Novel review: “Invitation to a Beheading” by Vladimir Nabokov

By | February 12, 2018

The novel Lolita, written in 1955 by Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, is a classic piece of literature that I think many people are at least vaguely familiar with (heck, even Sting has apparently read it back in the 80s). While I admit I haven’t read it, recently at the library I stumbled upon another book by Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, which I decided to give a read.

Besides the name recognition of Nabokov, the marketing blurb on the back of the book really caught my interest. Another reason I picked this book is that I am trying to be able to understand, and hopefully emulate English from that period of time in some of my translations. Finally, this book is interesting from a translation point of view because the translation was done by the author’s son Dmitri in (I assume tight) coordination with him. Vladimir himself was quite well versed in English to the extent that he wrote Lolita in English (and then translated it to Russian himself).

Invitation to a Beheading is one of those novels that is more about atmosphere, writing style, and philosophical implications than a complex story. The book begins with the main character being imprisoned and sentenced to death for the incomprehensible crime of “gnostical turpitude”. To avoid spoiling anything for potential readers, I’m not doing to talk much else about what happens, but I will say that has a strong absurdist angle, or perhaps surrealist. (By the way, I was upset when I discovered that the marketing blurb for the book actually gave away one of the key plot developments, so I would highly recommend to not read it any such summaries of the story.)

Just to get it out of the way, I’ll go ahead and say it now–this book is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a thought-provoking piece of classic literature.

I was going to say, “It’s relatively short, so it’s good for a quick read,” but (for better or worse) this book actually took me quite a long time to get through. It’s difficult in many ways: long sentences, long paragraphs, uncommon words, you name it. Part of the book is the ramblings of the main character that do not infrequently touch on deep (or cryptic, depending on your comprehension level) subjects.

I know very little of Russian literature, nor do I suspect a bad translation; rather, I feel this is just Nabakov’s unique style. I think that for a majority of readers it will be a serious expenditure of time and effort to figure out what is going on, but I personally felt it was definitely worth the time. I won’t claim to have actually understood what the book was about (I’ll leave that to scholars, though there seems to be some interesting theories about Socrates and Gnosticism), but there was great satisfaction in obtaining a rough understanding of this challenging work.

Besides the difficulty of the writing itself, Nabokov’s descriptive ability is commendable. He manages to make what would normally be mundane descriptions into something special using carefully crafted prose. It may be obvious to any lover of classic literature, but a long, wordy writing style like Nabokov’s is not done to make the book a burden to read, it’s done to (among other things) help place emphasis where the author desires and to slow down moments to something like bullet-time level. For example, a good way to describe a person lost in thought (to the point where they shut out the outside world) is a massively long paragraph.

From a translation perspective, it was interesting to see what sorts of English phrasing was “acceptable”. I say that because some (perhaps many) phrases felt a tad awkward, but rather than a fault with the translation I think that is more a function of when the book was written, plus the author’s unique (and long-winded) style here. Actually, I did a little research and it turns out that Nabokov is known for his extremist view on literal translations, as opposed to those which sound natural but stray from the original text’s literal meaning. Given that, is possible that if someone did a completely new translation some parts might be more “readable”, but in this case it is clear the translation is clearly in line with the author’s intentions, so one could argue that a more appropriate translation could not be made. Here is an interesting article about two styles of translation and Nabokov’s view on the matter. (I’m actually glad to hear that this translation is acknowledged as being extremely literal because it confirms my sense of the text was on target)

Invitation to a Beheading was truly an educational experience, as a reader, a writer, and as a translator. I had been into primary modern novels in the last few years so it was a refreshing wakeup call to what “real literature” encompasses. I don’t mean (just) old and hard-to-understand, but deep and meaningful. Although I doubt whether Nabokov’s style could sell too well in the modern literature market, there is a great deal of technique and ingenuity to learn from it.

You can read the whole novel for free on the Internet Archive here, however I still suggest buying a copy if you can afford to in order to show publishers that there is still interest for translated works.

To close with, I’ll give a brief excerpt–a paragraph that I feel typifies Nabokov’s descriptive style. In case you are concerned, it doesn’t give away any of the story.

(From chapter eleven, pg. 119 of this version).

 

Of the three items of furniture — cot, table, chair — only the last was movable. The spider also moved. Up above, where the sloping window recess began, the well-nourished black beastie had found points of support for a first-rate web with the same resourcefulness as Marthe displayed when she would find, in what seemed the most unsuitable corner, a place and a method for hanging out laundry to dry. Its paws folded so that the furry elbows stuck out at the sides, it would gaze with round hazel eyes at the hand with the pencil extended toward it, and would begin to back away, without taking its eyes off it. It was most eager however, to take a fly, or a moth from the large fingers of Rodion — and now, for example, in the southwest part of the web there hung a butterfly’s orphaned hind wing, cherry-red, with a silky shading, and with blue lozenges along its crenelated edge. It stirred slightly in a delicate draft.

 

There are many artistic things about this passage, but I especially like the creative comparison between the process of hanging out laundry and how a spider builds a web in a makeshift fashion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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