The Informing of the Soul (Invitation to a Beheading)*
by Gennady Barabtarlo

...Inclusas animas superumque ad lumen ituras
Lustrabat studio recolens.

Recurrent motifs in Nabokov's fiction not only point in the creator's direction and thus to the realm beyond specific fiction, but they sometimes serve to set and mark local temporal and spatial conditions within the artificially created universe. Invitation to a Beheading is probably the most convincing case in point. The novel's dimensions are defined almost exclusively through a thematic network, and even much of its plot formation is driven by periodic devices. Many of them are interlinked and all are retroactive, if only because each serial occurrence must refer to its antecedent in order to keep the thematic circuit closed.

Cincinnatus C., the novel's only persona, is sentenced to die by decollation for the crime of being animate among the merely animated mannequins whose heads are detachable and interchangeable. He enters the fortress as its sole prisoner at the beginning of the novel and leaves it only at its close (not counting the occasional outings on which his memory takes him during his stay in the cell) to be executed on the block. His various jailers, and the headsman himself, drag Cincinnatus through the maze of ever more elaborate psychological tortures, in a legally prescribed attempt to make him accept the execution as a cooperative act crowning a solemn public ceremony. The first sentence of the book is, quite literally, a death sentence that is not carried out until the penultimate page.

Cincinnatus does not know which day will be his last. This ignorance is complicated by certain coruscating spoon-baits of hope that his tormentors deftly dap, only to jolt them up one after another as soon as Cincinnatus becomes sufficiently attracted. The fatal day meanwhile draws nearer, as unknown as ever and even more terror-breathing, and this dreadful cycle is Cincinnatus's most crushing torture. We learn that we are "nearing the end <...> a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and -- O horrible!" (12). The slightly baffled first-time reader thumbs the "right-hand, still untasted part of the novel" (12), hardly knowing more of the end thus foreglimpsed than does Cincinnatus, and perhaps knowing less when the book is closed. On learning to see in the dark with each successive reading, the reader notices certain fluorescent signs and dots here and there; he reckons and connects them and then, from an upraised vantage point, observes the novel's landscape and its thematic lines running lengthwise. The higher the elevation, the more of the layout becomes visible. At any given point the re-reader knows what will happen next and is therefore free to break, or even reverse, the illusory chain reaction of cause and effect in which Cincinnatus is enwebbed and study instead aetiology of a higher order, where some plain-looking objects and events turn out to be markers concurring to call one's attention to this or that detail in the master plan and, hence, to the master's invisible presence everywhere in the book.1

One such marker in Invitation to a Beheading is the pencil, that hour hand of sorts pointing to the book's end; another is the spider, whose diet is in mysterious but definite relation to Cincinnatus's sufferings. The two tracks converge on the last day when, just before he is invited to the beheading, Cincinnatus sees his pencil dwindle to a barely holdable stub with which he strikes out a certain word of grave significance, the last one he is ever to jot down, while the spider's prize treat, the beautiful moth, eludes it and later emblematically shows the reader which way Cincinnatus will take to leave the novel: through the window hacked out in its firmament.

I shall assemble and line up these thematic series and to comment, however cursorily, on the idealism and semantics of the moth metaphor that blazons the book's exit.2

Cincinnatus's pencil is a much more reliable chronometer than the clearly time-serving chimes of the fortress clock. Cincinnatus spends nineteen days in prison, a chapter a day, each chapter beginning a new day, except for the last day which spans chapters Nineteen and Twenty, the latter technically open-ended.3

At the beginning of the book, the pencil is "beautifully sharpened <...> long as the life of any man except Cincinnatus" (12). As a matter of fact it is exactly as long as whatever is left of Cincinnatus's life in the book, indeed, as long as the book itself. Perhaps nowhere in the world's vast fiction literature on decapitation does the obvious and jejune pun on the Latin for "chapter" (caput) present itself so naturally and in such meaningful fashion as in Invitation to a Beheading. Cincinnatus's last days are literally numbered by the chapter's increments, a day per capita, and his confinement in the novel ends when, in the final chapter, he climbs the block to be beheaded. The hero and the book are "decapitated" simultaneously.4

The pencil is the novel's time-measuring rod, for its length decreases in direct proportion to the steadily shrinking number of pages remaining.5 Each time the pencil is sharpened and ready anew to be used by the doomed diarist, it naturally gets shorter, and so does his life in prison.6 Chapter Eight opens as Cincinnatus observes Rodion whittling the pencil for him. "Today is the eighth day, wrote Cincinnatus with the pencil that had lost more than a third of its length" (actually, exactly two-fifths on that particular morning. 89). In the next-to-last chapter, just before the formal invitation to execution is extended, Cincinnatus hastily pencils a flurry of his most far-reaching thoughts when he realizes that he has run out of paper. He then finds a fresh leaf, the very last one, writes on top of it one word, and immediately crosses it out as maddeningly imprecise (206). The word is death,7 and he deletes it with his already much "stunted" pencil, by now awkward to hold between fingers, let alone resharpen. Nor has he time to sharpen it. One interesting extension of the pencil metaphor is that sharpening never reduces a pencil quite to naught; a stub always remains. One will recall, in this connection, the theme of Pencil Pedigree in Transparent Things, as well as Nabokov's often repeated aphorism that the eraser tips of his pencils go sooner than the lead.

The observant re-reader thus finds what the ingenious author has hidden. His creature, however, must not discover it, for, if Cincinnatus had found this simple method of monitoring the quickly approaching end of the book, he "could" have stopped using his pencil, eo ipso ending the narration at once, since much of it is actually written with this very tool.8 Thus, the pencil is both a local time reference gauge and a means, if not a source, of the novel's existence, the unavoidable dwindling of which nears the inevitable end of the narrated world.

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*Copyright © 1993 by Gennady Barabtarlo. This essay, which originally appeared in the author's Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics (New York: P. Lang, 1993), is reprinted here by kind permission of the author. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.

[Editor's note: References to Invitation to a Beheading (hereafter IB) are to Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (New York: Putnam's, 1959).]

Epigraph: "...was surveying, deep in thought, the imprisoned souls that were to pass to the light above." Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 680-81.

1. Similar propositions have been illustrated by ample evidence from Ada in Brian Boyd, Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985).

2. I subjoin here an incomplete list of the works on Invitation to a Beheading that are relevant to the matter of this essay and to its particular treatment: P.M. Bitsilli, a 1936 review of IB, translated from Russian by D. Barton Johnson in A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov, C. Proffer, ed. (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1974), pp. 63-69; Dabney Stuart, "All the Mind's a Stage. A Reading of Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov," The University of Windsor Review 4, no. 2 (1969), pp. 1-24; Robert P. Hughes, "Notes on the Translation of Invitation to a Beheading," in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations, and Tributes, eds. Alfred Appel, Jr. and Charles Newman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pp. 284-292; Ellen Pifer, Nabokov and the Novel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 49-67; Margaret Byrd Boegeman, "Invitation to a Beheading and the Many Shades of Kafka," in Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others in His Life's Work, eds. J.E. Rivers and Charles Nicol (Austin: Texas University Press, 1982), pp. 105-124; Pekka Tammi, Problems of Nabokov's Poetics: A Narratological Analysis (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1985), especially pp. 196-197; Leona Toker, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 123-141; Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 410-17; Vladimir Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 84-107.

3. Boegeman 1982 fixes the theme's origination point and its phase in Chapter Eight (p. 115).

4.The pun in preserved in the Russian "obezglavit'." In Pnin, at the end of Chapter Six--which in essence ends the expositive narration--we see Pnin for the last time as he writes, in great distress upon learning that his academic position has been cut, a letter to Hagen that begins "Permit me to recaputilate (crossed out) recapitulate...", with an additional German touch to complicate the pun even further.

5. Similar timepieces are strategically positioned throughout Ulysses. Strange, by the way, that no one should have mentioned a striking affinity between certain middlemost themes in IB and Joyce's novel, especially the chapter in Barney Kiernan's tavern, with its dreadful mockery, a hangman's letter of self-recommendation, and the farcical cooperative execution on the block, in the course of which the widow-to-be becomes enamored of the muscular executioner. For more on the clock theme in IB see Pifer 1980.

6. Cf. Pnin (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957): "[H]e screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener--that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must" (p. 69).

7. Cf. "'...death,' Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence." "Christmas," in Nabokov's Details of a Sunset and Other Stories (New York: McGraw-Hll, 1976), p. 160. See also the last page of this essay and note 18.

8. It used to be fashionable to grind this point to disappearance by suggesting that the whole novel might be written by Cincinnatus, a "failed artist." Andrew Field's Nabokov, His Life in Art: A Critical Narrative (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), belaboring the latter proposition at great length, has spawned a streak of Ph.D. dissertations on the subject. See, for example, Terry P. Anderson's A Formal Analysis of the Theme of Art in Nabokov's Russian Novels (McGill University, 1973) or Philip R. Hughes's The Knight Moves of the Mind: Nabokov's Use of Illusion to Transcend the Limits of Life and Art (Boston University, 1974). This line is as tempting as it is easy, especially since so many of Nabokov's books seem to supply reasonably recruitable data to support it. To give one amusing example: "The notes you found were fragments of a novel," Humbert assures the desperate and furious Charlotte, and what appears to be a hobbling, albeit iambized, excuse is really the indisputable truth.

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