“Measure me while I live – after it will be too late.”
I sure have been reading a lot recently. That is usually what happens when I am on break from college. I have nothing to do; I get really bored, so I plow through multiple books. I really do not know what else to do with my life, especially during my lunch breaks at work. Nothing like a little existentialism to get you through a long day at work, right?
I am sad to say that this is my first Vladimir Nabokov book that I have read. I am familiar with some of his essays, but up until this point I have yet to read one of his novels, so I decided to start with one of his early ones before I get to Pale Fire or Lolita.
Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading is one of his earlier novels, so it comes to us as a translation from the original Russian. The novels tells the story of a man named Cincinnatus who is sentenced to be executed for his gross crime of gnostical turpitude, a crime so terrible that it defies explanation. Not knowing when his execution will be, our protagonist is forced to live out his life in his jail cell knowing that his time is coming, but not knowing exactly when.
This sort of dilemma gives Invitation to a Beheading a feel similar to many of Kafka or Camus’s writings and likewise gives us a chance to ponder on the questions of life, death, and freedom. Besides those philosophical intrigues, Invitation to a Beheading is also a devastatingly funny book, if you have a dark sense of humor and are amused by impossible situations and how they play out. The dialogue in this novel is entertaining and Nabokov does a great job giving us a sense of the predicaments at the heart of the story.
Stories like this (ones that feature a character facing certain death) allow us to evaluate ourselves and what is really important in our lives. When we are preparing to die, will we look back and care about the hustle and bustle that defined our existence? On a larger scale, does history and the whole of human civilization really matter to a person who is about to die? In Invitation to a Beheading we are forced to grapple with these questions, and realize that death is the most immediate and personal action that we will have in our lives. It is something that we experience entirely on our own. Nobody will be there to offer us advice on how to go through it and nobody can really offer any words of encouragement. It is the ultimate test of our resolve and fortitude in the face of the unknown. With this in mind Invitation to a Beheading also shows us how ill-equipped the human mind is when confronted with our inevitable demise. We simply do not have the skills to adequately cope with it, even if we are deeply religious or have a solid belief in an afterlife.
Although Invitation to a Beheading focuses mostly on death, it also focuses on life. Cincinnatus’s jail cell is in a huge fortress in which he is the sole prisoner. The only other people in the fortress are the guard, the librarian, the bumbling jail director and the mysterious M. Pierre. Within the fortress is a myriad of tunnels, hallways and turns, but only one prisoner. This acts as a direct metaphor for own lives. Ultimately, life is an experience that is totally dependent on us. We may have other people around us, but we are the only ones responsible for our actions and our decisions. The twists and turns of the fortress are reminiscent of the uncertainty of life and like Cincinnatus we have only our own decision making and judgment to rely on in order to navigate through the fortress of life successfully.
All of these ideas are woven together by Nabokov’s evocative and interesting writing. I can say that this book made me want to read some of his better known works. Invitation to a Beheading is a welcome addition to my collection of Camus and Kafka writings that illuminate to problems of life and death in the most absurd environments.