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Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

30 Jun

I’ll be sure to post more Nabokov profiles on here shortly, but since this is the one I read most recently, I wanted to be sure to write about it while it is still fresh in my mind.

Published: 1935-6 (Was originally a serial)

Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov

Genre: Fiction (political, existential)

Difficulty: Not really difficult.

Quick Read: Yes.

Synopsis: Cinncinnatus C. has been convicted of a crime known to everyone but him (the crime is “gnostical turpitude,” a term that has no definition whatsoever), and is sentenced to death by beheading. The only trouble is, he also does not know when his execution will take place. As he is held in an often absurd fortress under the ridiculous rules of the prison guards, with visits from his wanton wife, alienating in-laws, a brave but misguided young girl, and others, it seems that the only way out of the hell that is his life is his imminent death.

We only see Cinncinnatus’ true feelings when we as an audience are privy to his writings, where he displays a deep fear, sense of confusion, and the need to make the most of his life, despite the many ways he was wronged in the past. Yet, magically, when Cinncinatus is about to be executed, he realizes just how much power he had within the situation the whole time.

What makes this book awesome? A number of things make Invitation awesome. For one thing, though Lolita is probably Nabokov’s best known work and it is quite different from Invitation, Nabokov’s voice remains so unique and strong that you can tell it’s him. So, for fans of Lolita, for me personally, it made the book even more enjoyable.

It’s also got a really interesting political and intellectual edge to it regarding prisons, power dynamics, restriction of the mind and body, and other themes. I could imagine that for anyone with an interest in crime, punishment, and the penal system, this could be a really fascinating read. The ending contributes to that, and gives it a really distinct feel from any other sort of political fiction that I’ve ever read.

Some neat-o things to know:

  • Though everyone likens this book to Kafka’s works, Nabokov “alleges” he wasn’t familiar with Kafka at all when he wrote this. Riiiiiight, OK, Vlad.
  • According to Wikipedia (are you noticing a pattern, folks?), out of all his works he held this one in the “highest esteem.” I guess that’s significant? Hint hint, it’s significant.

Nabokov needed fresh air too sometimes, clearly. Too bad Cinncinnatus couldn't get any.

If you like this, try: KAFKA KAFKA KAFKA, Lolita by Nabokov, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Waiting for Godot or Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro