LAUGHTER IN THE DARK by Vladimir Nabokov
“I ask myself where lust comes from / Is it something to use / Or to overcome” Lyrics by Matt Johnson from The The’s ‘Bluer Than Midnight’ on the album ‘Dusk’
There is no laughter but plenty of darkness to be found in this sadistic and mean spirited novel which Vladimir Nabokov originally wrote in Russian in 1933 (he did his own English translation five years later).
As a life spirals out of control, Nabokov lingers upon premeditated evil as a source of entertainment. This trait according to Craig Raine, in his after word, is why many regard Nabokov as a “connoisseur of pain”. The short novel dwells on human weakness in the face of lust and the capacity for cruelty motivated by greed.
None of the small cast of characters has much in the way of redeeming qualities and so it’s hard to feel much in the way of sympathy for their fates. Part of this negative portrayal is undoubtedly driven by a loathing of the privileged class.
The main character, Albinus, is possessed of a :”shallow sentimentality peculiar to his bourgeois set” Nabokov’s dark vision has shades of Hitchcock in its depiction of an ‘ordinary’ man’s descent into an abyss of his own making. This fall is introduced in the novel in a form of a post-modern fable: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster”
This ‘abridged version’ is then fleshed out on the grounds that “detail is always welcome” Albinus is an art critic and picture expert. He doesn’t seem to work very much but makes a lot of money just the same. He’s in his mid thirties (his wife Elisabeth is 35) and he has a daughter, Irma, aged 8. He is no hero, being “slow minded“; “not particularly talented“; unlucky in love” “a liar, a coward and a fool“. He falls in lust with Margot Peters, a 16 year old Berliner (“a vulgar little girl“) who he meets while she is working as a cinema usher.
She is the snake that lures the sinner. This age difference is why the novel is regarded as a trial version of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ but it is massively inferior in terms of quality. We learn that Margot is no blushing violet having been led (without resistance) into the ways of the flesh by a “cosmopolitan artist” Axel Rex.
Albinus is under no illusions about her given that “what he wanted was not out of innocence” He is also drawn to her out of fear for a “future by the side of his pale, faded wife“. Nabokov leaves the reader in no doubt that it is Margot’s “acrobatic bed manners” that convince Albinus to abandon his straight and narrow existence.
Margot dreams and schemes after money and fame, preferably both. Albinus is seemingly blind to the fact that, but for his wealth and influence, she wouldn’t have looked at him twice. Previously, Rex had dumped Margot unceremoniously but she still holds a candle to him and when their paths cross later their relationship is resumed. Rex also likes her for her bad qualities and the feeling is mutual.Albinus meantime has been manipulated by Margot into leaving his wife and 8 year old daughter.
Nabokov rubs salt into the miscreant’s wounds by having the young girl die of pneumonia. Margot is as oblivious to Albinus’ suffering as he is of her unscrupulous ambition. She aspires to be a great actress and Albinus unwisely pulls the strings to win her a part in a movie.
Her abysmal failure wounds her pride and she takes this out on the luckless Albinus. Rex plays the part of a long lost friend to get close to Margot. When they snatch every opportunity to have sex Albinus becomes unwittingly part of a menage a trois. Finally he learns what’s been going on behind his back but he allows Margoit to talk him out of shooting her. Instead he drives her away from Rex but in the process he collides with some cyclists and loses his sight. Now his love is quite literally blind. Rex and Margot stay together and start cheating Albinus out of his fortune.
Rex continues to live in the same house as Albinus posing as a doctor to strangers and remaining silent when Albinus is around. Nabokov stretches credibility at this point. Rex has meals at the same table and continues screwing Margot without Albinus suspecting. It is the culmination of the heartless cruelty he heaps upon Albinus Eventually, Albinus twigs that he’s been duped and despite his blindness,once again resolves to shoot Margot.
In the struggle that ensues it is he who ends up dead and the scene is described thus: “Stage directions for last silent scene: door – wide open. Table – thrust away from it. Carpet – bulging up at table foot in a frozen wave. Chair – lying close by dead body of man in a purplish brown suit and felt slippers. Automatic pistol not visible. It is under him………..The door leading from the hall to the landing is wide open too“.
The “frozen wave” in this scene is a fitting image with which to close a novel which is dispassionate and as cold as ice. I am grateful to Siegfried Woldhek for granting permission for me to use his brilliant image of Nabokov.