The Pequod Review:
Invitation to a Beheading is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most underrated Russian language novels, one that is often assumed to be a political novel but in fact is closer to a philosophical or religious work. The novel is the dystopian story of Cincinnatus C., who at the beginning of the book has been sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude.” His crime is essentially that he is a rebel unable to fit in to larger society; he is “impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another.”
For nineteen days, Cincinnatus sits in solitary confinement, not knowing when he will be executed. While in jail, he interacts with a number of individuals (the prison director, the jailer, the executioner, his lawyer, and even his wife), all of whom treat him with a superficial and phony politeness. This causes him to turn to writing, where he can reveal his desire for a world with deeper meaning:
“Everything has fallen into place,” he wrote, “that is, everything has duped me — all of this theatrical, pathetic stuff — the promises of a volatile maiden, a mother’s moist gaze, the knocking on the wall, a neighbor’s friendliness, and, finally, those hills which broke out in a deadly rash. Everything has duped me as it fell into place, everything. This is the dead end of this life, and I should not have sought salvation within its confines. It is strange that I should have sought salvation. Just like a man grieving because he has recently lost in his dreams some thing that he had never had in reality, or hoping that tomorrow he would dream that he found it again. That is how mathematics is created; it has its fatal flaw. I have discovered it. I have discovered the little crack in life, where it broke off, where it had once been soldered to something else, something genuinely alive, important and vast — how capacious my epithets must be in order that I may pour them full of crystalline sense ... it is best to leave some things unsaid, or else I shall get confused again. Within this irreparable little crack decay has set in — ah, I think I shall yet be able to express it all — the dreams, the coalescence, the disintegration — no, again I am off the track — all my best words are deserters and do not answer the trumpet call, and the remainder are cripples. Oh, if only I had known that I was yet to remain here for such a long time, I would have begun at the beginning and gradually, along a high road of logically connected ideas, would have attained, would have completed, my soul would have surrounded itself with a structure of words . . .”
The book culminates with Cincinnatus’s execution, but instead of dying he merely gets up and walks away to join “reality,” as the material world he had been living in is revealed to be unreal. And he has achieved his desire to more fully connect with reality, whether in this life or the next one.