Invitation to a Beheading

by Vladimir Nabokov
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

Although Nabokov is more remembered for Lolita, his infamous novel written in English about a sociopathic pedophile's lust for a little girl, Invitation to a Beheading, originally written in Russian, is also an important book in Nabokov's oeuvre. Written in 1935 and very loosely based on the year his family spent in Russia shortly after the 1917 Revolution, the novel's nightmarish, Kafkaesque quality is meant to capture life in a totalitarian regime.

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In the novel, Nabokov explores what he calls poshlust. This is a quality in which the trashy or tasteless image is presented, in the words of Azar Nafisi, as the "falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive." Today, we might use the term kitsch or tacky. In Invitation to a Beheading's nightmare world, executions, for example, become a tacky or poshlust spectacle to which tickets are sold as if the killing of other humans is a Broadway play or a circus show.

As Nafisi points out in her book Reading Lolita in Teheran, there were many points of reference between what was happening during the revolution in the late 1970s that established a fundamentalist and totalitarian Islamic regime and the world described in the unnamed country of Invitation to a Beheading. And as Invitation and Nafisi show, totalitarian regimes share recognizable likenesses.

For example, one of the worst aspects of living in the totalitarian regime of Invitation is not arrest, torture, or physical pain but the sense of constant dread—and in the case of Cincinnatus C., the state of continually wanting to resist and push back against being sucked into the funhouse mindset of the regime. Because of their circumstances, the frail, anything-but-outwardly-heroic Cincinnatus shares common traits with a more well-known anti-totalitarian everyman, Winston Smith of 1984. Both fight back through struggling to maintain an independent mindset and identity. Both rebel against their respective regimes, in part through writing. Both, of course, are doomed. As Nafisi puts it in Reading Lolita, Cincinnatus resists the world of "false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner."

What Invitation points to is the importance of literature to survival in the weird funhouse of a regime where reality is constantly altered and distorted. Cincinnatus must withdraw into his writing self to survive until his beheading with his selfhood intact. In our free society, art can be relegated to a backdrop. In a totalitarian regime, art, be it a paperweight, a journal, an individual inward vision, or a reading group, becomes central to maintaining a sense of selfhood and sanity in a world that seems to have gone mad.

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