Invitation to a Beheading

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Invitation to a Beheading
First US edition
Author Vladimir Nabokov
Original title Приглашение на казнь
Translator Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author
Language Russian
Publisher G. P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date

Invitation to a Beheading (Russian: Приглашение на казнь, lit. 'Invitation to an execution') is a novel by Russian American author Vladimir Nabokov. It was originally published in Russian from 1935 to 1936 as a serial in Contemporary Notes (Sovremennye zapiski), a Russian émigré magazine. In 1938, the work was published in Paris, with an English translation following in 1959. The novel was translated into English by Nabokov's son, Dmitri Nabokov, under the author's supervision.

The novel is often described as Kafkaesque, but Nabokov claimed that at the time he wrote the book, he was unfamiliar with German and "completely ignorant" of Franz Kafka's work.[1] Nabokov interrupted his work on The Gift in order to write Invitation to a Beheading, describing the creation of the first draft as "one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration."[2] Some scholars have argued that the central plot of Invitation to a Beheading has its roots in Chernyshevski, a character from The Gift.[3] Another view is that the novel functions as a roman à clef with the Platonic Socrates as its target.[4]

While Nabokov stated in an interview that of all his novels he held the greatest affection for Lolita, it was Invitation to a Beheading that he held in the greatest esteem.[5]

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel takes place in a prison and relates the final twenty days of Cincinnatus C., a citizen of a fictitious country, who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for "gnostical turpitude." Unable to blend in and become part of the world around him, Cincinnatus is described as having a "certain peculiarity" that makes him "impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another."[6] Although he tries to hide his condition and "feign translucence," people are uncomfortable with his existence, and feel there is something wrong with him. In this way, Cincinnatus fails to become part of his society.

While confined, Cincinnatus is not told when his execution will occur. This troubles him, as he wants to express himself through writing "in defiance of all the world's muteness," but feels unable to do so without knowledge of how long he has to complete this task.[7] Indifferent to the absurdity and vulgarity around him, Cincinnatus strives to find his true self in his writing, where he creates an ideal world. Taken to be executed, he refuses to believe in either death or his executioners, and as the axe falls the false existence dissolves around him as he joins the spirits of his fellow visionaries in "reality."

Other characters include Rodion the jailer, the director of the jail Rodrig, and Cincinnatus' lawyer Roman. Some suggest that these names are meant to mimic that of the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Cincinnatus' wife Marthe, a child named Emmie, and fellow prisoner "M'sieur Pierre"(subsequently revealed to be the executioner) are also secondary characters.


  1. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1959). "Foreword". Invitation to a Beheading. G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 6. 
  2. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1974). Strong Opinions. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 92. 
  3. ^ Dragunoiu, Dana (2000). "Vladimir Nabokov's 'Invitation to a Beheading' and the Russian Radical Tradition": 53. 
  4. ^ Porter, James I. (2010). "The Death Masque of Socrates: Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading". International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 17, no. 3 (2010) 389-422. Retrieved June 29, 2016. 
  5. ^ "Nabokov's interview. (06) Wisconsin Studies [1967]". Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature. Retrieved 2007-12-21. 
  6. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1959). Invitation to a Beheading. G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 24. 
  7. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1959). Invitation to a Beheading. G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 91. 


  • Dragunoiu, Dana (2001). "Vladimir Nabokov's 'Invitation to a Beheading' and the Russian Radical Tradition". Journal of Modern Literature. 25 (1). pp. 53–69. 
  • Peterson, Dale (1981). "Nabokov's Invitation: Literature as Execution". PMLA. PMLA, Vol. 96, No. 5. 96 (5): 824–836. doi:10.2307/462126. JSTOR 462126. 
  • Schumacher, Meinolf (2002). "'waz wirret daz?' Ein Theodizee-Argument des 'Welschen Gastes' im Horizont europäischer Gefängnis-Literatur von Boethius bis Vladimir Nabokov". Beweglichkeit der Bilder. Text und Imagination in den illustrierten Handschriften des 'Welschen Gastes' von Thomasin von Zerclaere. pp. 238–255.