Vladimir Nabokov composed Laughter in the Dark in Russian and first published it in 1938 under the title Kamera Obscura. This was in Europe. In the 1960s, he translated it with the assistance of his son, Dmitri Nabokov. Their habit was for the younger Nabokov to do a "literal" translation of the original work, whereupon the elder N. would polish, reword, and sometimes make significant changes. So it's not really a translation in the conventional sense, unlike Nabokov's translations of Lermontov and Pushkin. Of course, if Nabokov had taken the liberty of "improving" those two, he might have really improved them. I'm sure we all remember King Karl in Pale Fire, disappointed by the pedestrian reality of Shakespeare in the original after having been raised on a set of erratic translations.

Laughter is another product of Nabokov's "German period", so to speak. He lived in Germany for many years after fleeing the gruesome end of the Russian Revolution, but he never learned to speak the German language and he never associated much with Germans. He lived among Russian emigrés, wrote in Russian, and was published by the Russian language press in Europe. Germany seems not to have interested him very much. As a result, his pre-war (but which war?!) bourgeois Berliners are probably more a work of the imagination than you might think. To my mind, at least, they don't seem to resonate as people quite the way Charlotte Haze does. In fact, it all reminds me a little bit of Citizen K's only decent novel -- the one set in a nation which he didn't merely ignore, but had in fact never visited. I don't mean the Nature Theater of Oklahoma crowd in particular. Nabokov never wrote that kind of cartoon. It's a similar vibe, though: A place more imagined than known is bound to be more wholly characteristic of itself than when facts intrude. In weak and trembling hands this can be a disaster. Nabokov's and Kafka's hands (as writers, anyway) were strong and steady enough. Nabokov said somewhere that science fiction was pointless because all writing is science fiction anyway: None of it is really possible. Every fictional world is an alternate universe in which certain laws (causality, human motivation, and so on) operate differently. He was right.

The story in Laughter is that of a mild-mannered Berlin art critic enthralled by the magic of the cinema. He is married, of course, and has a young daughter. He finds himself seduced by the sort of beautiful, cheap, plausible floozy who in the midcentury fictional mind (at the very least) is determined to become a starlet. It's a shame she blundered into a Nabokov novel; in a Broadway musical she'd be a sympathetic character from some characteristically American small town that New York audiences might have heard of (and which they'd imagine, and which would be imagined for them, in much the way Nabokov invented so much of his Berlin).

The floozy, the beautiful Margot, persuades our critic to finance a movie starring herself. The camera's magic reveals her to be an oddly repulsive specimen. The author knew all along, of course. The critic (his name is Albinus, ha ha) leaves his wife to travel with Margot to the French Riviera and Switzerland with a mutual friend named Axel Rex, an artist and a sort of free-lance self-appointed genius in search of funding. Rex and Margot are fond of each other for obvious reasons, and fond of their tedious ward because he has money. They tell Albinus that Rex is homosexual. Albinus manages not to notice what's happening.

In Switzerland Albinus is blinded in a car accident. Margot and Rex set him up in a chalet and start parasitizing him in earnest. He is not told that Rex is there, and they make a cruel game of it1. Rex will hover near Albinus for hours; With the proverbially sensitive hearing of the blind, Albinus is always suspcious of something but never quite sure what. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, Albinus' family is sending letters which the wicked pair never open. At long last Albinus' brother-in-law arrives on the scene to find a naked (!) Rex sitting on the windowsill, watching Albinus intently. Albinus is listening, listening, listening.

The brother-in-law thrashes Rex with his walking stick and takes Albinus home. The daughter dies of pneumonia. Margot returns to Berlin; Albinus hears of this; he decides to find her and shoot her. He is, of course, blind, and she gains control of the pistol. His death scene is one of the loveliest things Nabokov ever wrote. His creator grants him some dignity, not like poor old Clare Quilty, clumsily bumped off by a half-unglued pedophile.

So, in sum: This is one of the good ones. It's also one of the adultery ones: Our dear Vladimir was a rake before he got married and settled down, and I think his karma (so to speak, for God's sake) haunted him.




1 Recall the title.

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