I've been subjecting my Advanced Placement students to Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, and it's been fun to see their responses, because many more of them enjoyed the book than I expected. I introduced it by having them read Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which most of them found engaging, and it helped give them a grasp of some of what Nabokov was up to before they plunged into the bewildering world of Cincinnatus C. and his prison cell.
Inevitably, there were students who were convinced Nabokov was insane or a drug addict or both. This accusation comes up all the time when we read anyone who is not among the hardest of hardcore realists, because imagination is something that has come to be associated only with the stimulus of drugs or madness. That someone could think up a story like Invitation to a Beheading -- where a man is imprisoned for "gnostic turpitude" in a fortress of porous walls and fake windows and rules against improper dreams -- without being addicted to hallucinogens or lacking a couple of screws is at best inconceivable to many people, if not threatening. The people who issue these accusations would never think of such a story or such imagery themselves, and therefore they can't imagine how anyone else could, unless there was something wrong with their brains. I am sad to see this way of thinking in my students, because it means they are suspicious of one of the fundamental techniques of art, but at least in the classroom I am able to challenge and undermine those beliefs; the effect of such suspicion on the world at large is depressing to contemplate.
It is against just such thinking that Invitation to a Beheading stands, the story of an "opaque" man in a "transparent" world. For reasons that are (intentionally) never made clear, it's hard to figure out exactly how Cincinnatus C. is different from the people around him, except that he is apparently more "real" (at least to himself) than the "parodies" of people he encounters throughout his life, and throughout his life they have distrusted him, reported on him, interrogated him, threatened him. It is not the crime that matters, but rather the perception. Very little in the book gives us concrete evidence of Cincinnatus's difference from his, as he calls them, coevals -- they're all a bit strange, yes, but he's a pretty odd duck, himself. What the book shows, though, is a conflict of perceptions, of feelings, of imagination, because everything has always felt wrong to Cincinnatus, and imagination is his one tool of hope for escape. An incident in childhood was, he says, "when I first understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal."
Inevitably, people compare Invitation to 1984, and Nabokov speaks out against Orwell in his preface to the English-language edition of the novel, calling Orwell one of the "popular puveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction". He did not desire comparison to any writer at all, but Orwell particularly irked him. At first, it's difficult to see why, because it is difficult not to think of Invitation as, if not a political book, then at least a book with some political implications. 1984 may illustrate ideas, but no novel can avoid doing that -- the human mind likes patterns, and stories, being elaborate patterns, echo and suggest other patterns -- and so Invitation to a Beheading illustrates ideas as well, but one of the differences lies in what gets missed if the book is reduced only to its ideas. 1984 can be discussed as a political tract -- we can talk about the implications of Newspeak and the Memory Hole, of Big Brother and rewritten history and perpetual wars and all the other prophetic/satirical accoutrements to the book. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing -- different books yield different items of interest -- but trying to read Invitation to a Beheading in such a way becomes quickly frustrating, because while Invitation contains a portrait of a totalitarian world, it is equally about art, perception, and "reality". And, this being a Nabokov novel, every word serves the purpose not so much of illustrating those ideas, but of embodying them.
Invitation to a Beheading refuses to create a stable fictional reality for the characters or for the reader, and, as with much of Nabokov's best work, there are multiple plots at once: the surface plot of what's happening in the story, the subtextual plot of things "really" going on that the characters either aren't aware of or are hiding, and the plot between the text and the reader (or sometimes the narrator and the characters). It could be that, in the last sentence, Cincinnatus has broken through to a "real" reality, but we have no way to know, because it is all a matter of perception -- his wishful, imagined double achieves life in the second before (during?) Cincinnatus's death, and he walks toward what he thinks are "beings akin to him", but he is able to judge only by their distant voices. The characters who persecuted him have all metamorphosed into tiny, pathetic creatures. The funhouse mirrors have been turned. Body and spirit are inverted, but no-one can say which is which.
This is not a "it was only a dream!" ending, though, because the reality of the book is the reality of Cincinnatus's perceptions, and he has not perceived the world he has escaped to be a dream -- indeed, the hopefulness of the last sentence is predicated on everything before it having been, for Cincinnatus, utterly true and real. A shallow political interpretation of the book would have trouble with the ending, I expect, because such an interpretation would see the ending as suggesting that totalitarianism can be escaped through imagination, but what the book shows with nearly every sentence is, instead, that imagination is anathema to totalitarianism of every sort. Nabokov was no sentimentalist, however, and Invitation to a Beheading demonstrates as relentless a fight for purity and rigor of imagination as do his Lectures on Literature -- Cincinnatus does not, after all, walk down a path toward beings who might be akin to him until he has been within a second of having his head chopped off.