Nabokov’s Invitation.

I finished Приглашение на казнь (Invitation to a Beheading) a few days ago and have been trying to figure out what to say about it ever since. It’s one of Nabokov’s more highly regarded novels; Brian Boyd (his biographer) calls it “the second of Nabokov’s masterpieces,” and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for years. But I wish I’d read it back when I was a whole-hearted Nabokovian, enjoying his style and thoughts uncomplicatedly and wishing I could write like that. Now, although of course I still appreciate the brilliant prose, I find myself mulishly resisting the novel itself and how it seems to be rhetorically dragging me to the mystical water and forcing me to drink. Because the whole point of the book, as of much of Nabokov, is that there is a потусторонний (‘on-the-other-side [of this world]’) life where nobody dies — or at least none of the truly elite, those who despise poshlust and appreciate butterflies and mystical coincidences. The hero, Cincinnatus, may have his head chopped off in the fake world he finds himself living in, but his real self survives and strides triumphantly away from the executioner’s platform, watching as all the pasteboard houses and people around him shrink and collapse. But this, even though I can sympathize with its origins in the young Nabokov’s horror and disbelief at his father’s accidental assassination, strikes me as a quintessentially adolescent worldview: “I and a few like me, who see what’s truly important in life, are so far beyond all these pathetic bourgeois people who despise us!” Obviously I know that’s not all there is to VVN — in many of his works there’s a deep and loving concern for “ordinary” people — but it’s there, and it’s an aristocratic thing, and too many artsy types affect aristocratic attitudes so they don’t have to feel like losers in this materialistic world, and the whole complex makes me grumpy. I mean, I’m pretty sure Nabokov would have turned up his nose at my whole family, with their Reader’s Digest subscriptions and lite-classical records and lack of sufficient appreciation for the Finer Things™, and it gets my back up. But after this he wrote Дар (The Gift), which is great without reservation, so I’ll dip into that and cheer myself up.

By the way, I was delighted when I got to “Mali è trano t’amesti!”; I wrote about Gennady Barabtarlo’s brilliant solution to the riddle back in 2019. And I was puzzled by the rendering in the translation (which VVN supervised) of the last line of ch. XVII:

– Вас недоставало, – сухо сказал м-сье Пьер.
“Nobody missed you,” M’sieur Pierre said dryly.

The Russian means the exact opposite: “You were missed.” Did Nabokov decide on the change or simply not notice the error?


  1. The translation is correct in that the Russian phrase is a sarcastic trope (note however that it must be pronounced with a stress on “Вас”). In a more general form, it’s said as “Только этого [нам] не хватало/недоставало” — That’s all we needed! (I guess its analogue is more widely used in French: Il ne manquait plus que ça !)

  2. That exists in German too: Das hat mir / uns (gerade) noch gefehlt., and it can also be used with persons: Du hast / Sie haben uns (gerade) noch gefehlt. Without the (gerade) noch it needs to be pronounced in a sarcastic tone, with emphasis on the subject, to work.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    In Ireland, “you were MISSED”, would carry the meaning “you should have been there (earlier)” or “your absence was noted negatively”, but maybe some could use it to mean “no one noticed you were not there” or even “your girlfriend was dancing with someone else”. The meaning should be apparent from the context. Or not.

  4. The translation is correct in that the Russian phrase is a sarcastic trope

    Ah, that’s the vital context I was missing! Thanks, now I feel better.

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Det var lige det der manglede! in Danish means ‘I really didn’t need that’ or ‘that’s just adding insult to injury” so that’s the same.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I find “accidental assassination” an odd description of the killing of V.D. Nabokov. It’s not like he was an innocent bystander or adjacent celebrity who got killed because the shooter had bad aim. That would be a good description of, e.g., the unfortunate incident in 1933 where the man attempting to shoot Franklin Roosevelt instead killed the then-mayor of Chicago (Anton Cermak), who was shaking hands with FDR at the instant when a bystander hit the would-be assassin with her purse and thus spoiled his aim. Nabokov by contrast affirmatively intervened in the attempted assassination of P.N. Milyukov and was killed in much the same way that a bodyguard or police officer attempting to subdue a gunman might be killed. Nothing accidental about it on the gunman’s part even if the victim had not been the gunman’s intended one at the beginning of the incident.

    But now I realize I’m rusty on how V.V. Nabokov characterized his father’s killing in his own mind, and to what extent he focused on the fortuitous nature of it versus preferring the (entirely valid) framing that his father was a good man who was killed by bad men precisely for being a good man.

  7. I find your odd-finding odd. The right-wing thugs were intending to assassinate Milyukov and killed Nabokov instead, purely because he found his way into the path of a bullet; I don’t see how his state of mind affects the fact that they were not planning to kill him, and “by accident” seems to me a perfectly reasonable description. But I will accept the judgment of the masses if they choose to weigh in.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    From Wikipedia:

    Nabokov attended a CD political conference in Berlin on 28 March 1922. During the proceedings, Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork and Sergey Taboritsky approached the stage singing the Tsarist national anthem and then opened fire on liberal politician and publisher Pavel Milyukov. In response, Nabokov jumped off the stage and wrestled Shabelsky-Bork down to the floor. Taboritsky then shot Nabokov three times at point-blank range, killing him instantly. The assailants failed even to wound their intended target Milyukov.

    Russian Wikipedia is similar, stating however that the killer was attempting to free his comrade [instead of carrying out the planned assassination!?!?]. You could read “accidental” as “he got in the way and within point-blank range of an inept gunman who was trying and failing to shoot someone else”

  9. I didn’t know this background, which clearly must have been the seed (or one of the seeds) for Pale Fire. Are there any letters or such where VVN talks about that connection?

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I was obviously not present in Berlin in 1922 and am thus relying on secondary/tertiary accounts, but if wikipedia (and German wikipedia seems in accord) is correct that at the instant Taboritsky fired the shot that killed Nabokov pere he was intentionally aiming his gun at Nabokov rather than Milyukov (because Nabokov was attacking T’s henchman), it seems odd-to-me to use the word “accidental.” Taboritsky may not have planned any harm to Nabokov when he entered the room, but plans sometimes change, and change quickly, in the face of changing circumstances. German wikipedia notes that Taboritsky was not convicted of Mord (= murder) but of Körperverletzung mit Todesfolge, which seems to mean something like “aggravated assault resulting in death.” I don’t know enough about Weimar-era German criminal law to know what that implies in terms of the evidence regarding intent. In an Anglo-American context maybe you could have argued for manslaughter instead of murder, but the fact that you entered the room with the intent to murder A before on the spur of the moment fatally shooting B who had gotten in the way of your plan to kill A would probably be enough to justify a conviction for murdering B. (“Transferred intent,” as the concept is typically labeled when first explained to law students.) German law may well be more lenient in such circumstances.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    But in any event as I said above I am more interested in how VVN himself chose to conceptualize the situation, in terms of “died nobly and heroically standing up to evil” versus “fluke victim of happenstance.” Or perhaps some third thing.

  12. @JWB: I’m not a lawyer, but I guess the shooter (or his lawyer) could have argued that he didn’t intend to kill Nabokov, only incapacitate him so that he couldn’t interfere. At least, that seems to me what the verdict implies.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    @Hans: Well, as I said, I’m certainly not a German lawyer. In U.S. courts, if your story is “I was only shooting to wound and didn’t intend to kill” you are even if believed at substantial risk of being treated the same as if your intent had been to kill, it having been observed over time that “unintended” death not infrequently results from attempts to wound-but-not-kill with a firearm, with the frequency being high enough that we don’t really want to give people too much credit for not having specifically desired the fatal result they predictably caused.* Assaulting someone with a club or other blunt weapon is probably a safer bet for more lenient treatment if you unintentionally cause death and want credit for only having intended to non-fatally injure.

    *My general understanding is that these days in the U.S. even police officers aren’t really given explicit training on how to shoot-to-only-wound, because it’s genuinely hard to do despite what you might have been led to believe from the movies, and the consequences of potential police overconfidence in their ability to do it successfully are obviously negative – better to train police not to fire directly at someone absent circumstances that would justify the shot being fatal.

  14. Fine, fine, I withdraw “accidental” in deference to my learned colleagues.

  15. I am more concerned about the second word in “accidental assassination,” actually. The elder Nabokov was certainly murdered, but I wouldn’t count that murder as an assassination, per se. The killers hadn’t come there to kill him, or even just to kill indiscriminately; they had a specific target (or perhaps multiple targets, if they had time) in mind. So I would say that, in the course of attempting to assassinate Milyukov, they ended up murdering Nabokov instead.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Unrelated except insofar as relates to running Hattic interests in Russian literature and associated Russianness: this new NYRB piece is paywalled but those who can access it one way or another (I myself read it for free in hard copy this afternoon at a public library …) may find it interesting:

  17. That just reminded me that I knew someone, years ago, who referred to The Village Voice as the “New York Review of Hooks.”

  18. @JWB: Thanks for explaining current U.S. legal views on shooting and murder. I don’t know much about either current or early 20th century German criminal law so I can’t say whether a German court would see that the same way; that may well be the case.
    *My general understanding is that these days in the U.S. even police officers aren’t really given explicit training on how to shoot-to-only-wound
    This is something I had wondered about. Watching documentaries of the American law enforcement system U.S. TV police shows, it looks like cops mostly aim at the upper body even at short range, shoot, and it’s a roll of the dice whether the target dies or is only wounded. I had wondered why they don’t aim e.g. for the legs to incapacitate their target with a lower risk of killing them. So maybe that’s the reason (assuming that what I have been watching accurately portrays police work.)

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    What did Nabokov think? He seems to have gone to a certain effort to put forward a somewhat simplified view of his father (here is a supporting link for one aspect).
    This may or may not have something to do with an equation Father: Hero :: Son : Great Artist/Soul he seems to have liked. I would be surprised if you found correspondence where, say, he characterised his father’s actions as foolhardy or irresponsible in a family man.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Körperverletzung mit Todesfolge, literally “bodily injury with death as a consequence”, makes me think of… you intend to beat someone up to teach them a lesson, and instead they die. But IANAL either.

    (Bringing murder into it further complicates things in that the definition of murder changed dramatically in Germany in 1941. Stunningly, all attempts to change it back have failed – I have no idea how. The latest was in 2015.)

    aim e.g. for the legs

    If you hit the femoral artery, the target bleeds to death.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    foolhardy or irresponsible in a family man

    Zʋwɔk daan pʋ gaŋid bugumm.
    “He who has a long tail should not step over a fire.”

  22. jack morava says

    @ J.W.Brewer :

    *My general understanding is that these days in the U.S. even police officers aren’t really given explicit training on how to shoot-to-only-wound…”

    An instructive but appalling film `At the Ready’, about Border Patrol training for (largely Latino) High School kids in El Paso, Texas

    gives a very clear picture of weapons training. [I should say that I grew up among Border Patrol families and have great respect for them; but … ]

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