Laughter in the Dark

2008-01-31

in Books and literature, Writing

Milan’s foot in Nick’s living room

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.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 30, 2008 at 11:46 pm

I read this book as part of my reading project with Emily.

Anon January 31, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Readers of Laughter in the Dark (originally published in English as Camera Obscura) seem to be divided in their opinions about the book. People either seem to really like it, or really consider it to be nothing more than a flawed version of Lolita.

Litty February 1, 2008 at 10:18 am

The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.

. February 1, 2008 at 10:51 am

Buying a new bed for your daughter?. How about this little number, with a cheeky, precocious, contemporary culture-aware name. And pull-out desk, did I mention the built-in cupboard?

Mothers aren’t concerned about the pull-out desk; they’re concerned about the young girls’ bed being called “Lolita”.

A spokesman for the company, Woolworths, told the Times “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.”
The item has now been removed from the Woolworths site, the fate of the spokesman is undisclosed.

Emily Horn February 2, 2008 at 12:26 am

I think that Lolita was better written than Laughter, but I preferred the anti-love story of Margot and Albinus.

It is a struggle between two self-absorbed opportunists. Margot has a determination and cruelty to her that Dolores never has, Albinus is not as twisted as Humbert.

For this reason, it was easier to watch both her and Albinus plummet into their own brand of moral deprivation.

Very interesting analysis about Anna Karenina. I have a renewed interest in reading it to see the parallels.

Emily Horn February 2, 2008 at 12:27 am

(nice foot, incidentally)

. February 5, 2008 at 1:45 pm

There once was a girl named Lenore
And a bird and a bust and a door
And a guy with depression
And a whole lot of questions
And the bird always says “Nevermore.”

. February 13, 2008 at 4:31 pm

This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that “offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual;” and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

. February 21, 2008 at 4:04 pm

Vladimir Nabokov
Imagination ablaze

Feb 14th 2008
From The Economist print edition

IMAGINARY conversations with dead people are risky materials for a book, as are authorial comparisons with geniuses. So Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and herself an émigré Russian intellectual, is doubly ambitious in her slim volume of autobiographical literary and political reflections on Vladimir Nabokov, believed by many to be the greatest Russian writer of the last century.

She is ambitious too in her panoramic and sometimes dizzying sweeps through two centuries of Russian culture and politics. The reader who opens the book and finds references (on a random two pages) to Tertz, Pushkin, the Mnemosyne, Koncheyev, Godunov-Cherdyntsev, Brodsky and the “bamboo bridge” between poetry and prose could be forgiven for feeling intimidated. If he happens then on the sentence, “I saw myself in many ways walking in Nabokov’s footsteps,” he might even sense a whiff of impudence.

But Ms Khrushcheva’s approach is both accessible and modest. A self-deprecating tone saves her from pretentiousness. And from her opening contention, that “Nabokov’s journey from obscure Russian émigré writer to the author of American and world literary classics is essential for understanding Russia’s past, its present and its future”, she wears her learning lightly. If you are not quite sure at the beginning of the book who Pushkin was and why he matters, you will know enough by the end to appreciate her finely drawn comparisons and contrasts between these two towering literary figures, and feel only mildly miffed by the publisher’s sloppy omission of an index, or any pictures of the places she so eloquently describes.

. February 9, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Nabokov: A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase “sincere and simple”—“Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere”—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: “Art is simple, art is sincere.” Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

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