Laughter in the Dark

by Vladimir Nabokov
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

Albert Albinus, a bland wealthy supporter of the arts, happily married and the father of an eight-year-old daughter, Irma, whom he idolizes, lacks only one thing in his comfortable life: He has never experienced a grand sexual passion. The novel opens with Albinus about to embark on such an adventure, and the narrator announces in the first short paragraph that Albinus will abandon his wife for a mistress, that he will love her but will not be loved in return, and that his life will end in disaster.

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After such dismissive contempt for the tradition of keeping the plot secret, the narrator tells the reader that Albinus has already met the woman who will be his downfall and is thinking vaguely of her, while also thinking about a film project using the services of an artist, Axel Rex, who is, as the novel begins, away in the United States. Rex will, ironically, be partially responsible for Albinus’ final disaster.

Albinus has encountered a pretty young woman working as an usherette in a Berlin film house and has become infatuated with her. Margot Peters, whose life is aimless but filled with dreams of becoming a film star, takes up with Albinus, determined to use his money and connections to launch her career. She finds him attractive but does not love him, and she quickly draws him away from his wife and child, determined not only to make him pay for his pleasures but also to marry him, and later, if her film career is successful, to abandon him. Albinus, ashamed of his treatment of his family, is quite helpless and yet so deeply enchanted by Margot that he cannot resist her. He does finance a minor film in which Margot is given a secondary role, and they live together in his old apartment without any attempt on Margot’s part to hide the impropriety of their relationship.

Rex, the wandering artist, appears, and impresses Albinus deeply. He is even more impressive to Margot, since he is, in fact, her first lover and the one man who has any power over her; they join forces to make use of Albinus for their mutual benefit. Rex pretends to have homosexual tastes in order to disarm any suspicions that Albinus may have about his attentions to Margot, and he is so charming and amusing that he joins the lovers on a vacation in France.

By chance, Albinus discovers the truth about Margot and Rex. Margot manages to convince her lover-victim that it is all a joke, but he refuses to stay with Rex, and in driving Margot away from their resort hotel, distressed and confused, he wrecks his car. Margot is only slightly injured, but Albinus is blinded, seemingly permanently. Margot takes him to a quiet Swiss chalet to recuperate. He does not realize that Rex has come along, having been informed that Rex has gone back to the United States. Albinus, fragile, depressed, and tormented by his suspicions of Margot, is helpless in her hands, and systematically the two conspirators coerce him into signing over large amounts of money to them and plan to cheat him into selling his property and paintings for their advantage. In a few months, they plan to abandon him, leaving him alone and penniless. Even more cruel is their mocking of the poor man before his very (sightless) eyes, and Rex is particularly amused at being in the same room with him, worrying him with faint noises and actions which Albinus cannot understand, since Margot assures him that only she attends him.

Albinus’ brother-in-law comes to see him and reveals the trick. He takes Albinus back to Berlin and his forgiving wife, but Albinus is determined to kill Margot. He has a chance to do so when she returns to Berlin to sack his apartment, but in the scuffle between the blind, betrayed lover and the greedy mistress, Albinus’ own gun is turned on him, and he is killed. Margot, seemingly unhurt, flees the room.

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