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Vladimir Nabokov: Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to a Beheading)

Nabokov described it as my dreamiest and most poetical novel. It was the first one to be translated into English by his son, Dmitri. It is an unashamed satire of a totalitarian state and finds echoes in other similar works such as Zamyatin‘s We, Orwell‘s 1984 and Boye‘s Kallocain. The story is written in eighteen chapters, which correspond to each day that Cincinnatus, who has been condemned for the crime of gnostical turpitude, spends in prison prior to his execution. What gnostical turpitude is never made entirely clear but it is obvious that Cincinnatus’ crime is in being different from everyone else. Nabokov shows us – not very sympathetically – the other characters involved in Cincinnatus’ final days. There is his jailer, Rodion, the director of the prison, Rodrig Ivanovich and Rodrig Ivanovich’s daughter, Emmie. None comes out well, being portrayed as bumbling, ineffectual clowns, almost straight out of Dickens. He later meets Pierre, tyrannical, arrogant and cruel, who is to be, as he later finds out, his executioner. The roles of these characters shift but they are insubstantial, transparent people, clearly despised by Nabokov as representatives of the totalitarian state. In the end, though he is executed, Cincinnatus wins, as his spirit, his soul, whatever you want to call it, escapes, even while his body dies. It doesn’t really work for me but it is still a valiant attempt to portray the totalitarian state at work.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by Dom Knigi, Paris
First English translation 1959 by Putnam