Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Dark Doors

I seem to have this weird thing going where I read all of Nabokov's novels except the one he's most famous for, "Lolita."  My latest step on this odyssey is Laughter in the Dark.  It's a novel with the feel of a short story: pointed, clever, and focused on an intimate group of characters in an extremely charged series of events.

I haven't figured out yet what a "typical" Nabokov story is - and, after reading Pale Fire, I kind of doubt that there is such a thing - but this book does show the mark of the master.  It's incredibly clever and extremely well-written; it isn't showy or loquacious, but he has a knack for picking the perfect words to create the best effect.  I can see once again why teachers of fiction tend to love Nabokov... he's a great, interesting, genuinely creative writer.


Again, I haven't read Lolita, but the plot of this book seems to vaguely line up with what I know of his masterwork.  The core of the story is the relationship between an older man and a much younger, almost girl-like woman; the man is aroused by her in all senses of the word, and embarks on a course of action that leads to disaster.

The biggest difference is probably that of the man; from what I understand, Humbert Humbert is not a very good man.  Albinus isn't a great person, either, but he's endearingly pathetic in a Charles Bovary kind of way.  He's timid, he stammers, he finds it difficult to act on his desires.  The book is largely about him being manipulated and strung along.

Overall, the story is very discomforting, leavened by a little humor.  It deals with some taboo subjects in a raw way.  Adultery is a staple of a lot of fiction, I guess, but this book feels unusual in the unsparing and unsentimental way that it looks at the parties involved.  The wife is a good woman, kind and loyal, but not a saint; Navokov can be quite mean (amusingly so) when he derides her gullibility and intelligence.  That weird streak of meanness runs through the book, and I imagine it will turn off a lot of people, but it's also kind of gripping because of how rare it is.


I can't begin to attach a genre to this book, even though it has a superficially conventional story.  Realistic domestic comedy crime literature, perhaps?  It's a fascinating read.

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