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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Vladimir Nabokov wrote this novel in Russian in 1935; his son, Dimitri Nabokov, translated it into English with his father’s collaboration. In a Foreword to the 1989 English-language edition, Vladimir Nabokov notes that the title’s last word might have been “execution” or “decapitation.” He mentions that he wrote the story after escaping the Soviet Union and “just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume.” When originally published, critics often labeled it “Kafkaesque,” but Nabokov had not yet read any of Franz Kafka’s work.

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Alone in his prison cell, and perhaps the only prisoner in the entire prison, Cincinnatus tries to spend his time writing. The words in the novel may be those that he is writing on the blank pages before him on the table in the cell, or they may be the narrator’s telling of the events of Cincinattus’s life. One example is his relationship with Rodion, the guard. Apparently he sometimes lets the prisoner out of his cell; in any event, he has the key to the cell door. At one point the narrator describes the two men waltzing out of the cell and down the hall; only a few seconds later, Cincinnatus is again alone in his cell, struggling to fill the time.

Rodion the jailer came in and offered to dance a waltz with him. Cincinnatus agreed. They began to whirl . . . The dance carried them into the corridor . . . They . . . glided back into the cell, and now Cincinnatus regretted that the swoon’s friendly embrace had been so brief.

With banal dreariness the clock struck again. Time was advancing in arithmetical progression.

Cincinnatus lives each day without knowing if it will be his last. The prison director refuses to tell him his execution date, saying it is against the rules to tell him and that he does not know the date. This lack of knowledge disturbs Cincinnatus, who tells the director,

"I want to know why for this reason. The compensation for a death sentence is knowledge of the exact hour when one is to die. A great luxury, but one that is well earned. However, I am being left in...

(The entire section contains 557 words.)

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