Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

Today, I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading. It’s a fairly short novel, at around 220 pages, and I finished reading it in a span of two days.

This is an interesting work, full of vivid imagery, surreal settings, and twisted, sometimes irrational, dialogue. The plot revolves around a young man named Cincinnatus C., who is condemned to death (by beheading) for committing a crime of “gnostical turpitude.” The crime itself is imaginary, so no definition is provided. The majority of the novel takes place inside a prison cell, where Cincinnatus is visited by jailers, an executioner who pretends to be a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who bring their furniture (not to mention household utensils and “sections of walls”) with them into Cincinnatus’s prison cell. The musings of Cincinnatus are bizarre: in one part of the novel, the protagonist imagines the characters as miniature people.

You’re unsure at first, but you discover maybe a quarter through the novel that Cincinnatus has grand visions (or illusions of grandeur). He has a notebook where he writes down his thoughts and what he encounters in his daily life (“to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena”) within the fortress in which he is confined. At times you think he is absolutely clueless about his situation, as the questions he asks may be mistaken for those coming from a child. Still, he tries to reconcile his (grim) situation…

You don’t really read this novel for its plot, absurd as it may be. You read it to digest the dialogue and Nabokov’s eloquent narration. At the end of the novel, Cincinnatus is taken to be hanged, and the way the ending unfolds is just sublime. I read it over multiple times just to make sure I followed (a foreshadowing three-fourths of the way into the novel: “Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself”).

If you haven’t read any of Nabokov’s work, don’t make this your first. I would recommend reading Nabokov’s Magnum opus, Lolita, first. Then, I highly recommend reading Pale Fire (which I enjoyed much more than Invitation to a Beheading).

Nabokov himself said of this novel: “The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures.” But prior to that sentence, the best line: “It [Invitation to a Beheading] is a violin in a void.” Take it for what it is.

The rest of this review is the presentation of certain quotes I found interesting, and where appropriate, my dissection of these quotes.

I waited until I finished the novel to read the foreword to the novel, which Nabokov composed in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona in June, 1959. Those familiar with the work of Kafka will claim that Invitation to a Beheading is similar to The Trial. But Nabokov tries to set the record straight, explaining:

“No doubt, there do exist certain stylistic links between this book, and say, my earlier stories (or my later Bend Sinister); but there are none between it and Le chateau or The Trial. Spiritual affinities have no place in my concept of literary criticism, but if I did have to choose a kindred soul, it would certainly be that great artist [Kafka] rather than G. H. Orwell or other popular purveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction. Incidentally, I could never understand why every book of mine invariably sends reviewers scurrying in search of more or less celebrated names for the purpose of passionate comparison. During the last three decades they have hurled at me (to list but a few of these harmless missiles) Gogol, Tolstoevski, Joyce, Voltaire, Sade, Stendhal, Balzac, Byron, Bierbohm, Proust, Kleist, Makar Marinski, Mary McCarthy, Meredith (!), Cervantes, Charlie Chaplin, Baroness Murasaki, Pushkin, Ruskin, and even Sebastian Knight. One author, however, has never been mentioned in this connection – the only author whom I must gratefully recognize as an influence upon me at the time of writing this book; namely, the melancholy, extravagant, wise, witty, magical, and altogether delightful Pierre Delalande, whom I invented.”

All of the authors Nabokov mentions which I am definite about, I have linked to the respective entries in Wikipedia. The ones that are unliked I elaborate below.

  1. Tolstoevski: This is an unusual reference, and I have never encountered it until reading this book. My guess this is an amalgamation of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
  2. Bierbohm: I have never heard of that name, and I don’t know who this in reference to. Most likely it is Max Beerbohm.
  3. Kleist: Another author with whom I’m unfamiliar. Perhaps it is Heinrich von Kleist.
  4. Makar Marinksi: I am absolutely clueless here. Google search doesn’t provide anything positive… So who is this?
  5. Meredith: I am not sure who “Meredith (!)” is in reference to, but my guess is for George Meredith (let me know if you think otherwise). In any case, why does this particular author deserve the “!” after his mention?
  6. Sebastian Knight: This character is hyperlinked, but it’s very interesting to me: it’s hard to imagine Nabokov getting defensive of his writing. Strange that Nabokov’s own creation would make that list, though perhaps not absolutely shocking given the nature of the novel which is about to unfold, after the reader finishes the foreword.

Quotes from Invitation to a Beheading

A description of a sunset outside Cincinnatus’s jail cell:

Time was advancing in arithmetical progression: it was now eight. The ugly little window proved accessible to the sunset; a fiery parallelogram appeared on the side wall. The cell was filled to the ceiling with the oils of twilight, containing extraordinary pigments. Thus one would wonder, is that some reckless colorist’s painting there to the right of the door, or another window, an ornate one of a kind that already no longer exists?

On non-certainty of events:

Two men, supposedly on a bench, were quietly conversing in the obscurity of a public garden.

Supposedly on a bench? This is the first clue in the novel that some things are not to be believed. Either they’re sitting on a bench or they aren’t: it’s hard to mistake a bench for a chair or other instrument on which one sits down.

On the use of the word twittering in the novel:

[O]nly in his twenties did he casually meet twittering, tiny, still so young-looking Cecilia C.

On childhood games (with how many are you familiar?):

They played ball, pig, daddy-longlegs, leapfrog, rumpberry, poke.

On nameless existence:

That which does not have a name does not exist. Unfortunately, everything had a name…

On undressing clothes and then some more:

He stood up and took off the dressing gown, the skullcap, and slippers. He took off the linen trousers and shirt. He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air…

An interesting repetition, as though the narrator is speaking to a child, reinforcing the view:

The loss of the object upset him [Cincinnatus]. The object was precious. He was upset by the loss of the object.

On reading and comprehension:

Without raising his eyes from the page Cincinnatus emitted an iambic assent, but his eyes no longer grasped the text.

There are eight rules for inmates within the fortress in which Cincinnatus is confined. The rules are enumerated, and some are absurd:

2. A prisoner’s meekness is a prisoner’s pride

3. You are firmly requested to maintain quiet between one and three P.M. daily

5. Singing, dancing and joking with the guards is permitted only by mutual consent and on certain days.

6. It is desirable that the inmate should not have at all, or if he does, should immediately himself suppress nocturnal dreams whose content might be incompatible with the condition and status of the prisoner, such as: resplendent landscapes, outings with friends, family dinners…

On illusions of grandeur and elevated senses, as told by Cincinnatus:

I am not an ordinary—I am the one among you who is alive—Not only are my eyes different, and my hearing, and my sense of taste—not only is my sense of smell like a deer’s, my sense of touch like a bat’s—but, most important, I have the capacity to conjoin all of this in one point—No, the secret is not revealed yet—even this is but the flint—and I have not even begun to speak of the kindling, of the fire itself. My life.

The above paragraph is interesting, as Nabokov is speaking to the reader here, allowing you to get a better glimpse of how Cincinnatus thinks. By this point in the novel (one fourth of the way through), you’re already positive that something isn’t right. What I like about the paragraph above is the narration, filled with interruptions of thoughts (there are seven dashes in that one sentence)…

Strange stuff occurring within the prison cell:

Here the walls of the cell started to bulge and dimple, like reflections in disturbed water; the director began to ripple, the cot became a boat.

Eventually, Cincinnatus was saved with “punting poles and grappling hooks” by the prison guards. “They fished him out,” the paragraph concludes.

Throughout the novel, there is a mention of a spider (who happens to have a great appetite) that lives in Cincinnatus’s cell. It’s interesting to find out what happens to the spider at the end of the novel, but this is Cincinnatus’s reaction to the spider:

He seemed particularly proud of the fact that the spider was enthroned in a clean, impeccably correct web, which had been created, it was clear, just a moment before.

M’sier Pierre, another prisoner in the novel, describes his personality:

I don’t want to boast, but in me, my dear colleague, you will find a rare combination of outward sociability and inward delicacy, the art of the causerie and the ability to keep silent, playfulness and seriousness…

Isn’t it the case that whenever one precedes with “I don’t want to boast” or “I don’t want to hurt your feelings” or “I don’t mean to be rude,” the result of the preface invariably comes to fruition?

Back in the old days, they didn’t have pencil sharpeners, and sharpened pencils with knives. Two ways to sharpen a pencil:

There are some who sharpen a pencil toward themselves, as if they were peeling a potato, and there are others who slice away from themselves, as though whittling a stick.

The probability of a future (can you explain this one mathematically?):

The probability of a future decreases in inverse proportion to its theoretical remoteness.

On dreams (what an incredible description):

But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind—as when you hear during sleep a dreadful insidious tale because a branch is scraping on the pane, or see yourself sinking into snow because your blanket is sliding off.

On speaking the proper language and expressing oneself:

I have as yet said nothing, or, rather said only bookish words. . . and in the end the logical thing would be to give up and I would give up if I were laboring for a reader existing today, but as there is in the world not a single human who can speak my language; or, more simply, not a single human who can speak; or, even more simply, not a single human; I must think only of myself, of that force which urges me to express myself.

A description of writing and signature:

A fleecily curling script, elegant punctuation marks, signature like a seven-veil dance.

Who are they? A mystery:

Alone in the dark, Cincinnatus smiled. I am quite willing to admit that they are also a deception but right now I believe in them so much that I infect them with truth.

One of many example in which Nabokov speaks to the protagonist, Cincinnatus (note the command in the parentheses):

Involuntarily yielding to the temptation of logical development, involuntarily (be careful Cincinnatus!) forging into a chain all the things that were quite harmless as long as they remained unlinked, he inspired the meaningless with meaning, and the lifeless with life.

On certain thoughts:

The thought, when written down, becomes less oppressive, but some thoughts are like a cancerous tumor: you express it, you excise it, and it grows back worse than before.

A contradiction of action, one of many that occurs in the novel:

Cincinnatus took one of these tears and tasted it: it was neither salty nor sweet—merely a drop of luke-warm water. Cincinnatus did not do this.

What is “this” referring to? It’s an unreferenced pronoun, indeed, but perhaps Cincinnatus didn’t taste that tear.

On events unfolding as Cincinnatus is led to his execution (some events are “apparent”):

The old electrically powered municipal hearse stood modestly at a slight distance. A combined brigade of telegraphers and firemen was maintaining order. The band was apparently playing with all its might, since the conductor, a one-legged cripple, was waving furiously; now, however, not a sound was audible.

The last word in the novel:

“…him”

Final thoughts

Invitation to a Beheading is a rich, descriptive novel; I am glad I read it. It is definitely not going to be the last Nabokov novel I read this year, so look for me to do another in-depth review in the future.

If you’ve read Invitation to a Beheading, what are your thoughts about it? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Why? Do you agree with my recommendation that one should read Lolita or Pale Fire first before trying to read Invitation to a Beheading? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

  1. Great review, Eugene. I think Invitation is where I first saw the word “stillicide”. I like that Nabokov knows 10x as many words in his 3rd language as I know in my first. About where to start… I think Pnin is the easiest. It’s short (even shorter than Invitation), and straightforward (unlike Pale Fire), and he keeps the funny-business to a minimum.

  2. At the end, he isnt brought to be hanged, but to be beheaded, as the title implies. Might want to edit that

  3. Hey great review and i love the exhaustive list of quotes that you have included in the review! I like this book although Lolita is definitely a masterpiece and should be read first as after reading Lolita is when I came to deify him completely as an author!!

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