Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a BeheadingIn the Preface to Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov preempts his reader by dismissing any similarities between his novel and the works of Franz Kafka, claiming that, at the time of its composition, he had yet to even read Kafka. By novel’s end, we must either strain our credulity and accept a remarkable coincidence, or else suspect Nabokov of attempting to diminish the obvious debt owed to Kafka, for, in theme and plot, Invitation to a Beheading is every bit as companionate to Kafka’s works as it is anomalous to Nabokov’s.

The novel begins with its protagonist, Cincinnatus C., imprisoned alone in a mysterious fortress abutted by a steep cliff, awaiting his execution by beheading for the mysterious crime of “gnostical turpitude” – dangerous or immoral thinking, if you parse the words – and subjected to “that ignorance which is tolerable only to those living at liberty,” the ignorance of his hour of death. There is an element of the dystopian in the plot – being imprisoned for thought crime is the essence of totalitarianism – but Nabokov infuses it with a surrealism that can only be called Kafkaesque: on multiple occasions, for example, Cincinnatus finds himself on the verge of escape, only to be mysteriously returned to his cell, and one of the rules of his imprisonment requires that he “suppress nocturnal dreams whose content might be incompatible with the condition and status of the prisoner.” In his isolated moments of introspection, he offers us a clue to his imprisonment, an abiding sense of his own uniqueness: “you are not I, and therein lies the calamity.” The novel is open-ended enough to admit of multiple interpretations, but they must be grounded in the essential difference between Cincinnatus and his jailers, his inability to “feign translucence” and go about his life disguising his individuality.

At one point, Cincinnatus says, prophetically: “For thirty years I have lived among specters that appear solid to the touch, concealing from them the fact that I am alive and real – but now that I have been caught, there is no reason to be constrained with you. At least I shall test for myself all the unsubstantiality of this world of yours.” At a later juncture, when he is reminiscing with “lawless lucidity,” he writes,

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 inaccesible to others, yes. I know something, yes… but even now, when it is all over anyway, even now – I am afraid that I may corrupt someone? Or will nothing come of what I am trying to tell, its only vestiges being the corpses of strangled words, like hanged men…

So we have a protagonist convinced of his own uniqueness, and confirmed in his suspicions by his jailers, who are continually scandalized by his individuality and who will, inevitably, chop off his head. He “knows too much,” and is aware that this knowledge makes him dangerous, but is plagued with the fear that nothing will come of his truth, its vestiges being only “the corpses of strangled words.” In the context of the novel, it is his impending execution that most threatens his ability to speak truth, but I would like to suggest an allegorical reading as well. It is, for me at least, too tempting to see Nabokov in Cincinnatus, a Nabokov twenty years too young for the unqualified successes of Lolita and Pale Fire and struggling, perhaps, to find his voice.

Consider the following passage, coming shortly after Cincinnatus laments the world’s loss of the “ancient inborn art of writing”:

Not knowing how to write, but sensing with my criminal intuition how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and to share its neighbor’s sheen, heat, shadow, while reflecting itself in its neighbor and renewing the neighboring word in the process, so that the whole line is live iridescence; while I sense the nature of this kind of word propinquity, I am nevertheless unable to achieve it, yet that is what is indispensable to me for my task, a task of not how and not here. Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is incarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me. But what gleams shine through at night, and what–. It exists, my dream world, it must exist, since, surely, there must be an original of the clumsy copy…

Regardless of whether or not you indulge me in my allegorical reading – and, if not, I defy you to find a more transparent lamentation of a writer struggling against the bonds of his present artistic limitations contained within a work of fiction – this passage offers tantalizing insights into the nature of Cincinnatus’ imprisonment. Rather than ending in the separation of head from torso, Cincinnatus’ execution marks the end of his “horrible ‘here,'” which recedes amidst a “spinning wind” and “flapping scenery,” leading Cincinnatus “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.” The ending, read through the lens of the above passage, implies that Cincinnatus has managed to transcend his surrealist prison, the “dark dungeon” that brooked no individuality, and found sodality with what are, hopefully, “beings akin to him.” I can think of no more apt metaphor for the author’s task in writing a novel than creating, out of the bleakest of circumstances, a union of mind and spirit between writer and reader; this is the very distillation of fiction’s magic.