(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Invitation to a Beheading is a metaphysical, dystopian novel set in a nameless, timeless, and nightmarish land. The hero, Cincinnatus C., a neurasthenic young teacher of defective children, has been condemned to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude,” the perception and knowledge of forbidden things in a world where all things are already named and known to all. More concretely, his offense is being opaque in a society whose citizens are all transparent, devoid of fresh perceptions, lacking dark, secret corners in their minds or souls. Cincinnatus is “different.”

The novel opens with the pronouncement of Cincinnatus’ sentence and his return to the hilltop prison, where he is to await the unknown day of his beheading. The plot is simple. Cincinnatus, the only prisoner in the vast fortress, sits in his cell, where he is attended to by the bluff jailer, Rodion, who serves the prisoner his food and cleans; Rodrig Ivanovich, the frock-coated prison director, who makes official calls; and his lawyer, Roman Vissarionovich, who encourages Cincinnatus to pursue pointless legal formalities. Apart from discovering the date of his execution, Cincinnatus is chiefly interested in arranging a last visit with his beloved but unfeeling and promiscuous wife, Marthe. Both events are incomprehensibly elusive, as are most things in the story. On the morning of Marthe’s supposed visit, Cincinnatus, amid great fanfare, is instead introduced to a new prisoner and soon-to-be executioner, the fat and jolly Pierre. As the days pass, Pierre forces his odious friendship on the condemned man. Pierre seems to enjoy strange privileges and comes to visit Cincinnatus frequently.

Cincinnatus spends much of his time writing private thoughts in his diary. Haunted by the sense of his own uniqueness, that which sets him apart from all other members of his society, he writes, “I am the one who is alive"not only are my eyes different, and...

(The entire section is 797 words.)