Nabokov’s book is a cruel one: a love story without love, and a mystery with the ending announced in the opening lines. It lacks everything that saves Lolita from being a hopelessly ugly story, notably the sense that there is something of value in what transpires, if only for the descriptions it evokes. When the characters in Laughter in the Dark are aware at all, it is generally only for the shallowest of self-serving purposes. The only character with any force of understanding – Paul – is nonetheless unable to effectively protect anyone of importance to him. He just ends up carrying the grief that is beyond the capabilities of everyone else in the book.
As with Nabokov’s other work, allusions to other literature are fairly frequent. While Lolita calls most loudly to Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, Laughter in the Dark spends a fair bit of time whispering to Anna Karenina, though Margot and Rex acutely lack the depth of character that partially redeem Anna and Vronsky. The German setting creates an alien and alienating feeling quite different from Lolita – the book with which this one must inevitably be compared. The characters all seem better suited to vindictiveness than joy, as demonstrated by everything from the shallowness and hypocrisy of Albinus’ interest in Margot (abandoning his family, but immediately inclined to kill her for straying from him) to the uncalculated malice underlying the triumph of her confidence trick.
Nabokov has a talent for irony and devastating understatement. At several points, I was moved to mark the margin with a hasty exclamation point. The clarity of his work is well displayed in this novel, though his talent mostly evokes an appreciation for how trivial, manipulative, and unredemptive human relations can be at their worst. The straightforwardness of the language is extreme even for Nabokov, who does not generally play games with opaque and experimental prose. Laughter in the Dark is intensely cinematic. Particularly during the last portion – in which Albinus has lost his vision – you can imagine how the shots would be framed, how his willful blindness and the callousness of his tormentors would be displayed on celluloid.
Having read this book, I think I will need to go back and read Lolita and Anna Karenina again – though that was inevitable before I ever picked up this volume.