Monday, March 07, 2011

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (1938)

Nabokov is one of those authors that I like too much to rush out and read all his books, because then there wouldn't be any more to read. Instead, I savor one every year or two and then set the rest aside for future enjoyment. Laughter in the Dark (1938) is such a perfect knife-twistingly hilarious story that I'm glad I finally picked it up off the shelf.

Every review of this book seems to quote the first couple of sentences, so I'll join the club and include them here. They do tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the story and why it is being told:

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 is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.

This doomed love affair between the wealthy older Albinus and the vampy, sexual, and young Margot is often cited as being "practice" for Nabokov's most famous novel, Lolita. While there are definitely parallels between the two novels, the feel of the two is very different for me, and I don't think Laughter in the Dark should be thrown away as a lesser novel. This is a tragic story with a foregone conclusion, but Nabokov's insistence on heaping one misfortune after another on this group of fascinatingly unlikable people has a lot of humor in it. I don't want to spoil it, but the rescue scene towards the end of the book is one of the funniest things I've ever read, and I didn't expect to be that amused by this book.

The widely available English version of this novel was translated from the Russian by Nabokov himself in 1938 (after he was dissatisfied by the original English translation) and revised again in 1960. I couldn't imagine a different translation of this book where every word fits perfectly in its place. This is a fast read with a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, and just enough moral lessons for a person to sink their teeth into.


Has anyone seen the 1969 film version of this with Anna Karina? I'm pretty interested in how it translates to the screen...

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