Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
Albert Albinus, an independently wealthy German art collector and art critic. This shy, scholarly, middle-aged family man lives a staid upper-middle-class existence but has always longed for a passionate love affair. He foolishly falls in love with a trollop half his age whose treachery causes him to lose his wife, his daughter, his eyesight, much money, and finally his life. He is a well-meaning, good-natured victim of his repressed libido. Most of the story is told through his point of view.
Margot Peters, an usherette who becomes Albinus’ mistress. Although only eighteen years old and looking more like sixteen, she has grown up in a tough environment and has had considerable worldly experience. She has been a prostitute and a kept woman. She is beautiful and bursting with sex appeal, however, which is why she captivates Albinus. She has no affection for him but tries to get him to divorce his wife and marry her. Her fierce motivation to escape from her sordid lower-class background, to live in luxury, and to have a film career provides the main impetus for the action in the novel. She is the personification of the adage that beauty is only skin deep.
Axel Rex, a talented but improvident painter and cartoonist. He is about the same age as Albinus and shares his artistic tastes; otherwise, his character is diametrically opposite. He is ruthless and sadistic; however, he has the ability to charm most people, including Albinus. Although Rex is described as strikingly ugly, with hollow cheeks, thick lips, and dull white skin, he appeals to women like Margot because of his uninhibited animal nature. They are soulmates: His external ugliness mirrors her internal ugliness. Being more clever and daring than Margot, he provides leadership in duping Albinus and cheating him out of his money. When Albinus loses his eyesight in an auto accident, Rex takes malicious delight in moving into his home and making love to Margot in front of the blind man. This hateful but fascinating character provides a new twist to the old story of the infatuated middle-aged lover’s downfall.
Paul, Albinus’ brother-in-law, a fat, unimaginative, highly conventional man who is devoted to his sister and her family and is there for dinner practically every night. After Albinus deserts Elizabeth, he acts as her protector and adviser. He also tries to be a father to his young niece. He is infuriated by his brother-in-law’s behavior but eventually rescues him from the clutches of the unscrupulous Margot and Axel Rex.
Elizabeth Albinus, Albinus’ wife, a good homemaker and mother but cool, refined, and uninspiring as a sexual partner. She is the hapless victim of Albinus’ infidelity; however, her bland personality makes it understandable that he might be drawn into an affair with a more passionate woman.
Irma Albinus, the eight-year-old daughter of Albert and Elizabeth. She dies of pneumonia indirectly as a result of her father’s desertion. Although her death makes him feel consumed with guilt, he still cannot break free of Margot and return to his bereaved wife, as he knows he should.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
The first paragraph, with its casual indifference to any pretense of realistic suspense, is the key to this novel. Nabokov is not interested in originality but in “making new” the age-old tale of the foolish, middle-aged male drawn to disaster by the heartless, gold-digging siren. Albinus fulfills all the qualifications for a bad film (in fact, his story often formed the plot of motion pictures of the 1920’s and 1930’s). Indeed, the film in which Margot so unsuccessfully acts has the same kind of lachrymose plot of sexual betrayal. Margot, reared in working-class squalor (with its hints of violence and vulgarity), cunning without being intelligent, and well aware of the monetary value of her brash prettiness, is Nabokov’s deliberate parody of the film vamp, just as Albinus is the feckless, stupid “fool for love.” When Albinus discovers the truth, he reacts as the film dupe would do: He is determined to blow out Margot’s brains. The blind man groping silently for his victim in a closed room, the roar of the pistol, the scuffle to the death are all of a piece with the overripe cinema of the period. Significantly, the last words of the novel are set in the language of a motion-picture script.
Rex, however, is more than a simple parody of a cinema villain, and he is the most interesting character of the three. He is an artist of considerable talent and some reputation, and he is dangerously intelligent. Moreover, he is doubly connected in the love triangle: in the obvious way as Margot’s lover and coconspirator, and also as the man with whom Albinus wants to work in bringing to film the idea, which he has taken from a novelist, Udo Conrad, of a cartoon in which great paintings can be animated. Rex is also a man with a philosophy of life and art, and it is his idea of manipulating life as if it were art that is to be the moving force in Albinus’ ultimate tragedy. Albinus may be presumptuous in planning to turn fine art into the lesser art of cinema, but his ambitions pale before Rex’s determination to turn life into art, as he does both before and after Albinus is blinded because it amuses him. In that arbitrary play with people’s lives, he is more villainous than the film cads, who usually have some simple ambition behind their nastiness; as such, he—like Albinus and Margot—is also a parodic figure, but not a simple one, since a complicated intellectual structure informs his machinations.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33
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