" ' Sometimes I can't understand you, Albert. After all, we must put things on a proper footing, mustn't we? Or perhaps you mean to leave me after a while and go back to Lizzy?' 'Leave you?' 'Stop repeating my words, you idiot. No, you shan't come near me till you give me a sensible answer.' 'Very well, 'he said. 'On Monday I'll speak to my lawyer.' 'Positively? You promise?' "
A wicked black comedy, with a most delightful (and delightfully named) amoral villain, Axel Rex. The opening lines are the finest this side of Lolita:
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 opening, so suggestive of a fairy tale, was absent from the original novel, Nabokov's sixth, as published in Russian in 1932. An English translation appeared in 1936, and Wikipedia will tell you that Nabokov was so displeased with the translation's quality that he made his own, which he published in 1938, and which is the one we have today. A fascinating article in The New Yorker from 2014, however, shows that this version of events is not quite accurate, and that the poor translator in 1936 was rather thrown under the bus. Tracking down one of the seven known copies of the 1936 translation still in existence (most having been destroyed in a warehouse bombing/fire in WWII) in the Nabokov papers at the NYPL, the New Yorker writer found it to be Nabokov's own personal copy - and that the first 4 pages are complete different, with Nabakov having ruthlessly marked them out of existence. The opening lines in the 1938 publication are brand new. Indeed, he changed so much of the plot and frame that Nabokov's 1938 English language version of this book, the very first of his works that he wrote in English, is more of a re-write than merely a new translation, and it created a much better book.
I don't recall Nabokov being this playful in his previous novels; one can almost see the mature Nabokov emerging for the first time. This mostly comes through the character of Rex. Take his exchange with Albinus after Rex and Margot, Albinus' young mistress, have begun both a torrid affair right under Albinus' nose and a larger conspiracy to defraud Albinus:
"Is this a catalogue?" asked Rex. "May I have a look at it? Girls, girls, girls," he continued with marked disgust, as he considered the reproductions. "Square girls, slanting girls, girls with elephantiasis..."
"And why, pray," asked Albinus slyly, "do girls bore you so?"
Rex explained quite frankly.
"Well, that's only a matter of taste, I suppose," said Albinus, who prided himself on his broad-mindedness.
Ah, the broad-minded, sly Albinus, who is ever so blind. Then this exchange Rex has with an actress, which is also a hint of the literary allusions and wordplay that Nabokov would come to so richly embody:
"By the way, do tell me, my dear, how did you come to hit on your stage name? It sort of disturbs me."
"Oh, that's a long story," she answered wistfully. "If you come to tea with me one day, I shall perhaps tell you more about it. The boy who suggested this name committed suicide."
"Ah - and no wonder. But I wanted to know... Tell me, have you read Tolstoy?"
"Doll's Toy?" queried Dorianna Karenina. "No, I'm afraid not. Why?"
Nabokov also alludes to criticism of his own novels at this time, the fraught 1930's:
"I don't know, gentlemen, what you think of Udo Conrad," said Albinus, joining in the fray. "It would seem to me that he is that type of author with exquisite vision and a divine style which might please you, Herr Rex, and that if he isn't a great writer it is because - and here, Herr Baum, I am with you - he has a contempt for social problems which, in this age of social upheavals, is disgraceful and, let me add, sinful."
That Conrad, so carefree and unconcerned with social problems.
A fairy tale in the opening, a rich amusing allusive stew throughout, the novel becomes a sort of film noir by the ending, with a blind man with a revolver stalking a young woman through an apartment in a recreation of the film scene that was playing at the theater when Albinus first met Margot. A fitting end to a brilliant novel.
"Laughter in the Dark" combines Nabokov's amazing talent for prose shown in "Lolita" (minus the hebephilia) with his knack for dry, dark humor shown in "Pnin" to bring for what is, in my opinion, his best work.
"Laughter in the Dark" has some of the least likeable characters I have ever encountered in a story, to the point that by the end I wanted almost all of the main characters to fail at what they wanted to achieve. Albinus is reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis' 'Babbitt', being a self-aggrandizing narcissist who always finds a way to justify his actions. Margot, on the other hand, is an arrogant aspiring actress who would (and does) use and hurt anyone she needs to if it means she can gain wealth or fame.
As the book draws on, more characters are added and developed, but few of them ever become anything more than not hated. Neutral is a goal that the characters strive to be in this book, and the selfishness that is so pervasive amongst the characters has hilarious consequences throughout.
Nabokov crafted a wonderful world with a hilarious set of characters in this book, and if you can get past the fact that most of them are truly detestable, you will love this book.
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