Book Review: Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

A former student of mine left me this book at winter break a year or two ago. Its absurdist nature is reminiscent of The Stranger and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, two works we read the previous year in our literature class.

In the novel, a man named Cincinnatus is condemned to death for a crime that is never explained and which he does not understand. The jailers who confine him are absurd: one, the executioner, pretends to be a prisoner, for instance. His visitors bring their own furniture into his jail cell, and the prison employees admonish him for ridiculous things like his lack of manners and his reactions to the events (i.e., his imprisonment and death). His mother and attorney are absurdly worthless during their visits, and his wife is ridiculously unfaithful. During his ordeal, he is given no information about his execution. Like Meursault in The Stranger, he frantically awaits the time each day when his execution would occur and finds uncomfortable relief that he has at least another 24 hours to live.

A series of unreasonable events occurs, some involving visitors like his wife (who is blatantly unfaithful during her visits to the prison and seems to be already planning for a second husband) and the daughter of a prison employee (who is only 12 and precocious, reminding me of Lolita), who is kind but ultimately worthless in helping him escape. Nothing makes sense, including an escape tunnel someone is digging within the prison. In the end, he finds himself irrationally terrified of death and angry at his response to his own death. Finally, he wills away the confines of his imprisonment, realizing everything around him is fake, and walks toward voices he hears, knowing there are others like him who are presumably awoken from the absurd world they inhabit.

This is Nabokov, so there are passages of the story, regardless of how absurd it is, that are beautiful simply for the sake of reading beautiful prose. Aside from the beauty of the language itself, the story raises important comparisons to novels like The Stranger (the back cover compares it to Kafka’s The Castle). For me, I enjoyed the look at the way people regard impending death. Meursault in The Stranger and Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading are both given the blessing/curse of knowing that their death is coming. Most of us are too busy living life to fully contemplate this idea. Meursault realizes that everyone is condemned like he is—just not necessarily in such an obvious way. Both characters are “awoken” by their knowledge of death and react in ways overly emotional for their personalities, and in the end they both seem to have epiphanies: the execution itself is less important than each character’s realization.

Although I’ve read that Nabokov does not prefer being compared to Orwell, I could not help but see connections to some of the more personal conflicts Winston goes through in 1984. Like Cincinnatus, Winston is writing to an unknown audience. Given the situation, it is doubtful that anyone will read the journal written by either character (except, of course, for us, the readers of the novels). For both characters, there is a compulsion to disclose the truth—an awareness of existence beyond what most people can or are willing to acknowledge. Cincinnatus expresses his discontent with his life, both his personal circumstances and the authoritarian world he inhabits, though saying the novel is a metaphor for authoritarian oppression is an oversimplification and leaves out the personal nature of Cincinnatus’s reflection. Winston, in 1984, mentions that he might be writing for people of the past or future, but that it is irrelevant. Either his potential readers are already condemned, like him, and cannot read nor benefit from his journal, or they are living in a world in which his struggles are irrelevant, so they would not care. Same goes for Cincinnatus. His wife is unwilling to read the deep thoughts he put in a letter to her, and no one in prison seems to care what he writes–especially since they are the ones doing the condemning, not the other way around.

But Invitation to a Beheading seems much less political than 1984. The crime that causes the execution, defined as “gnostical turpitude,” perhaps suggests religion. Is it a nod to Gnosticism? In the end, at the execution, Cincinnatus seems to shed the physical world, simply walking away from it toward voices of others who seem to have become enlightened. He seems to realize that the physical world is just a front. Does he walk away literally? Or is it more figurative, a nod to our spiritual selves being apart from our physical ones?

In a more individual sense, the novel seems to be about alienation, about what happens when someone refuses to or cannot conform. Society, in the form of those who visit and judge Cincinnatus, seems to be playing a game, conspiring to bring down those who refuse to play, the same way Meursault in The Stranger is persecuted more for his outlook than his actual crime. In both cases, society hates or fears or acknowledges the need to “get rid of” those who think differently. Society seems to have accepted a subconscious set of rules, and only the outliers are ignorant about them.

I enjoyed the novel, though like many dystopian works, it doesn’t read the way a traditional “plot-driven” novel does. I briefly lost the novel, and when I picked it back up, I had to skim again to see what was happening, since the events Cincinnatus encounters don’t make sense in the traditional way.

I would recommend the work for anyone who wants a reason to contemplate or for those who enjoy dystopian or metaphorical works. It’s a challenging work not so much in its language but in its implications, yet it’s one that will stay with me.

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