Invitation to a Beheading
First US edition
|Original title||Приглашение на казнь|
|Translator||Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author|
|Publisher||G. P. Putnam's Sons|
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. 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." Some scholars have argued that the central plot of Invitation to a Beheading has its roots in Chernyshevski, a character from The Gift. Another view is that the novel functions as a roman à clef with the Platonic Socrates as its target.
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." 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. 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."
The novel opens with the sentencing of Cincinnatus C., a thirty-year-old teacher and the story's protagonist, by a judge. He has just been found guilty of the crime "gnostical turpitude", and will be executed in twenty days time (although this timescale is undisclosed to Cincinnatus). Afterward, he is taken back to a "fortress" (pg. 11), by the jailer Rodion, whereupon he is greeted by his lawyer, Roman. But he dismisses them both on his own accord. Cincinnatus then begins inscribing his thoughts on a piece of paper, as a spider dangles from the ceiling above his head. Sometime later, Rodion reenters and offers to dance with him, which Cincinnatus accepts. Shortly after, the prison director, Rodrig enters his cell and presents him with a meal. Cincinnatus inquires about the date of his execution, but Rodrig fails to disclose it. The first chapter concludes with Cincinnatus reflecting upon the events of the day, and his unfaithful wife (and unrequited love), Marthe.
The next day, Rodion brings Cincinnatus the morning papers, which are filled with pictures of his house, Marthe, his two kids, and himself. Our omniscient narrator then expounds on Cincinnatus' life, explaining his peculiar circumstances as a child --"the son of an unknown transient" and Cecilia C. (pg. 24) having been raised in an orphanage. Afterward, the lawyer Roman enters looking for his lost cuff link and once again, Cincinnatus presses him about his execution date, to no avail however. Rodrig arrives, having found the missing cuff link, and also tells Cincinnatus that he will be getting a cellmate to keep him company. Cincinnatus doesn't take too kindly to this idea, and is eventually chided by both men for being discourteous.
A little later, Cincinnatus meets Emmie, the prison director's daughter. He tries to coax her into revealing his execution date as well, but eventually gives up and busies himself with reading the foolish prisoner's rules etched into the walls of his cell, and flipping through the book catalog administered to him by the librarian. Eventually Rodrig comes back to tell Cincinnatus the other prisoner has arrived, and that he will also be allowed to see Marthe. Cincinnatus probes him for a specific date and time to meet Marthe, however Rodrig believes he is talking about the new prisoner, and takes him down the hall to the man's cell where Cincinnatus can observe him through a peephole.
The next day, Cincinnatus is in high spirits as he awaits Marthe's arrival. However, he receives a letter stating that he cannot meet with her until tomorrow, one week after his trial. The director gives him this news as well. Afterward, there is some confusion surrounding the director's transformation into Rodion, the jailer. Rodion expels Cincinnatus from the cell so he can clean it. Meanwhile, Cincinnatus wanders the passageways, dreaming of freedom and running away. He also encounters Emmie again, bouncing a ball in front of what he initially believes is a window, but is actually a picture of a garden.
The following morning, Marthe does not come. Instead, Cincinnatus is slated to meet the new prisoner, M'sieur Pierre. Cincinnatus is disgruntled, and makes little effort to converse with the charismatic Pierre. The director is also present, fawning over the new prisoner, while simultaneously chiding Cincinnatus once more for his ill-mannered behavior. Through this discussion, we learn that Pierre is a photographer and he also does card tricks, much to Rodrig's amusement. Cincinnatus busies himself with reading a book from the librarian's catalog.
On the eighth day of his imprisonment, Cincinnatus resumes his writing. He is still racked with fear over his execution date, and has trouble compiling his thoughts. He confesses that "life has worn me down: continual uneasiness, concealment of my knowledge...a painful constraining of all my nerves" (pg. 95). Then he dreams of a world away from the superficiality of his current circumstance, a place for people like him, who have a deeper understanding of their existence.
The next morning, he awakens to Marthe's arrival. She is accompanied by her entire family, and also another lover. A plethora of furniture is brought into his cell to accommodate everyone. Cincinnatus attempts to cross the cluttered space to speak with his wife, but unfortunately doesn't get the chance to before everyone is ushered out.
Pierre visits Cincinnatus again, sometime later. He confesses that he has been accused of attempting to help Cincinnatus escape, and that they will take the scaffolding simultaneously. Cincinnatus is grateful for the man's honesty. In addition, Pierre makes an effort to chide Cincinnatus on his interactions with the prison director and Rodion, who seem generally concerned with his well-being. Cincinnatus also asks about the execution date, which Pierre too ignores and rebukes him for.
A few days later, Rodrig informs him that his mother has come to pay him a visit. Cincinnatus, having never had a relationship with the woman, contemplates seeing her and eventually declines. However, the prison director leads Cecilia C. into his cell against his wishes. Cecilia tells Cincinnatus of the strange circumstances surrounding his birth, and his father especially. She confesses that "[his father] was also like [him]" (pg. 133).
Meanwhile, Cincinnatus has been hearing strange noises during the night, like someone digging. The walls finally cave in, and it is revealed in chapter fifteen that Pierre had been digging a tunnel from his cell to Cincinnatus' so they could visit each other. Pierre invites him to see his cell and they travel back through the tunnel together. On his way back, Cincinnatus emerges from another hole. Emmie guides him into a dining room where Rodrig and his wife, and Pierre are seated eating dinner. Cincinnatus is invited to eat with them. To keep him preoccupied, Rodrig hands him a photohoroscope album chronicling Emmie's future life.
Back in his cell, Cincinnatus fans through the photohoroscope until Pierre comes in alongside Roman and Rodrig. During their meeting, M'sieur Pierre is revealed to be the executioner, and the date of Cincinnatus' execution is finally disclosed: the day after tomorrow. Some time later, the city officials convene at the city manager's house to meet with Pierre and Cincinnatus. A slew of other characters appear as well, many of them Marthe's family members. Pierre sticks close to a disheartened, and sickened Cincinnatus during the entire event.
Later, Cincinnatus takes up writing again. Although he is fearful, he does not want to be, and writes of how he despises the sensation. Cincinnatus receives the newspaper once more, and reads that the execution has been postponed due to Pierre's illness. Rodion enters his cell with a moth wrapped in a towel—a meal for the spider. However, the moth escapes out the window. He is also visited by Marthe, and they converse over Cincinatus' letter. She begs him to repent of his 'wrongdoings', to which Cincinnatus dismisses her for the last time.
The day of Cincinnatus' execution finally arrives and he is ushered out of the dilapidated prison with the prison director, his lawyer, and Pierre in tow. Cincinnatus is racked with fear as they ride towards the square. When they arrive, the townspeople have already congregated to view his execution, which further provokes Cincinnatus to hysteria. He musters enough strength to climb out the carriage and up the scaffold on his own. In the ensuing moments, M'sieur Pierre dons his apron and demonstrates to Cincinnatus how to lay on the block (pg. 221). Cincinnatus begins counting backwards from ten in preparation of the apparent beheading. Suddenly, he gets up and walks down the scaffolding, presumably free from his physical body and existence.
Cincinnatus C. - The main character, a thirty-year-old teacher awaiting his death sentence for committing "gnostical turpitude". He is described as a disheartened erudite.
M'sieur Pierre- The executioner. During the events of the novel, he is disguised as a fellow prisoner, and pushes his friendship onto Cincinnatus as an elaborate prank. He is described as fat, well-dressed, and thirty-years-old.
Rodion- The jailer. He is astounded by Cincinnatus' mentality, and rebukes him to change his perspective. He is described as fat and jovial.
Rodrig Ivanovich- The prison director. A conceited figure, he continuously boasts about the reputation of his institution, and chides Cincinnatus for his ill-mannered experience in the prison. He is described as donning a toupee and frock coat.
Emmie- The endearing, twelve-year-old daughter of the prison director. She frequents Cincinnatus' prison cell, and farcically promises to help him escape. This character is often credited as being the inspiration for Nabokov's Lolita, in his novel Lolita.
Marthe- The wife of Cincinnatus. Unfaithful to her husband, she takes up sexual relations with Rodion and Rodrig, as well as several other lovers. She is described as possessing youthful beauty.
Cecilia C.- The speculative mother of Cincinnatus (he was raised in an orphanage). She is a midwife, and described as being overtly bereaved by her son's situation, yet strangely apathetic.
Roman Vissarionovich- Cincinnatus' attorney. He visits Cincinnatus frequently, but to no avail of his client. He is described as being tall and dismal.
Symbols and Motifs
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Nabokov employs a wide range of symbols and motifs within Invitation to a Beheading, many of which are still debated among literary scholars today. Perhaps the two, largest spheres of symbolism Nabokov employs are in terms of political and religious connotations. Politically, scholars have drawn parallels in Nabokov's work to other authors (G. H. Orwell and Franz Kafka in particular) who have comprised characters often grappling with "individual will and totalitarian collectivity". However, it is worth noting that Nabokov apparently did not intend this work to be a political novel. In fact, he disfavored the comparison to G. H. Orwell. Still, scholars and readers alike have been hard-pressed to gloss over the uncanny political connotations to Nabokov's plight in escaping the Bolshevist regime just fifteen years prior.
In spite of his propensity to highlight anti-religious sentiments in many of his works, scholars have cited Invitation of a Beheading as the legitimate product of Nabokov's concern with the metaphysical, or "the beyond". This is evident in several respects, including the novel's epigraph, Nabokov's treatment of Gnostic ideology through his main character, Cincinnatus, and the overall construction of the setting in which such events take place.
The very first metaphysical overtone readers are confronted with encompasses the epigraph. Here, Nabokov ascribes the following French proverb to the fictitious Pierre Delalande: "Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous croyons mortels (Like a fool believes himself to be God, we believe ourselves to be mortal"). The quote can be said to directly foreshadow Cincinnatus' world and its inept inhabitants, whom the third-person narrator constantly labels as "transparent". This is in stark contrast to the narrator's description of Cincinnatus, who is considered "opaque" and "impervious to the rays of others" (pg. 24).
Nabokov's epigraph becomes even clearer as Cincinnatus' circumstances and crime are revealed. Cincinnatus is being sentenced for "gnostical turpitude" (pg. 72). The construction of this offense is grounded in Nabokov's knowledge of Gnosticism, a religion prevalent at the crux of the Late Hellenistic and early Christianity periods. At the heart of this religious doctrine is the notion of gnosis, or knowledge that brings salvation. Many scholars believe Cincinnatus models these ideologies, especially in relation to the Gnostic polarity of spirit and flesh (pneuma v. hyle), where Cincinnatus' true existence (as spirit) is thought to be barred within his physical body (the flesh). Thus, the release of this inner man is commonly thought to be accomplished through death, which acts as a passageway between flesh and spirit and explains the confusion of events at the conclusion of Nabokov's novel. Cincinnatus accomplishes just this transformation: "He stood up and...took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk...what was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air" (pg. 32), and again, "Through the headsman's still swinging hips the railing showed. On the steps the pale librarian sat doubled up, vomiting...Cincinnatus slowly descneded from the platform and walked off through the shifting debris" (pg. 222).
Other religious symbols include:
- The moon, which hangs outside of Cincinnatus' cell window, and is a common Gnostic metaphor for "one of the seven Archons [demons] who keep watch over the gates to the planetary spheres",
- Cincinnatus' enigmatic father, who models Gnostic belief in the "unknowable God...the unknown Father",
- And Cincinnatus' mother, Cecilia C. who models the Gnostic notion of a Messenger, or Mediator, as she discloses the events surrounding her son's birth.
Publication and Reception
Second only to Lolita in terms of critical receptions, Invitation to a Beheading has received positive reviews since its initial publication in Berlin, 1934. It has also been considered "one of the most successful works of young émigré literature". Many scholars believed Cincinnatus C. to be a rendition of Franz Kafka's main character, Joseph K. in his novel, The Gift, although Nabokov denied this. Scholars have also noted the novel's embellished style which straddles the "illusory and the 'real'" (189, drawing parallels to Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; Nabokov had served as the novel's Russian translator in 1923. In addition, Nabokov's execution scene has been compared to Kiernan's chapter of Ulysses.
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