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Play, Dreams, And Creativity In An Early Nabokov Novel
on January 14, 2017
While in the middle of a long, difficult non-fiction study by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, I took time away to read a novel. The book I read, Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading" proved shorter but as thoughtful and if anything more obscure than Bellah's outstanding work. Nabokov (1899 -- 1979) wrote "Invitation to a Beheading" in Russian early in his career in 1935, several years before moving to the United States.
Nabokov's novel tells the story of a young man of 30, Cincinnatus C. Allusions may be important. Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman who defeated an invasion and then returned to his farm, refusing an offer of kingship. George Washington sometimes is called the American Cincinnatus. There are other important allusions in Nabokov's novel, including one to Socrates. Cincinnatus C. is arrested and sentenced to death by beheading for the strange, unexplained crime of "gnostic turpitude." Most of the novel is set in prison over a period of weeks while Cincinnatus awaits execution.
The reader gradually learns about Cincinnatus through his own words and those of the narrator which tend to merge together. The reader also learns of Cincinnatus' life in the jail surrounded by shadowy figures including the guard, the prison director, the director's daughter, a sole fellow-prisoner, a librarian, and other characters. Cincinnatus had led a lonely, frustrated life as a would-be writer. He was raised as an orphan, cuckolded repeatedly by his wife, and always felt himself a loner, misunderstood and neglected.
While in prison, Cincinnatus is obsessed with finding out the day of his execution. He wants to put his thoughts to paper, but he says he is unwilling to make the effort if his work is interrupted by his beheading. Part of the book consists of bizarre, surrealistic events during the incarceration while parts consist of Cincinnatus'/the narrator's brilliant full observations and passionate writing. There are long, beautiful if ranting passages of his feelings and observations which mark an astonishing writer.
The novel provokes thought and bears multiple interpretations. Various political interpretations might be offered focusing broadly on the individual and his relationship to an allegedly cruel, totalitarian, or shallow society. Such themes have become trite and commonplace and don't do justice to this book. I found the book more internalized and probably dream-like. Cincinnatus speaks of himself throughout as having a "double" and many of his strongest and longest reflections in the book are about the relationship between reality and dreams. The city in which the story is set and the characters bear little resemblance to any society regardless of how barbaric. To me the story is about an individual coming to terms with his own mortality and with his own creativity -- his need to be an artist and express himself even though most other people will fail to understand -- and setting it out in a story. In the dreamlike, unreal sequences of the story, Cincinnatus comes to independence and to a sense of freedom in senseless circumstances.
The book by Robert Bellah mentioned at the outset of this review helped prepare me for "Invitation to a Beheading". A major theme of that book was the importance of play to human life rather than mere work to earn a living. Art and writing are a form of "serious play" which illuminate one's life. Nabokov's book is playful in tone and, like play, should not be pushed but should be enjoyed. I found this book highly suggestive about the nature of freedom and of a creative life.