Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000208, Fri, 18 Feb 1994 09:13:57 -0800

Beheading (fwd)
NABOKOVIANS: The following material is from a regular newspaper column
written by Clarence Brown of the Comparative Lit. Dept. at Princeton.
Professor Brown reports that it came about as a result of reading
INVITATION TO A BEHEADING with an undergrad class. This in turn led him to
wonder what might be the reaction of "l'homme moyen sensuel," i.e. the
readers of his column, to the seemingly ambiguous denouement of BEHEADING.
Although few NABOKV-L subscribers qualify as "(wo-)man-in-the-street"
respondents, I thought some of you might like to share your ideas on the
matter. Please address your responses to the net, unless you have
particular thoughts for Professor Brown. Please use the Subject Heading

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 15 Feb 94 14:52:20 EST
From: "Clarence F. Brown" <CB@PUCC.bitnet>
To: "Don J." <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Beheading

by Clarence Brown

This is a test. It is benign and friendly: just an assignment and a question.
When you've finished, kindly send your answer to me at the Email address
below or at the Department of Comparative Literature, 318 East Pyne,
Princeton, NJ, 08544.
The assignment is to read Vladimir Nabokov's novel Invitation to a
Beheading. The question is: what really happens in the last scene?
Here's a brief discussion of the novel. Nabokov (1899-1977) fled Bolshevik
tyranny in his native Russia and then, having become a famous Russian writer
in the tiny emigre world of Berlin, he had to flee another tyranny, that of
Hitler. His Jewish wife would certainly have died, like other members of
Nabokov's own family, in the camps.
But just before decamping for America and eventual global fame as a writer
in English, he wrote in Russian a farcical but deadly serious novel that
parodied both forms of totalitarianism. Years later he and his son translated it
into English.
In the Preface to that translation, Nabokov declared that the example of
Kafka had nothing whatsoever to do with his own novel. I take him at his
word, but I reserve the right to notice that there is a very strong resemblance.
Kafka's The Trial begins with a famous sentence: "Someone must have been
telling lies about Joseph K., for one fine morning, without his having done
anything wrong, he was suddenly arrested."
And Nabokov's novel begins: "In accordance with the law the death
sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper." Both heroes, who
are anything but heroic in any conventional sense, are simply guilty from the
start, without explanation. Cincinnatus is immediately clapped into the cell tha
he will occupy for the 20 chapters of the short novel.
He and we are waiting for the sentence, beheading, to be carried out.
Everything in the novel tends towards this dire event, but when we reach the
place where it should happen, the author slightly blurs the scene, leaving some
readers feeling that C. escapes death and others that death IS his escape.
How to comment helpfully on the book without spoiling the suspense is a
problem, but I'll try.
C. is the only prisoner in a cavernous but not quite real prison. The town
surrounding it is something out of a saccharin German storybook. His capital
crime is called by the ridiculous name "gnostical turpitude," which must mean
some sort of wickedness having to do with knowledge (gnosis). One's first
guess is that he "knows too much" and that his sin is Original Sin (tasting the
fruit of the Tree of Knowledge).
The law that he has violated, however, concerns not the active (knowing)
but the passive (being known). He alone of all the citizens of this farcical
dictatorship is is not transparent but opaque: he refuses to be known. Everyone
else's soul must be produced on demand, like an internal passport. Cincinnatus
When they lead C. away to the scaffold, the phoney prison collapses behind
him. (When I spent the Korean War in Berlin, the lone prisoner in the vast
Spandau jail was mad old Rudolf Hess. When he died in 1987, they razed the
prison. Life plagiarizes Art.)
Your problem is to describe what "really" happens in the crucial final scene.
Did C., disgusted at the filthy burlesque, simply walk away from the
headsman's block? Or did the ax sever his head BEFORE, disgusted at the
filthy burlesque, he walked away? You tell me.