Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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 that ignorance which is tolerable only to those living in liberty."
As the days pass, Cincinnatus does not learn the date of his execution or the method; he wonders about both. He also tries to fill what little precious time he has with meaningful writing but, as he struggles to retain his grasp on reality, he admits that he has always been a dreamer—he actually preferred dreams to reality, finding in them a nobler, more spiritual world. The writing time creates a break during which his thoughts can wander freely, but he finds it ever hard to express himself.
I have no desires, save the desire to express myself—in defiance of all the world’s muteness. How frightened I am. How sick with fright. But no one shall take me away from myself. . . . I am here through an error—not in this prison, specifically, but in this whole terrible striped world. . . . And yet ever since childhood, I have had dreams. . . . In my dreams the world was ennobled, spiritualized; . . . in my dreams the world would come alive, becoming so captivatingly majestic, free and ethereal, that afterward it would be oppressive to breathe the dust of this painted life.