Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

Penguin, 272pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780141196954

reviewed by Nicolas Padamsee

Asked what his position in the world of letters was, Nabokov replied, with customary wit: ‘Jolly good view from up here.’ His pantheon of major writers was offbeat and exclusive. Pushkin, Shakespeare, Bely and Tolstoy were among those accorded a place, but he was not afraid to spurn an illustrious name – DH Lawrence, Mann, Wolfe, Lorca, Dreiser, Camus, Forster: all ‘second-raters’ – and his animadversions could be delightfully trenchant. Wilde was a ‘rank moralist and didacticist’; Pound was a ‘total fake,’ his work ‘pretentious nonsense’; Faulkner’s ‘corncobby chronicles’ were brushed off; in mentality and emotion, Hemingway and Conrad were ‘hopelessly juvenile’; and, of course, Dostoevsky was a ‘claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian.’

For Nabokov, a novel was not a vehicle for socio-political instruction. It was a fairy tale, its world shaded in by a loving author, the mishmash of impressions, sensations, and coincidences reality comprises transformed into coherent but complex art. He cudgelled generalities. He caressed details. To appreciate Kafka’s 'The Metamorphosis', it was essential, not to reflect on Jewish life in early 20th century Europe, but to divine the cast of beetle Gregor had become. Acquaintance with the layout of a sleeping car on the Moscow-Petersburg express was a sine qua non for enjoyment of Anna Karenina. ‘Discuss Flaubert’s use of the word "and"' was an exam question he set his students. His own fiction was pencilled on index cards – a scene here, a scene there – with every word liable to supersession. His approach to literature was singular. It was also tremendously fructuous.

Penguin has re-released twenty-two of his texts as sober white-spined hardbacks – sixteen novels, an autobiography, a collection of short stories, a collection of poetry, a collection of novellas, and a collection of interviews. Of these, Laughter in the Dark is his fifth novel, first published in 1933 as Kamera obskura. It was written in Russian by Sirin. (Nabokov had adopted the pseudonym, derived from a folkloric bird, in 1920.) Three years later it appeared as Camera Obscura, translated by Winifred Roy. In its present form, it was released in 1938, having been substantially edited, translated and re-titled by its still-dissatisfied author.

Albinus is the protagonist of Laughter in the Dark. He is a wealthy art critic of common talent, living in Berlin; and he is in the midst of a climacteric. He has had an idea, a divine idea. With all the advances in film and animation, would it not be possible to rouse an old master? To bring a famous painting to life? Film-producers dismiss the concept as too involute – and soporific anyway – so he puts it to Axel Rex, a puckish artist known for his work on left-field projects. At last, a reply wends its way over from the United States, confirming Rex’s interest in designing a piece (for a sizeable sum). All is in place. Alas, fate is an incorrigible harmoniser; and reception of this letter concurs with an amorous crisis in our critic’s life: a crisis that halts his incubation of the idea.

For nine years, Albinus has been married to Elizabeth, the serene and comely daughter of a theatre manager. Together, they have an eight-year-old daughter, Irma. While he loves his wife, she cannot slake his amorous desires, and he has long dreamed of ‘coming across a young girl lying asprawl on a hot lonely beach.’ Days before receiving Rex’s answer, he is led into a film-showing by the striking Margot Peters, a cinema attendant in her late teens; and he is instantly ensorcelled. Still, chary of acting on his lust, of physically betraying his wife, he moons around the building and restricts himself to surreptitious stares. Aware of his interest, and curious, she takes the reins. Soon, the trysts begin. After some marvellous near-misses, the affair is alighted on, and Albinus is abandoned by his family.

His marital life in ruins, he reels into an epoch in which ‘everything was permissible; a puritan’s love, priggish, reserved, was less known in this new world than white bears in Honolulu.’ He lavishes Margot – who longs for a career in film – with radiant dresses and lambent outings. In his flat, she acts as an instaurator, her touch wiping memories from dismally evocative objects. To oblige her, Albinus decides to throw a dinner party, to which he will invite, among others, an actress, an author, a singer, and, having returned from America, Axel Rex. When the two men finally meet, the artist endears his host to him; but, as the soiree advances, the novel’s structural plates shift once more. Rex is not unknown to Margot. He is her former inamorato, whose ludic charm and fiery spirit she has long desiderated. Not privy to this, Albinus ingenuously befriends him. We have our love triangle; and, hereafter, the two themes that course matchlessly through Nabokov’s corpus, cruelty and obsession, deepen and deepen.

At the level of narrative, Nabokov’s fifth novel shares much with its siblings: most notably, the search for felicity, the sacrifice of a life in clover for a chimera, and the indictment of insouciance (Irma’s pitiful fate). At the level of character, too, it is indicative: Albinus anticipates Humbert Humbert, not only in the cast of his obsession, but in his experience of the ‘slimy layer of turpitude’ that steals over sybaritism; and Axel Rex, an unscrupulous gadabout who revels in the misfortune of others, is a forbear of Quilty. Nonetheless, the novel does not have the tornadic force, the outré characterisation, the hilarity of his magnum opus, Lolita (1955), nor does it have the whimsicality, mirth, and pathos of Pnin (1957). In part, this is because Nabokov never managed to invent Berlin with the same success that he invented America; confected with movie magazines, three-scoop sundaes and rickety diners, the country of Lolita has a richness that counterpoints Humbert Humbert’s deracination and persistently impinges on his attempts to create a paradise. The second reason, kindred, is that Albinus is one of the few protagonists not in disjunction with his environs. Timofey Pnin’s vision – as he delivers his lecture – of lost friends from his homeland would elicit a nod of recognition from Nikitin in 'The Seaport', Luzhin in 'A Matter of Chance', Nikolay in 'The Doorbell', Vasily Ivanovich in 'Recruiting' and Lev in 'The Reunion'. This recrudescent theme is a spring of pathos, and it is the marrow of Nabokov’s finest tales.

This begs the question, though, do we read Nabokov for his themes? for his characterisation? for his excavation of the mind’s hinterlands? even for his post-modern experimentation? These are all areas of talent – no question about that. None, however, is the substratum of his legacy. The substratum of his legacy is indelible imagery. In 1917, the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky developed his understanding of learning theory into the concept of ‘defamiliarisation’. With a surfeit of tasks, we cannot cast our attention willy-nilly. Some movements must become habitual. We must learn to register familiar objects forthwith. There is no other way to live. The trouble is we begin to recognise objects by their defining characteristics, as though ‘enveloped in a sack.’ This etiolation of our surroundings purges life of its colour, of its power. Thus, ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’ No 20th century novelist has reified this rubric better than Nabokov. His descriptions awaken us afresh to now-quotidian sights, to now-insipid sounds. Let’s take a look.

From ‘Christmas’: ‘As Sleptstov stepped out into the cold veranda, a floorboard emitted a merry pistol crack underfoot, and the reflections of the many-colored panes formed paradisal lozenges on the whitewashed cushionless window seats.’

From ‘Details of a Sunset’: ‘The last streetcar was disappearing in the mirrorlike murk of the street and, along the wire above it, a spark of Bengal light, crackling and quivering, sped into the distance like a blue star.’

And finally from Pnin: ‘With the help of a janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener – that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning, ethereal void, as we all must.’

How does Laughter in the Dark fare in this regard? Well, we have ‘an electric milk van on fat tyres rolling creamily.’ We have a baby that is ‘red and wrinkled like a toy balloon on its decline.’ And when Margot and Albinus are on a sortie, we have the following: ‘the darkness inside the taxi slid and swayed as quarters and halves and whole squares of ashen light passed from window to window across it.’ Indeed, the novel has many of the lineaments of Nabokov’s style. Felicitous adjective triplets: ‘a pale, sulky, painfully beautiful face.’ An abundance of adverbs (Stephen King acolytes, take note): ‘the nurse was snoring violently, almost ecstatically,’ ‘the apparatus hummed softly and monotonously.’ And fusillades of colour: ‘the electric light was already turning a death-cell yellow and the window a ghostly blue,’ ‘a blood-red puddle,’ ‘the shiny blue-black road.’

For Nabokov, a major writer was three things: a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. It is because of his skill as an enchanter that we read and re-read him. He was able to craft sentences without serrations, to coax a menagerie of lexemes into nuzzling up against one another – to produce inimitable prose. His concinnity apexed in the 1950s; but, as this luscious fairy tale shows, it had begun to bloom long before his arrival at Ellis Island.