Monday, August 22, 2016

Laughter in the DarkLaughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"In a passing mirror he saw a pale grave gentleman walking beside a schoolgirl in her Sunday dress. Cautiously, he stroked her smooth arm and the glass grew dim."

Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark has quite an interesting history. Nabokov wrote the novel titled Камера Обскура (Camera Obscura) in Russian and it was serialized in the literary journal Современные записки (Contemporary Writings) in 1932. In 1936 it was translated to English, but Nabokov was not happy with the results, so he retranslated the novel himself and changed the title: in its current form Laughter in the Dark was published in 1938.

The first sentence of the novel
"Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster."
neatly summarizes the plot. Of course - the author hopes few sentences later - that "detail is always welcome." Indeed it is precisely the detail that makes the novel somewhat readable.

Albert Albinus is a stolid middle-aged man, an art critic and historian, dedicated to his work as well as to his wife and young daughter. He meets his future mistress, Margot, in a movie theater where she works as an usher. The attraction is instantaneous and powerful. It is not quite clear whether Margot is sixteen or seventeen years old - suffice it to say that she certainly is not an adult woman - still, she is keenly aware of the sexual attraction powers she oozes. Albert is by no means her first man, and she has quite a lot of experience in getting men to do what she wants from them, while giving them the one thing they want. This tawdry little story (thanks to my Goodreads friend, Judith, for reminding me the word 'tawdry'!) is completely cliché, and has been told thousands of times.

The last fourth of the book stands out: while the events continue to unfold in a "paint-by-numbers" way, the mood changes to almost burlesque and the narrator's cynicism and black humor make the last part of the plot a little different than the conventional tale of a middle-aged man captivated by sexual appeal of an adolescent girl. The story becomes refreshingly brutal and painful to read, especially when it involves the character of Rex. I find him the most full-bodied character in the novel even if his portrayal borders on caricature:
His culture was patchy, but his mind shrewd and penetrating, and his itch to make fools of his fellow men amounted almost to genius.
Margot's character is realistic but does not transcend the cliché stereotype of a moderately cunning teenage schemer and manipulator and I find the character of Albert bland and hard to relate to as a real person.

Of course, the novel is very well written: there are quite a few dazzling passages that indicate Mr. Nabokov will eventually become one of the greatest master stylists of the English prose. But I would like to take exception to a specific literary device used by the author many times. He tells the reader what the characters think, in full sentences:
"'Shall I hit him?' thought Paul, and then: 'What does it matter now?'"
Irritatingly, it makes the prose read like a cartoon with the dialogue bubbles over the characters' heads. On the other hand, the novel contains one passage that I absolutely love but it seems to have come from an altogether different book; it is quoted after the rating.

To sum up, I do not like Laughter too much. I wonder whether the novel served as a sort of trial run for Lolita and hope to have more insights after I re-read Mr. Nabokov's "official" masterpiece.

Two stars.
"'A certain man,' said Rex [...], 'once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish -- but there was no diamond inside. That's what I like about coincidence.'"

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