Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov (5/5)

First published: 1935
Original title: Приглашение на казнь, Priglasheniye na kazn'
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with Vladimir Nabokov, 1959

Page count: 240
The back says: Like Kafka's The Castle, Invitation to a Beheading embodies a vision of a bizarre and irrational world. In an unnamed dream country, the young man Cincinnatus C. is condemned to death by beheading [spoilers, highlight to read] for "gnostical turpitude" an imaginary crime that defies definition. Cincinnatus spends his last days in an absurd jail, where he is visited by chimerical jailers, an executioner who masquerades as a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who lug their furniture with them into his cell. When Cincinnatus is led out to be executed, he simply wills his executioners out of existence: they disappear, along with the whole world they inhabit.

I say: I really wish I had read this as a teenager because there are so many things going through Cincinnatus’ head that my younger self could relate to. Thus not stating that my current self couldn’t relate to the, I just wish I had picked it up sooner.

As with most literary works.

Without giving away too many spoilers, I would say that this also resembles Kafka’s The Trial, but with the difference being that Cincinnatus knows what he is being accused of, even though he doesn’t seem to fully understand it, and accepts it. It is a seriously peculiar (to say the least) crime and as he recalls his life he alternates from considering it inevitable that he should wind up in that cell to being mystified by how it all came about. I admit to having read several reviews and interpretations of the crime, and what I truly love about this is that there are differing views on what it truly entails.

I need to join a book club that has this on the reading list.

Besides the philosophical ponderings around the crime and Cincinnatus’ reaction to them, I loved the pure confusion and randomness of the characters surrounding him. It was all a mixture of head-scratching and laughing out loud to sheer disbelief and sorrow. I must re-read this because there are certain passages that I am still unsure of how they came about.

Kafkaesque indeed, even though Nabokov claims to not have been familiar with his works.

Beside the plot and hilarity, there is the magic of Nabokov’s writing. He has a way with words that is intelligent and captivating and I did find myself re-reading a lot of in order to proper savour the words.

“What a misunderstanding” said Cincinnatus and suddenly burst out laughing. He stood up and took off the dressing gown, the skullcap, the slippers. He took off the linen trousers and shirt. He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly coloring the air. At first Cincinnatus simply reveled in the coolness; then, fully immersed in his secret medium, he began freely and happily to... The iron thunderclap of the bold resounded, and Cincinnatus instantly grew all that he had cast off, the skullcap included. [...] - p. 28

To call this anything short of perfection would be a grave mistake – and serious understatement – for there are so many magical elements to be discussed; especially the end.

5/5 because I had to stop myself from re-reading the entire book when writing down the above passage. 


  1. It seems like a very intriguing book! Now I want to read Invitation to a Beheading and The Castle back to back - it might be an interesting experience!

    1. I will be reading The Castle this week, so we shall see what happens. Love Kafka - even though he never managed to finish his works :(