was sure would happen (ask Lale, I told her I was certain that everything would be illuminated for me in our discussion). I think the facts that there is never any real physical suffering and that Cincinannatus is surrounded by props are crucial – for the reasons you’ve just mentioned.

 ~

Posted by Hanh on 8/2/2003, 17:49:55

Thought thread #1: Open advert for readliterature.com

I just finished reading the “Invitation” reviews on Amazon.com. Several people gave 5-stars to “Invitation” without being quite certain what the book is clearly about. Some did so (it appears to me) simply because it was written by Nabokov (not quite a legit reason for 5-star rating, methinks).

This indicates to me that they do not have the benefit of this great site to hash out their understanding of this complex novel with fellow fans. I don’t think this novel can be understood without discussion.

For myself, the effort of composing the posts helped me to consolidate my own thoughts. If I had simply put the novel down and gone onto the next book, as I would normally do, the real significance of the novel would have been lost to me. This little gem would have been lost to me!

Thought thread #2: “Invitation” to “The Trial”

In the reviews, there are numerous comparisons between Invitation and The Trial (even the “official” review). I think that’s understandable, but something Nabokov may scoff at.

My own thoughts are that: there is no correlation between the themes of the 2 novels. The similarities between them are coincidental, situational-only, and insignificant.

Nabokov himself wrote (pardon my re-quoting it again here):

“Emigre reviewers, who were puzzled but liked it, thought they distinguished in it a ‘Kafkaesque’train, not knowing that I had no German, was completely ignorant of modern German literature, and had not yet read any French or English translations of Kafka’s works. No doubt there do exist certain stylistic links between this book and, say, my earlier stories (or my later ‘Bend Sinister’); but there are none between it and ‘Le chateau’ or ‘The Trial’. Spiritual affinities have no place inmy concept of literary criticism,”

My take on the difference between the 2 is that:

– The Trial exists in reality. The fear/anxiety/life and death situations are real (Nazi Germany, Russian gulags). Here imprisonment cannot be escaped from. Evil is not imaginary. Pain is agonizing. Control of one’s life is external.

– Invitation is about the “inner prison” (the mind of man) and the psychological barriers he allows himself to believe which in the end can “doom” him. But here, imprisonment can be escaped from because man is his own warden. The control is internal.

Nabokov also wrote:

“I composed the Russian original exactly a quarter of a century ago in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.”

This further indicates that he does not mean the novel to have any bearing with the physical world.

Someone wise once said to me: posing the right question is 70% of the work. Thank you (and you know who you are) for posting the great questions that brought me along this journey.

~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 9/2/2003, 7:44:44

 After reading Hanh’s post I checked out the readers’ reviews at Amazon and it’s true, a lot of people seem to be clueless as to what they’ve been reading, but have the attitude of “well guys, this is a writer with a great reputation so let’s give him 5 stars, just so that everybody knows we are able to appreciate great literature, whether we understand it or not – probably the less we understand of it the better it must be”.

I am exaggerating of course. But as Hanh says, this is certainly a novel that needs to be discussed with other readers and therefore I think Chris did an excellent job in choosing it.

But I don’t think it’s a great novel. It’s an interesting novel, but not a great one. Why? Because it should have added up to more in the end. I like the premise that is revealed to us in the final pages (we all create our own prisons), but when you start reading back there is not enough that gives you added insights into this premise. It is not that I all of sudden want every paragraph to make perfect sense to me in the light of this revelation, it is just that all of the preceding 190 pages are left with very little meaning at all, because nothing really happened, it was just a figment of C.’s imagination. In a way this is a statement, too, of course. It probably aims to tell us that in failing to see that our minds are really free (“Die Gedanken sind frei” as the Germans say) we create a world that is meaningless and absurd. I would have liked this viewpoint to be conveyed with more force, I would have liked it to make more of an impression on me, I would have liked to shattered by it! Now I was left a bit with the feeling that you have after seeing the hero of a movie go through the most harrowing experiences and in the final images watch her wake up, to find that it was all just a dream.

 Final appreciation of the novel? Not sure. I am vaccilating between 3.5 and 4 stars.

Posted by Lale on 9/2/2003, 15:08:08

: of this great site to hash out their understanding

: of this complex novel with fellow fans. I don’t

: think this novel can be understood without

: discussion.

I agree. I learned a lot from our discussions and appreciated the book better.

: between the themes of the 2 novels. The

: similarities between them are coincidental,

: situational-only, and insignificant.

I believe Nabokov, but I don’t think the “similarities” are insignificant. The similarity (singular, because I think there is only one and that is the book is “kafkaesque”)

The similarity between the two books is above and beyond the “situational”. The book reads as if it was written by Kafka. And, I think this is tremendously significant especially because Nabie had never even heard of Kafka before. You really have to read both books to understand this. You know the famous story, one judge’s (I believe a supreme court justice) definition of porno: “I may not be able to define pornography but I know when I see it.” Well, I may not be able to define kafkaesque but I know when I see it. Invitation to a Beheading is one kafkaesque book.

Lale

~

Posted by Hanh on 9/2/2003, 19:55:33

So friends, we agree not to agree, as we agree that our discussions have been enriching. It’s a wonderful thing certainly, that we are not all like-thinking automatons!

My vote for our final tally for this novel is 4 stars. I would give it a 4.5, but I am also taking into consideration the question of “would I recommend this to friends”.

4 stars indicate some reservation because I think there is a distinct possibility they may not like it (in which case all my future recommendations may be disregarded by said friends, who will reference this recommendation going forward as proof of my addled-mindedness. Credibility at stake here!!)

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