This is the third, and best, novel by Vladimir Nabokov that I have read. It was finally published in English in 1959. My edition is the Vintage International 1989 edition. I have to mention the cover . . . . before reading and through most of my reading, I thought the pink stuff on the cover was just some flower petals. I never looked too closely at it. However, I looked at it today and was creeped out – it’s a blurry photograph pinked out of people screaming or whatever. Distorted faces. It’s disturbing and I don’t like it at all. I think it is supposed to represent the people who visit the main character in jail.
I do not really like Nabokov. I find that he is an arrogant writer. I tend to think he was a scoundrel. Also, I tend to like realism more than surrealism or existentialism. So, Kafka and Nabokov et al. never appeal to me. Nevertheless, for some ridiculous reason, I keep reading Nabokov hoping to find a novel I will like. I abhor Lolita and I found Despair to be miserable. Invitation to a Beheading is actually quite good comparatively.
One of the things that I dislike about Nabokov’s novels is that there are chapters where nothing happens or it gets too obtuse for me to care about what happens. There are chapters in the middle of this novel that plod along and reality seems to drip away like some Dali painting or something. The existential questions that hang around in Despair are a little more articulated and contextual here in this novel, though.
I really like the name of the main character; I give Nabokov credit for using an unusual name. But the fact that Nabokov uses first name and then last initial makes it really seem like he’s copying Kafka or something. I don’t know – my distaste for Nabokov tends to color even the times I praise him. Anyway, Cincinnatus C. is the main character in this novel and he’s actually the only character in any Nabokov that I even liked a small bit.
The novel takes place in the three weeks Cincinnatus spends in jail between his sentencing and his execution. His crime(s) are not stated directly, much like Kafka novels. Sure there are some suggestions, but generally, I interpreted his crime as his being an authentic (existentialist) person. Throughout the novel, there are sections where Cincinnatus describes his past or the present in terms of his difference from those around him. Not in detail and specific, but as if he is fundamentally more real than they are. The other characters (named and unnamed) are parodies and inauthentic.
Overall, Cincinnatus has had a rather miserable life. Apparently, for most of it he hid his “real-ness” and pretended to be just like the society that he lives in. But, there were times they caught glimpses of him and recognized he was different. For example, his wife Marthe was really only a slut and cheated on Cincinnatus constantly – and this is even how she manages to visit him in jail. Now that he has been sentenced to death, he no longer pretends and almost fully welcomes his difference. He struggles to work with other people on their level – within their false system – but he only meets with frustration. Most of the people torment him psychologically. For example, his executioner is a real bastard toward Cincinnatus – but the prison director approves and praises the executioner. They toy with Cincinnatus’ hope and his requests. The only person that seems to have any genuine care for Cincinnatus is the director’s daughter, Emmie, who is just a young child. What is Nabokov’s obsession with little girls?
I really liked the parts of the writing where Cincinnatus is divided into two Cincinnatus. What I mean is, the actual Cincinnatus, who is in jail and who interacts with those around him and then the other Cincinnatus, who represents (in imagination) the “real” Cincinnatus. All of this is like riding a subway or a bus and gritting your teeth when teenagers are being obnoxious, all the while you are imagining yourself standing up and punching them in the head. Or when you are in a business meeting and it’s very droll and tedious and you act fascinated, but in your imagination you are pretending a giant alien insect is devouring your fellow businessmen. I think Nabokov could have played these parts out a little bit more, because he does a good job with this. And then, of course, this ends up being the key to the novel – the ending of how Cincinnatus is executed – or not.
There is all the typical Nabokov symbolism in the novel. Colors, butterflies/moths, and tattoos. But even with all of this, I only give this novel three stars. I think people who like existentialism would enjoy this novel. Also, people who really adore Kafka’s works will like this one. For me, it’s the best of the three I read, but it’s just not that great. Worth a read, if you’ve nothing else to read.