Nabokov’s Games

January 28, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Okay, that’s a lie: I finished this a few days ago.  But, well, I was on the road while reading most of it and find it still on my mind.  Plus, while I could write my thoughts on the interesting view of history in Good Omens, or on that book’s kind of new-agey religion (and–beware!–I may just yet), I’m more compelled to get down the parts of Invitation that I want to think about more, before I forget them.

a) In the second paragraph of this book, Nabokov drops this perplexing little passage:

“So we are nearing the end.  The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and–O horrible!”

In retrospect, once you’re acclimated to Nabokov’s shifting in and out of first person (both singular and plural) to take us in and out of Cincinnatus’s mind (or at least mindset; N being N, he plays very tricky games with perspective and voice), you can pass this off as simply a metaphor for the death sentence just handed down: the novel is life, about to end.  But, see, it doesn’t read like that when you first experience it.  When I read it, I grasped the metaphor for C’s death, but it felt much more like an authorial interjection–a (here comes the M-word) metafictional device to make us feel as though we were reading the end of a much longer novel–a heap of phantom pages in our left hand, barely used to the feel of the physical book we’ve just started.  And it does seem, throughout this book, that the reading experience is very much on N’s mind.  C’s reading the newspapers in the morning, and the “ancient” magazines with their pictures of automobiles from the fortress library, for instance.  There must be some scholarship on this.   I need to look into it.

b) Two of Nabokov’s “Easter egg” stories-within-stories also caught my eye (minifictions, rather than meta-).   First, there’s the novel Quercus, a 3,000-page monster telling the story of an oak tree and, through that story, the historical events it may have been party to.  It’s pretty clear N hates this idea, even though C calls it the best his age has produced (backhanded praise, surely).  But, of course, N being N, I wonder if something else is going on here.  Why Quercus?

Then there’s  the photo album compiled by Pierre, called a “photo-horoscope,” a “series of photographs depicting the natural progression of a given person’s entire life.”  The album C looks through contains images of Emmie, the director’s young daughter, in various costumes and with appropriate makeup as she becomes a woman, until her “death” at age 40.  It’s another instance of the fakery of this world, but seems such a compelling one.

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