14 November 2006

Some Notes on Invitation to a Beheading

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.


  1. This post was just beautiful. Now wanting to go on a Nabokov binge. Haven't spent time in his head for a while now.

  2. I audited a class on Nabokov in college sheerly as an excuse to read him: it was magnificent. You are making me want to re-read.

  3. Next semester you should teach "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and see what they think VanderMeer is on.

  4. I snort Nabokov.

  5. Enlightenment11/17/2006 12:27 AM

    Slightly off-topic and for that I apologize, however it is of paramount importance so please bear with me. Now that our side has a majority in both houses they should actually USE the subpoena power and launch a REAL independent investigation into 9/11.

    One thing that struck me as odd in the days after 9/11 was Bush saying "We will not tolerate conspiracy theories [regarding 9/11]". Sure enough there have been some wacky conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that day. The most far-fetched and patently ridiculous one that I've ever heard goes like this: Nineteen hijackers who claimed to be devout Muslims but yet were so un-Muslim as to be getting drunk all the time, doing cocaine and frequenting strip clubs decided to hijack four airliners and fly them into buildings in the northeastern U.S., the area of the country that is the most thick with fighter bases. After leaving a Koran on a barstool at a strip bar after getting shitfaced drunk on the night before, then writing a suicide note/inspirational letter that sounded like it was written by someone with next to no knowledge of Islam, they went to bed and got up the next morning hung over and carried out their devious plan. Nevermind the fact that of the four "pilots" among them there was not a one that could handle a Cessna or a Piper Cub let alone fly a jumbo jet, and the one assigned the most difficult task of all, Hani Hanjour, was so laughably incompetent that he was the worst fake "pilot" of the bunch, with someone who was there when he was attempting to fly a small airplane saying that Hanjour was so clumsy that he was unsure if he had driven a car before. Nevermind the fact that they received very rudimentary flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, making them more likely to have been C.I.A. assets than Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. So on to the airports after Mohammed Atta supposedly leaves two rental cars at two impossibly far-removed locations. So they hijack all four airliners and at this time passengers on United 93 start making a bunch of cell phone calls from 35,000 feet in the air to tell people what was going on. Nevermind the fact that cell phones wouldn't work very well above 4,000 feet, and wouldn't work at ALL above 8,000 feet. But the conspiracy theorists won't let that fact get in the way of a good fantasy. That is one of the little things you "aren't supposed to think about". Nevermind that one of the callers called his mom and said his first and last name ("Hi mom, this is Mark Bingham"), more like he was reading from a list than calling his own mom. Anyway, when these airliners each deviated from their flight plan and didn't respond to ground control, NORAD would any other time have followed standard operating procedure (and did NOT have to be told by F.A.A. that there were hijackings because they were watching the same events unfold on their own radar) which means fighter jets would be scrambled from the nearest base where they were available on standby within a few minutes, just like every other time when airliners stray off course. But of course on 9/11 this didn't happen, not even close. Somehow these "hijackers" must have used magical powers to cause NORAD to stand down, as ridiculous as this sounds because total inaction from the most high-tech and professional Air Force in the world would be necessary to carry out their tasks. So on the most important day in its history the Air Force was totally worthless. Then they had to make one of the airliners look like a smaller plane, because unknown to them the Naudet brothers had a videocamera to capture the only known footage of the North Tower crash, and this footage shows something that is not at all like a jumbo jet, but didn't have to bother with the South Tower jet disguising itself because that was the one we were "supposed to see". Anyway, as for the Pentagon they had to have Hani Hanjour fly his airliner like it was a fighter plane, making a high G-force corkscrew turn that no real airliner can do, in making its descent to strike the Pentagon. But these "hijackers" wanted to make sure Rumsfeld survived so they went out of their way to hit the farthest point in the building from where Rumsfeld and the top brass are located. And this worked out rather well for the military personnel in the Pentagon, since the side that was hit was the part that was under renovation at the time with few military personnel present compared to construction workers. Still more fortuitous for the Pentagon, the side that was hit had just before 9/11 been structurally reinforced to prevent a large fire there from spreading elsewhere in the building. Awful nice of them to pick that part to hit, huh? Then the airliner vaporized itself into nothing but tiny unidentifiable pieces most no bigger than a fist, unlike the crash of a real airliner when you will be able to see at least some identifiable parts, like crumpled wings, broken tail section etc. Why, Hani Hanjour the terrible pilot flew that airliner so good that even though he hit the Pentagon on the ground floor the engines didn't even drag the ground!! Imagine that!! Though the airliner vaporized itself on impact it only made a tiny 16 foot hole in the building. Amazing. Meanwhile, though the planes hitting the Twin Towers caused fires small enough for the firefighters to be heard on their radios saying "We just need 2 hoses and we can knock this fire down" attesting to the small size of it, somehow they must have used magical powers from beyond the grave to make this morph into a raging inferno capable of making the steel on all forty-seven main support columns (not to mention the over 100 smaller support columns) soften and buckle, then all fail at once. Hmmm. Then still more magic was used to make the building totally defy physics as well as common sense in having the uppermost floors pass through the remainder of the building as quickly, meaning as effortlessly, as falling through air, a feat that without magic could only be done with explosives. Then exactly 30 minutes later the North Tower collapses in precisely the same freefall physics-defying manner. Incredible. Not to mention the fact that both collapsed at a uniform rate too, not slowing down, which also defies physics because as the uppermost floors crash into and through each successive floor beneath them they would shed more and more energy each time, thus slowing itself down. Common sense tells you this is not possible without either the hijackers' magical powers or explosives. To emphasize their telekinetic prowess, later in the day they made a third building, WTC # 7, collapse also at freefall rate though no plane or any major debris hit it. Amazing guys these magical hijackers. But we know it had to be "Muslim hijackers" the conspiracy theorist will tell you because (now don't laugh) one of their passports was "found" a couple days later near Ground Zero, miraculously "surviving" the fire that we were told incinerated planes, passengers and black boxes, and also "survived" the collapse of the building it was in. When common sense tells you if that were true then they should start making buildings and airliners out of heavy paper and plastic so as to be "indestructable" like that magic passport. The hijackers even used their magical powers to bring at least seven of their number back to life, to appear at american embassies outraged at being blamed for 9/11!! BBC reported on that and it is still online. Nevertheless, they also used magical powers to make the american government look like it was covering something up in the aftermath of this, what with the hasty removal of the steel debris and having it driven to ports in trucks with GPS locators on them, to be shipped overseas to China and India to be melted down. When common sense again tells you that this is paradoxical in that if the steel was so unimportant that they didn't bother saving some for analysis but so important as to require GPS locators on the trucks with one driver losing his job because he stopped to get lunch. Hmmmm. Further making themselves look guilty, the Bush administration steadfastly refused for over a year to allow a commission to investigate 9/11 to even be formed, only agreeing to it on the conditions that they get to dictate its scope, meaning it was based on the false pretense of the "official story" being true with no other alternatives allowed to be considered, handpicked all its members making sure the ones picked had vested interests in the truth remaining buried, and with Bush and Cheney only "testifying" together, only for an hour, behind closed doors, with their attorneys present and with their "testimonies" not being recorded by tape or even written down in notes. Yes, this whole story smacks of the utmost idiocy and fantastic far-fetched lying, but it is amazingly enough what some people believe. Even now, five years later, the provably false fairy tale of the "nineteen hijackers" is heard repeated again and again, and is accepted without question by so many Americans. Which is itself a testament to the innate psychological cowardice of the American sheeple, i mean people, and their abject willingness to believe something, ANYTHING, no matter how ridiculous in order to avoid facing a scary uncomfortable truth. Time to wake up America.

    Debunking Popular Mechanics lies:
    someone else debunking Popular Mechanics crap:
    still more debunking Poopular Mechanics:
    and still more debunking of Popular Mechanics:

    Poopular Mechanics staff replaced just before laughable “debunking” article written:
    another neo-con 9/11 hit piece explodes, is retracted:
    Professor Steven Jones debunks the N.I.S.T. “report” as well as the F.E.M.A. one and the 9/11 commission "report":
    N.I.S.T. scientist interviewed:
    F.B.I. says no hard evidence linking Osama bin Laden to 9/11 which is why his wanted poster says nothing about 9/11:
    Fire Engineering magazine says important questions about the Twin Tower “collapses” still need to be addressed:http://fe.pennnet.com/Articles/Article_Display.cfm?Section=OnlineArticles&SubSection=Display&PUBLICATION_ID=25&ARTICLE_ID

    Twin Towers’ construction certifiers say they should have easily withstood it:
    USA Today interview with the last man out of the South Tower, pursued by a fireball:
    Janitor who heard explosions and escaped has testimony ignored by 9/11 whitewash commission:
    Janitor starts speaking out about it and his apartment is burglarized, laptop stolen:
    Firefighters tell of multiple explosions:
    Eyewitnesses tell of explosions:
    Interview with another firefighter telling of explosions:
    Firefighter saw “sparkles” (strobe lights on detonators?) before “collapse”:
    Other eyewitnesses talk of seeing/hearing explosions:
    Surviving eyewitnesses talk of multiple explosions there:
    Cutter charge explosions clearly visible:
    The pyroclastic wave (that dust cloud that a second before was concrete) and how it wouldn’t be possible without explosives:
    Detailed description of the demolition of the Twin Towers:
    Freefall rate of “collapses” math:
    More about their freefall rate “collapses”:
    Video footage of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers:
    Video footage of the controlled demolition of WTC # 7 building:
    More of WTC # 7 controlled demolition:
    Naudet brothers' video footage of the North Tower crash:
    Photos of the Pentagon’s lawn (look at these and see if you can tell me with a straight face that a jumbo jet crashed there):
    More photos of this amazing lawn at the Pentagon:
    Very unconvincing fake “Osama” “confession” tape:
    More about the fake “Osama” tape:
    Fake “Mohammed Atta” “suicide” letter:
    Commercial pilots disagree with “official” 9/11 myth:
    More commercial jet pilots say “official” myth is impossible:
    Impossibility of cell phone calls from United 93:
    More about the impossible cell phone calls:
    Experiment proves cell phone calls were NOT possible from anywhere near the altitude the “official” myth has them at:
    Fake Barbara Olson phone call:
    Where the hell was the Air Force?
    More about the Air Force impotence question:
    Sept. 10th 2001, Pentagon announces it is “missing” $2.3 trillion (now why do you think they picked THAT day to announce it? So it could be buried the next day by 9/11 news):
    Unocal pipeline-through-Afghanistan plan:
    Unocal pipeline-through-Afghanistan plan mentioned:
    More on Unocal Afghan pipeline:
    The attack on Afghanistan was planned in the summer of 2001, months before 9/11:
    Pentagon deliberately misled 9/11 Commission:
    Evidence destruction by authorities and cover-up:
    9/11 whitewash Commission and NORAD day:
    The incredible fish tales of the 9/11 Commission examined:
    Jeb Bush declares state of emergency 4 days before 9/11 for Florida, saying it will help respond to terrorism:
    Steel debris removal from Ground Zero, destruction of evidence:
    Over two hundred incriminating bits of 9/11 evidence shown in the mainstream media:
    Tracking the “hijackers”:
    “Hijacker” patsies:
    “Hijackers” receiving flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station:
    Several accused "hijackers" still alive and well, wondering why they are accused:
    Yet the F.B.I. insists that the people it claims were the "hijackers" really were the "hijackers":
    No Arabs on Flight 77:
    Thirty experts say “official” 9/11 myth impossible:
    “Al Qaeda” website tracks back to Maryland:
    Al Qaeda videos uploaded from U.S. government website:
    Operation: Northwoods, a plan for a false-flag “terror” attack to be blamed on Castro to use it as a pretext for America to invade Cuba, thankfully not approved by Kennedy back in 1962 but was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sent to his desk:

  6. I've never seen SPAM on the order of the cut and paste job in the comment ahead of mine.

    Thanks for the grand post. I will try to find this Nabokov novel.

    I'll bet you envy V. N. as a prof in that he had auditors Pynchon and Farina in his class at Cornell. I wonder if the two of the nascent fiction writers spoke up in class?

  7. The reason the kids think Nabokov was on drugs is because they were raised by people with no imagination. This lack of imagination gets into their brains and won't let go.
    I wish you'd been my AP Lit teacher when I was reading Nabokov for the first time.

  8. aha! Fantastic insight. Not too long ago I dove headlong into Nikolai Gogol, and subsequently was looking at some of Nabokov's shorter works. Tremendously grateful as am extremely anxious to read Invitation!

  9. Interesting that you chose this work to introduce your students to VN. I wish I'd had a teacher like yourself during my formative highschool years, I believe I would have discovered my keenness for literature much earlier than I ultimately did. As it is, without the aid of an enlightened literary docent,it took some years of desultory ambulating to uncover. Overall I found IB untypical of most VN novels, its more contrived universe (similar to another VN anti-utopian novel, Bend Sinister) differs from the rest as most his works tend to have a foot firmly planted in this realm--I'm sure Nabokov would disagree with this and consider all his novels to be meticulous imaginary constructs regardless of their implied setting.
    Overall, IB is more effective than Bend Sinister, in large part due to its vivid panoply of humorously obnoxious supporting characters (though the lolita precursor Emmie is a discordant note) and the juxtaposition of the genuinely sympathetic (and hopelessly misplaced) character Cincinnatus who endures persecution with an air of resignation that's stubborn, subversive and mild.

    Compare him to Joseph K (a relative cut-out) who is easily irritated and you begin to appreciate VN's ability to breathe life into characters. The great literary cozen has feelings for his creations and it shows, even investing many with his own personal memories.

    Perhaps that's why Joseph K could never exist outside his creator's milieu and seems inextricably part of its function, yet Cincinnatus has a life before, during and (his creators main message) after the novel. The real rebellion comes not from any outward action but from a inward personal cultivation.

  10. Is it acceptance of the imagination that causes some people to like this book, while others will not, as you suggest, or is it something else?
    I think those who enjoy literature to an extreme degree have a philosophical grounding, a belief in art as the key to a reality outside of our own world and yet more real than it.
    Others view art and literature as a transitory pleasure and no more (M'sieur Pierre in IB is a marvelous example).