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King, Queen, Knave – Vladimir Nabokov



Posted October 16, 2016 by

King, Queen, Knave – Vladimir Nabokov – 1928

Reviewed by: D.W. Cymbalisty  Date: 10 July 2001

This was Nabokov’s second novel, published when he was a mere 28 years old. Thirty-nine years later, after writing numerous other fabulous novels he said of King, Queen, Knave “of all my novels this bright brute is the gayest.” By this he meant that he enjoyed contemplating its “rapturous composition” and reminiscing of how the idea for it first came to him on the coastal sands of Pomerania. The book always had a special place in his heart.

The theme is in many ways similar to Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, as Nabokov himself admits in the Foreword to the revised English version. I love those other books dearly, but Nabokov’s contains several twists and turns that are even more dramatic and less likely for the reader to detect ahead of time than either of those other classic Husband/Wife/Paramour triangle stories.

The setting here is Berlin in the 1920’s. The young, unsophisticated Franz arrives on the doorstep of his rich uncle Dreyer with hopes of securing a job in his department store. He gets the job and repays Dreyer’s magnanimity by falling for his beautiful wife Martha. (Franz’s aunt? Hello!) Martha’s seduction of Franz seems to be motivated by something at least bordering on pure boredom, but at any rate, the triangle is set. Dreyer, oblivious to this development, plods on with his money-making schemes and inventions/diversions. Martha, in a departure from the more suicidal natures of Anna K. or Emma B. decides rather to begin clumsily plotting her husband’s murder so that she and Franz will be able to live happily ever after on his money.

But things are not so easy in anything Nabokovian are they? Well, things just don’t work out the way they’re supposed to here either, and that’s all I will say. Far be it from me to unravel a rope that Nabokov so skilfully stretched tight. By the end of this story Franz’s conscience lies in tatters, and Martha is…

The only reason I don’t give the book a perfect 5 stars is because the very ending left me a tad bewildered. I attribute that to a fault in my reading of it, and trust that you, being much sharper than I, will rate your experience with King, Queen, Knave a star higher than I did.


ReadLit Team


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