Invitation to a Beheading was Nabokov’s next-to-last Russian novel. Cincinnatus, the hero, is a quiet rebel against the stifling mediocrity of imagination and consciousness of his world. He has an intuition of another world, one in which imagination is king and there are other people like him. Cincinnatus has been condemned to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude,” which seems to refer to his unique sense of unknown, unnamed things in a world where all things are already named and known to everyone.
The events of Invitation to a Beheading take place in a mythic country, with no indication of temporal or geographic setting, although the characters speak Russian. The story covers the last three weeks in the life of Cincinnatus, a youthful teacher of defective children. On the novel’s opening day, Cincinnatus hears his death sentence pronounced and is remanded to the hilltop prison fortress, where he is to await the fall of the ax. At first, Cincinnatus is the only prisoner in the fortress, where he is attended by his bluff jailer, Rodion; the unctuous, frock-coated director Rodrig; and his lawyer, Roman, who beleaguers him with inane legal formalities. The careful reader soon realizes that the three characters, like actors, sometimes exchange costumes and roles.
Cincinnatus wishes only two things from his jailers: the date of his execution and a last visit from his callous, unfaithful wife, Marthe, and their two deformed children. Nothing can be learned on either score. Cincinnatus is soon joined by a new inmate, the plump, complaisant Pierre, who intimates that he has tried to help Cincinnatus escape. A cheerful vulgarian who seems to enjoy odd privileges for a prisoner, Pierre forces his friendship upon Cincinnatus, who wishes only to be left alone to explore his thoughts.
Cincinnatus devotes himself to keeping a prison diary in which he explores his sense of his differentness from all others in his society...
(The entire section is 807 words.)