Review: Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

“[S]urely the Cupid serving him was lefthanded, with a weak chin and no imagination.”
~Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

Plot summary

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.’ Thus begins Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark; this, the author tells us, is the whole story except that he starts from here, with his characteristic dazzling skill and irony, and brilliantly turns a fable into a chilling, original novel of folly and destruction.

Amidst a Weimar-era milieu of silent film stars, artists, and aspirants, Nabokov creates a merciless masterpiece as Albinus, an aging critic, falls prey to his own desires, to his teenage mistress, and to Axel Rex, the scheming rival for her affections who finds his greatest joy in the downfall of others.” More on Goodreads

On Vladimir Nabokov

“Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-American novelist. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made significant contributions to lepidoptery and had an interest in chess problems.

Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as his most important novel, and is at any rate his most widely known one, exhibiting the love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail that characterized all his works.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Pity of witnessing someone’s downfall
  • Victim of one’s own desires
  • Ruthless caricature on glamorous circles

I’m thinking that it might not be a coincidence that many characters in the novels I’ve reviewed so far, reside in the dimension once known as the Weimar era in Germany. It was an interesting but loaded era that failed in its early stages. This particular era seems to have bred many interesting creatures. In Kästner’s Going to the Dogs the circumstances around a rational mind failed, but it seems in Albinus’ case rationalism fails and avoids him.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) first emigrated from Russia to England and completed his studies at Cambridge before moving to Berlin. Nabokov remained in Berlin from 1922 until 1937 before fleeing to Paris and eventually to the United States in 1940.

Like watching a reality show

Laughter in the Dark is a sinister lookout at an unfortunate man. The way the novel begins reminds me of the setting of many reality TV shows: one pities the main character but cannot switch the channel. So far I have refrained from reading Nabokov’s most famous novel, Lolita, due to the topic portrayed in the novel, so I have nothing to say about it.

Cover for Laughter in the Dark. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)
Cover for Laughter in the Dark. Photo: CHRIS DRUMM (CC BY 2.0)

As a side note, Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark is ranked 249 out of 999 books in the listing for the Most Depressing Book of All Time on Goodreads. Curiosity killed the cat, but I had to take a peek at the Top 3 of that intriguing list where readers can vote for their favorite in the category of depression. Number 1 slot is reserved for Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1942), number 2 for George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and number 3 for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). I’ve read the first two and seen the movie version of McCarthy’s novel. Interestingly, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) lands on spot 8. It’s probably on its rightful place, since what other novel manages to picture humanity as aptly as Golding does. I only wonder why it’s not higher on the list, since let’s be honest, the content in the novel is depressing with a bid D. I would not classify Orwell’s 1984 as depressing at all, but then again, voting is a symptom of a form of tyranny of the majority 🙂

Nabokov catches the spirit of the Zeitgeist of Berlin in a marvelous manner. The glamorous circles of famous personages make the fall of the main character even more poignant. It is almost like a moral story without being moralistic: the character desires something that is mostly unreal, and abandons the goodness he already possesses in the first place, leaving him in misery and unsatisfied for good. Laughter in the Dark is a vivid and tormenting story that is more possible than what one may accept. I believe the tormenting elements in the novel speak for its brilliance. The fate and times of one particular Albinus could happen to any of us which makes the reading even more tangible.

However, if you are sick and tired of tangibility, take a rollercoaster ride with Nabokov to the realm of absurd and bizarre elements and kindly read Invitation to a Beheading. Or if early 1930’s Berlin isn’t strange enough as it is for you, take a look at an imagined tyranny in Bend Sinister, a world where individualism and freedom of thought have been abolished.

“The thought, when written down, becomes less oppressive, but some thoughts are like a cancerous tumor: you express is, you excise it, and it grows back worse than before.”
~Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

“Nothing on earth really matters, there is nothing to fear, and death is but a question of style, a mere literary device, a musical resolution.”
~Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

More information
– Brian Boyd & Robert Michael Pyle (ed.) (2000): Nabokov’s Butterflies, Beacon Press, Boston
– Kate Connolly (22 April 2008): Nabokov’s last work will not be burned, retrieved from the Guardian web archive on 3 November 2016
– Lev Grossman (17 May 2000): The gay Nabokov (on the Nabokov family and the secret of Vladimir’s younger brother Sergei), published in Salon, retrieved on 3 November 2016
– Josh Jones (30 July 2015): Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems, published in Open Culture, retrieved on 3 November 2016
Nabokov Bibliography, All About Vladimir Nabokov in Print, link retrieved on 3 November 2016
– Nabokov’s interview on Lolita in Playboy for the January 1964 edition, link retrieved on 3 November 2016
– The Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, link retrieved on 3 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Nabokov
  • Mary (1926)
  • The Luzhin Defense (1930)
  • Despair (1934)
  • Invitation to a Beheading (1936)
  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
  • Bend Sinister (1947)
  • Speak, Memory (1951)
  • The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1952)
  • Pnin (1953)
  • Lolita (1955)
  • Pale Fire (1962)
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
  • Transparent Things (1972)
  • Look at the Harlequins! (1974)
  • The Enchanter (1985)
  • The Original of Laura (2009), fragmentary, published posthumously

“Death,” he had said on another occasion, “seems to be merely a bad habit, which nature is at present powerless to overcome.”
~Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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