Laughter in the Dark (novel)

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Laughter in the Dark
First US edition
AuthorVladimir Nabokov
Original titleКамера обскура
PublisherBobbs-Merrill Company
Publication date

Laughter in the Dark (Original Russian title: Камера обскура, Camera obscura) is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov and serialised in Sovremennye Zapiski in 1932.[1]

The first English translation, Camera Obscura, was made by Winifred Roy and published in London in 1936 by Johnathan Long, the paperback imprint of Hutchinson Publishing, with the author credited as Vladimir Nabokoff-Sirin. Nabokov was so displeased by the translation's quality that he undertook his own, which was published in 1938 under the now common name, Laughter in the Dark. It is sometimes mistakenly assumed that he was not fond of the book, yet in fact it was based on very personal breakthroughs in his life.

The book deals with the affection of a middle-aged man for a very young woman, resulting in a mutually parasitic relationship. In 1955, Nabokov used this theme again with Lolita to a much differently developed effect.


The characters were given different names in the English translation. In the following list the names of the main characters of the English translation are given first with the original names in parentheses.

  • Albert Albinus (Bruno Krechmar) - a middle-aged art-critic
  • Margot Peters (Magda Peters) - a 17-year-old aspiring actress, common worker, model, seductress
  • Axel Rex (Robert Gorn, probably Robert Horn) - A painter from New York and Margot's first lover, also Margot's first broken relationship when he abandoned her

Some minor characters include (from the English version):

  • Elisabeth Albinus - Albert Albinus's wife
  • Paul Hochenwart - Elisabeth's brother
  • Otto Peters - Margot's brother
  • Frieda - The Albinus' housekeeper
  • Irma Albinus - Elisabeth and Albert's daughter
  • Kaspar - A friend of Otto's
  • Udo Conrad - An author and acquaintance of Albert's


Albinus is a respected, reasonably happy married art critic who lives in Berlin. He lusts after the 17-year-old Margot whom he meets at a cinema, where she works, and seduces her over the course of many encounters. His prolonged affair with Margot is eventually revealed to Albinus's wife Elisabeth when Margot deliberately sends a letter to the Albinuses' residence and Albert is unable to intercept it before it is discovered. This results in the dissolution of the Albinuses' marriage. Rather than disown the young troublemaker, he is even more attracted to her. Margot uses him to become a film star, fulfilling her ambition in life. Albinus introduces Margot to Axel Rex, but he does not know that the two have previously been lovers. Margot and Rex resume their relationship, and start plotting to get Albinus out of the way and rob him of his money. Rex sees the opportunities that Albinus's infatuation with Margot produces, and understands that even a great risk means little to the blind and helpless, in love, in loss, and in dwindling fortune.

Albinus gets Margot her first role as an actress, but she does not appear to be very talented. In fact, what she possesses in beauty is best captured by the imagination rather than even a still camera. Only Albinus's wealth ensures that she gets to play her role. Margot realizes that she has played the role poorly and Albinus worries about her reaction. Rex, however, adores seeing the girl from the streets suffer and takes the opportunity to exploit her ineptitude. After Margot becomes upset when viewing the film, Albinus coaxes her into taking a holiday to the south. They rent a hotel room and, after a chance encounter with an old friend, Albinus happens to surmise that Margot and Rex are engaged in an affair. He has always been envious of Rex in the belief that he is the truest of artists, unlike him. He has stolen beautiful young things from Albinus his whole life, and this is no different. Albinus steals away with Margot and leaves Rex at the hotel. On their journey out of town, Albinus, a self-proclaimed poor driver, crashes the car and is blinded, leaving him in need of care and oblivious to the world around him.

Rex and Margot take advantage of his handicap, and rent a chalet in Switzerland where Rex poses as Albinus's doctor, although Albinus is unaware of Rex's presence. Unknown to Albinus, he is mocked and tortured during his recovery. He becomes increasingly suspicious as his ears become more attuned and he perceives someone's presence, but his fears are never confirmed.

Paul, Albinus's brother-in-law, suspects forgery (Rex and Margot have been bleeding Albinus's accounts dry by forging his signature on cheques), drives to the residence and discovers Rex toying with Albinus in his blinded state. Paul then escorts Albinus back to the home of his ex-wife Elisabeth. After a short time, Albinus receives a call informing him that Fraulein Peters (Margot) has returned to his flat to collect some things. Knowing that she is coming, he decides to kill her. Without haste, he makes his way to the flat and traps her inside by barricading the door, intending to shoot her with his pistol. He seeks her out by her scent and faint sounds, but when he tries to shoot her she overpowers him, grabs the pistol, and kills him.

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1969, Laughter in the Dark was adapted for film directed by Tony Richardson, which was originally intended to star Richard Burton as Albinus. When he was fired for drunkenness, he was replaced by Nicol Williamson. Anna Karina played Margot and Jean-Claude Drouot played Axel Rex.

Literary reviews[edit]


The book features in series 3 episode 8 of the television series Lost.

External links[edit]