Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Invitation to a Beheading is Nabokov’s most artifice-saturated and technically sophisticated novel. Together with Dar (1937-1938, 1952; The Gift, 1963), the last of his Russian-language novels, it stands at the pinnacle of his Russian oeuvre. With his emigration from France to the United States in 1940, the trilingual Nabokov began writing only in English. Invitation to a Beheading is Nabokov’s earliest major statement of “the two-world theme” which underlies so much of his work. The gifted heroes in their wretched, illusory, fictional worlds sense, from intricate patterns around them, that an ideal and meaningful world exists, the world of the all-powerful author. The point of transition between the two worlds is death. Death is at the center of much of Nabokov’s writing, despite the fact that he is the author of two comic masterpieces, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). The two-world theme, with its focus on death, extends from Invitation to a Beheading, written in 1934, to Nabokov’s last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins! (1974).

Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction is a unique literary phenomenon. An absolute master of two languages, he made contributions to both Russian and English literature that place him among the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century.