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Everybody's havin' them dreams
on August 23, 2007
I only came to know of this early Nabokov novel by reading the wonderful "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi (highly recommended), a study of the relevance of literature in the personal quest for freedom from the crushing weight of oppression. Certainly the protagonist of "Invitation to a Beheading," Cincinnatus C., is a relevant case in point, given that he has been sentenced to death for an obscure crime (gnostical turpitude)and is constantly under the manipulatory pressures of absurd agents of the state. In this he is not at all unlike Nafisi and all the other victims of Khomeini's revolutionary guards who interpret the crimes as they go along. Others may find some parallels in modern America.
Many have compared this Nabokov (written in 1935) to Franz Kafka, but the wellspring is really more deeply rooted in the existential guilt that plagues the modern psyche. In earlier times, all shared in the social code of justice and understood the right and wrong, whether or not they agreed with it; but in the 20th century, there emerged a certain arbitrainess of authority that made potential criminals of all somewhere inside their minds. I think of the French author Celine in this context, as well as an unpublished novel of my own written almost 40 years ago.
So it is easy to see how Nafisi could apply the parallels to her situation in Tehran, forced to veil, forced to accept, unable to flee, to the situation of Cincinnatus C. I think that anyone who has lived an even mildly contemplative life can feel the constriction that such or any arbitrary authority causes.
But what I really want to say about "Invitation to a Beheading" is a bit more personal in nature. Have you ever awoken from a complex dream and thought, "I wish I could write this down, it's really a good story"? No one I have ever read, including Joyce, has done as well at capturing a dream state as Nabokov does in the early pages of "Invitation." And, as if to prove it is not a fluke or a lucky break, he comes back to it again and again, right up until the powerful closing scene.
"Invitation to a Beheading" is a powerful dream that too many of us have had, deep in our own gnostical turpitude. It is almost miraculous that one could capture it so well, especially one such as Nabokov whom we know for his open-eyed precision in the later works. But miraculous or not, our heightened ability to relate to it does not say good things about where we have come in the early days of the 21st century.