Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reading group: Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

It seems to be generally agreed in our reading group that Lolita is the best novel we have discussed, so when John suggested another Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, everyone jumped on it.

This book, written some twenty-three years earlier, follows the same Nabokovian scenario, with differences: that of a middle-aged man caught in a doomed passion for a childlike young woman. Originally written in Russian with the title Kamera Obskura and soon after translated into English as Camera Obscura, it was eventually retranslated by Nabokov himself - and, I understand, to some extent revised - and republished as Laughter in the Dark.

The bones of the story are set out at the beginning of Laughter in the Dark:
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.

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and though there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.

Thus it is established that what will be of interest is not the what of this story but the how, and what follows is an omniscient-author view (not unlike the encapsulated panoramic view through a camera obscura) of the circumstances, coincidences and manipulations - all masterfully handled - through which Albert Albinus is ruined at the hands of the gold-digging prostitute Margot and her diabolical lover, Axel Rex.

The theme of the novel is clearly that of insight, conveyed through images of darkness and brilliant light. Albinus is sadly lacking in moral insight and, symbolically, falls in love with the unsuitable Margot in the dark of a cinema and eventually is blinded.

Most people had enjoyed the book immensely, but Doug surprised us all by disagreeing. He said he found it impossible to care about the fate of any of the characters, and found it quite unconvincing that Albinus should leave his wife for Margot. There followed a long discussion about this last: people said, Well it was passion, irrational passion! But Doug said that was precisely what he didn't get any sense of with the stuffy Albinus.

It is true that most people had been surprised, after the psychological complexity of Lolita, that the characters in this book are indeed stereotypes. The book has a cartoon quality, as colourfully vivid indeed as a camera obscura image, and to a great extent relies on farce. It is therefore is only by accepting these terms, and indeed entering into Nabokov's contract and taking pleasure in the process of narrative (rather than expecting psychological complexity or expecting to identify with the characters) that one can fully enjoy this book.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

No comments: