Saturday, January 30, 2010

And the Prize Goes to: Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

Caption: Vladimir Nabokov receives the J.J. Ellstrom Award for Literature, 2009.

Dear Vladimir Nabokov,

When the applause dies down, every award winner, sits down. Their smiles twitch and relax. The tight buttocks widens on the seat of the chair. Still nodding to their peers and compatriots, still squeezing the hand of the one they love, still tightly gripping the statue, certificate, or badge, they think the thought, the one thought that is not really a spoiler, any more than winter is a spoiler to spring.

They think: "Why me and why this?" For you, the question, certainly becomes "Why this work, when I wrote Lolita and Pale Fire?" This work is hard to find. It is obscure and indeterminate. It is the least of these, my brethren. But of course, you know the answer, for this was, perhaps, your favorite work.

Timothy Langen from the University of Missouri says: "Of all of Nabokov's famously fertile works, Invitation to a Beheading has yielded perhaps the greatest bounty of plausible interpretation." Yes, I think that is true. As Invitation is an ambiguous book, providing for students and experts such a slippery surface for academic pursuit, I have put on my skates and worked my figures on the ice. Here is what my mind has etched as I thought and thought, like Cincinnatus C., over the past year.

I think that Invitation to a Beheading is a very personal internal portrayal of the topic of obsession. Like Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, our protaganist is manacled by and absolutely defenseless against his own personal obsession. HH's fixation is delineated for us. But CC's is left to our imaginations and our soul's empathies. We may fill in our own blank. Hopefully, ours will be less horrific than the one described in Lolita, but the imprisonment is the same.

The prison analogy that you, Vladimir, have used in Beheading, is a reversal of the one you chose for Lolita where HH is only freed, really, once he is behind bars. CC, on the other hand, eventually works through his obsession and in a final decapitation of much that he conceives to be himself, he finds himself free to live once more.

It may be CC's inability to fit society's mold, his "gnostical turpitude," that is the precipitating cause for the obsession that confines him to the cell of his unreal reality, but it is the obsession itself that holds him there, awaiting and hoping for the end of both the obsession and the only life that he can embrace while in it's grip. What day will this end? How long will this beloved horror continue? That is the question you have raised, isn't it? That is the tale you have woven in this curiously beguiling novel. Here you have analyzed the perverse intrigues of the heart and mind that is incarcerated by a forbidden enchantment.

One of the most interesting moments of the book is when it is revealed that CC can leave his prison, and that he does so, briefly, only to return rather accidentally but deliberately.

Somehow our hero reaches the end, his end, the end of his obsessed form of living. (And so does HH. And so do you, and me, and all of us.) By an act of will, or circumstance, or chemical recession, the obsession subsides and we walk away, finding that the spider was not real after all, though the experience certainly was. And life, though bereft of obsession, is once again his own.

Vladimir, because you have woven such an interesting psychological explanation of that which is impossible to explain, I have awarded to you the 2009 Ellstrom Award for Literature. Congratulations!



cadh 8 said...

Well, at least we can know for sure that Jude the Obscure has a running chance for next year! Wow, mom, very unexpected, but actually while reading your award presentation, I actually though that this may be an interesting read!

I listed to an interview about a book called the Hidden Brain. It talked about why we think the way we think. As a psychologist, I do find these themes interesting. What makes us do what we do, be obsessed with what we are obsessed with, and, the big question to me, CAN WE CHANGE OUR OWN BRAIN? Can we stop ourselves from being so obsessed. Can the addict put down the bottle by force of mind or will or soul and fight the chemical force of body? Are we animals driven by instinct or are we a higher being.

I don't know if "Beheading" deals with all these themes, but as I said, I am intrigued to find out.

I always love the picture of the Award winner and J J Ellstrom. Great technical work!

Love you mom!

brd said...

Well, I thought you would be surprised. Fortunately, I have only to justify my decisions to myself (and, perhaps, to the memory of J.J.), but this book did impact my thinking, especially in combination with the better known, Lolita. It is, I must warn you, a very ambiguous work. But I'd love it if you read it and we could discuss. I've only actually met one other person who has read it.

The book about the brain sounds interesting.