Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nabokov's Beheading Invite; Kafka Guest of Honor

Cordially invited to witness something like a beheading. It's fair to say Vladimir Nabokov's "Invitation to a Beheading" is not your usual story involving the issuance of keenly violent corporal punishment. Nabokov wouldn't be Nabokov if he had a habit of doing that, or moreover suggested the possibility that his writing was derivative of whatever it is I'm describing.

Stylistic similarities are notable, though, and a name does come to mind: Kafka. This work is not lock, stock & barrel reminiscent but reminiscent nonetheless of everyone's favorite modernist, Franz Kafka. The (possibly kneejerk or wanton) comparisons I've heard were made are, for good or ill, both reasonable and apt. Actually, if I had any issue with the novel it was that I could not find a way to shed this obvious comparison from what is a typically enjoyable read by Nabokov.

I know those who are familiar are familiar with The Term, but I refuse to use it, REFUSE! Nevertheless, I can think of no more appropriate novel to apply it, The Term, than "Invitation to a Beheading." That now said, there are differences, distinct and notable differences, of course, concerning the styles of Kafka and Nabokov. (I also won't delve further into the fact that Nabokov claims not to have read anything by the famed Prague writer at the time of his penning "Invitation" -- which may certainly be true, but changes not a bit of its kindredness, in any case.)

The descriptions of sexuality, in euphemism and in more overt exhortation, is definitely apparent in "Beheading" where if extant in Kafka, it was far more on the latent (or cryptic) side of regard. Here for example is a reflection of the main character, Cinncinatus C., who is entreating in a letter his estranged wife, Marthe, to visit him anon, after their first visit together went poorly. He understands she has betrayed him; she has always been fairly cavalier about it. But he writes to her the following lurid if metaphorical description of his witnessed understanding:

Your and his kisses, which most resembled some sort of feeding, intent, untidy, and noisy. Or when you, with eyes closed tight, devoured a spurting peach and then, having finished but still swallowing, with your mouth still full, you cannibal, your glazed eyes wandered, your fingers were spread, your inflamed lips were all glossy, your chin trembled, all covered with drops of the cloudy juice, which trickled down onto your bared bosom, while the Priapus who had nourished you suddenly, with a convulsive oath, turned his bent back to me, who had entered the room at the wrong moment.
Huh? Well it was just a peach -- except that, wait a minute (NSFW) a peach kind of looks like the head of a penis, if you want to start invoking Fraudian theory and why I like peaches so much (which I'd prefer we cease with the digging into my own psyche and focus on Nabokov's really excellent and let's face it well known perversion). I don't think there's much reading between the lines here that's necessary -- Nabokov is describing in arguably the most eloquent terms I've heard it described the aftermath of a really effusive fellating. Lucky Priapus.

Can I speak to the ambiguity of each great writer for a moment? Yes? It's my blog? Oh, well right. Anyway, both Kafka (whom I plan to discuss in closer detail soon, having recently read and enjoyed his short story "The Village Schoolmaster") and Nabokov use the ambiguity of power, of its exercise, of the notion that there's a real lack of institutional oversight from an institution we might ought not to invest very much trust in, to express a kind of deficit in the variances of human relation, that there is a grievous lack of understanding and empathy threatening to widen an already-too-wide gap extant between us. Moreover, through humor (satirical elements but also plain old oddball irony) they illustrate the great lack of a brain, of a consciously evil presence that seeks to destroy the members of its society that are deemed anathematical. Instead, what you get is bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake, and whatever some abstraction of tradition and its oft inexplicable purpose has set forth as The Way of conduct in any society that at its core seeks either to normalize or expel.

I won't presume to know what the thought process of these two famously great writers was in writing their stories, nor in specific "Invitation to a Beheading." What I will say is that while I see both share a brooding manner in their work (nonplussed but detachedly so, angry in a sense but with the futility of a wildlife documentarian allowing nature to take its course, and thus showcasing this course taken, doing so wryly, too, as if it were not a documentary with animal subjects all of a sudden but switched to a human subject), the difference to me is that where Kafka will explicate the subtleties of the human relational experience, the distrust to be found between compatriots who mince words and regard each other with skepticism of a contemptuous but unspoken degree, which is deflected nicely to the issues that exist beside the case and are used to ably justify the contempt and contention that is ultimately unrelated and unspoken, smoke and mirrors to unconsciously muddle relational progress. This is of course only one way to dissect relational patterns in Kafka, but I think it is one he showcased with frequency. Some of his short stories stand out in my mind as evidence of this narrative streak, "The Penal Colony," "The Village Schoolmaster," and "The Judgment."

Nabokov reflects a greater solipsism or emptiness of relational gratification. His character Cinncinatus C. is unable to ever express his point to anyone, and his life has been riddled with nothing but abject failure and betrayal at the moments he lets his guard down. Every person with whom he associates in "An Invitation to a Beheading" is quick to list his flaws and quick to prescribe solutions to them. One chapter that was especially good at demonstrating this nature of Cinncinatus' circumstances was chapter thirteen in which the above cited quote is to be found, and which concludes with a game of chess played between Cinncinatus and his fellow prisoner Pierre, whose motives are for much of the story ambiguous but always questionable. The game is narrated by Pierre who humorously and constantly amends his moves and questions the logic of Cinncinatus' -- whose moves are definitely effective and thus constantly necessitate Pierre's unfair move retractions and so forth. And while a humorous episode, it also describes a fundament, I think, of the novel's ethos, of whatever higher motivation there was to describing Cinncinatus' plight. The owner of all the moves, whoever he is, is not Cinncinatus, and he is not a benign and loving god, either.


  1. This is a really interesting discussion. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the scene in which Cinncinatus undresses himself, removes his limbs and everything, to reveal nothing essentially there. It seems related to the ending (which I won't spoil for other readers).

  2. Definitely related to the ending, I agree, and also that reminds me of Daniil Kharms' "Blue Notebook no. 2" (readable at the following url: Probably speaks to a notion of humanity and the modern Russian man post-revolution, if I read a lot into it.