“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. — Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Don’t you love it when a book spoils its whole plot in the first paragraph? “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus”, begins Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov. “…One day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”
There, you know the whole story now. What’s the point of reading the book? Well, that exact question is answered in the next paragraph: “… we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling.”
You might have seen this kind of introduction in Romeo and Juliet. The audience is told in the beginning that the star-crossed lovers’ fate end in death, so they immediately wonder “How?” and “Why?” When the audience is freed of the gnawing anticipations of what happens at the end, they can be fully drawn into not only the events leading up to it but also the author’s craft.
Nabokov (who also supplied the title of the blog with his exemplary quote) masterfully constructed his novel that way, commanding the reader’s full attention to the moments of suspense and drama while brilliantly showcasing his talent as a writer. What’s even more masterful, however, is how he managed to keep the reader’s sympathy even after making the main characters as unlikable as possible.
Albinus, a wealthy art critic living in 1930s Berlin, has been happily married for many years and has an eight-year-old daughter. One day he spots in a movie theatre Margot, a 17-year-old stranger, and becomes inflamed with lust (or love, in his defense) for her. Margot, a neglected, undereducated little harlot, yields to his seductions and feigns returned affection for the sole purpose of being able to marry him for his money when he divorces his wife. A third character, Rex, a former lover of Margot’s and a friend of Albinus, joins her in the double-crosses to one day possess both Margot and the wealth that she would coax out of Albinus.
The reader sees clearly that all three main characters are despicable, conniving, selfish villains driven by desire. Their motives are pure evil. So what makes us twitch with sweat and agitation when, with climbing tension, the betrayals of one of the characters teeter on the verge of being discovered? What makes us sigh with relief when, by some divine miracle, their secrets appear to be safe again? It might be that, if we look close enough, Nabokov has planted in every one of his characters traits that we can all connect with.
Perhaps we pity Albinus because of his appreciation for art and beauty conveyed to us so vividly through Nabokov’s master prose. Perhaps we forgive his infatuation with a teenage girl because her “beauty” and his “love” are so tenderly and tastefully described that we cannot help but be completely charmed and confuse love with lust, just as Albinus does. Perhaps our heartstrings are pulled when Margot’s bleak, deprived childhood, where she was taken advantage of by just about everyone she meets, shows through beneath her crass and parasitic ways. But ultimately, one finds sympathy with Nabokov’s words. No matter how revolting and malicious the characters themselves are, the situations and emotions into which Nabokov tosses them seep into your own bloodstream as he injects you with his writing. The accuracy and richness with which human behavior and details are observed are uncanny. The hilarious black humor and irony, when paired with the deadpan narration, become devastating. Despite the cruelty the characters inflict on each other and suffer, there’s always present some human tenderness that you cannot help but feel. At every turn of drama and imposing dread, the blind readers are at the mercies of the story. Be prepared to be carried away.
Being a bilingual author, Vladimir Nabokov wrote Laughter in the Dark in Russian while he was still living in Soviet Union. It saw its original publication in 1932 and was translated into English in 1936. However, the author found the original translation to be so inadequate that he undertook his own translation and in the process revised parts of the work. For more information on the translation, read this article from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/nabokov-retranslated-laughter-dark