Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov

I always come back to good ol’ Vlad, and this one keeps up the pattern of being awesome in unexpected ways.

This book tells the story of Cincinnatus C. , a 30 year old teacher convicted of ‘gnostical turpitude’ and his experiences waiting around in a cell for his own execution.

What struck me most about this book was the unsettling variance in tone. Throughout the story we get regular doses of Cincinnatus’s internal thoughts, his anxiety and constant fear about his upcoming death, his inability to think about anything else and inability to focus on writing his final thoughts because his captors won’t tell him when the exact date he will be killed, meaning he has no idea if he’ll have time to finish. These parts are very human and identifiable, and made me think about my own impending death.

Yet alongside these existential fears is the complete ridiculousness of all the other characters involved. His jailer, his lawyer, the librarian who brings him books–all of them are clownish oafs who want to make friends with him, and expect him to be grateful for how they are taking care of him so well, and call him a sourpuss for being so down in the dumps all the time. This all made the scenario so much more terrible.

Early in the story a second prisoner is introduced, and the guards play matchmaker with them, basically forcing Cinncinatus to be friends with this person, who only wants to show him photographs and talk about fishing and play chess, and has zero fear or worry, or desire to talk about their plight. We find out later that this ‘prisoner’ is actually Cinncinatus’s executioner and the entire charade was for the purpose of becoming friends with his ‘client’ before the execution, so that it would be less barbaric.

All this forced kindness in the face of an execution had the effect of a mounting feeling of horror in me. The feeling was that everyone in the world was in on it, everyone knew and accepted that Cinncinatus was to be killed (for what, we never find out exactly, but it seems to be related to some aspect of him as a person) and everyone was happy and celebrating it, and Cinncinatus himself was perceived by everyone else as some kind of grump for not just accepting and going along with it.

It’s quite a feat, in my opinion, to write something that can have me laughing, while also feeling a kind of existential dread at the same time. I’ve not yet failed to recommend a Nabokov novel, and this one won’t break the streak. Definitely check it out!

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