Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Laughter in the Dark is a reworking of an earlier story, originally written in Russian and translated into English under the title Camera Obscura. That earlier tale is denser in detail than the later work, but it, too, explores the idea that fiction is not quite the same as reality, that there is always an aspect of parody to a work of art. Most writers attempt to hide the fact that they are imitating life; Nabokov often directs the reader’s attention to the imitation. Laughter in the Dark uses variations of common devices seen in many of his works. The use of the fable frame, the love triangle, the interest in mixing art forms, the seeming disinterest in moral values, and the sophisticated slyness of the tale are all characteristic of Nabokov as storyteller. The old cliche that “love is blind” takes on a cruel edge of wittiness in the hands of this master of the proposition that the way in which the story is told is more important than the story itself. With this novel, Nabokov came to artistic maturity.

Laughter in the Dark is sometimes called one of the “dream” novels. It was followed by two other works in which dreams come true, and the consequences are not quite what was expected: Otchayanie (1936; Despair, 1937, revised 1966) and Priglashenie na kazn’ (1938; Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). The idea of male infatuation of a forbidden, destructive kind is common in Nabokov, however, reaching its most famous expression in Lolita (1955).