Laughter in the dark

Nabokov is a magician.

He tells you what’s going to happen, and then it does.

I haven’t read Lolita, but you’d have to live in a cave to not know that story. I stumbled onto the narrative summary of Laughter in the Dark that opens the book while reading a book on narrative theory a few days ago. I seemed to remember buying it years ago, in one of those truck-load book sales for 50 cents. I dug around and found it last night. I couldn’t put it down. I finished it around five a.m..

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that with a book; the closest I’ve come to it is reading the entire first book of Faust by Goethe in one night, while I was supposed to be reading Byron’s Manfred for the third or fourth time. But how could I resist. I mean, the summary is:

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.

This bears tremendous similarity to my life. Well except the rich part. And the respectable part. And the “youthful mistress” part. Oh, and the Berlin, Germany part. And maybe the “happy” part too.

I can flesh out a few of the details (of the book at least) without destroying the pleasure of it. Albinus doesn’t really seem too happy as the book opens. He’s got an itch, because his wife Elisabeth isn’t very stimulating, intellectually or otherwise. They’ve been married for nine years. They have a daughter, eight years old, named Irma. Albinus is an art scholar with a thing for movies. I liked his idea for a film: a classic painting rendered on screen gradually comes to life, and the inhabitants begin to move around and interact. Not your typical cartoon.

Albinus goes to the movies, and becomes obsessed with a young girl at the theatre, Margot. It’s alluded, later in the book, that she might only be 16 years old. His wife is 35, but Albinus’s age is never really established, unless I missed it. Margot is quite a piece of work. She wants to be an actress, but mostly she’s looking for a man to support her. There is the inevitable affair. Margot gets Albinus to set her up in an apartment, and then sends a letter to his house. A mistake in timing (or is it a mistake?) exposes the affair to his wife. Elisabeth moves out.

Albinus, eager to please his mistress, sets her up with a supporting role in a movie. All the illusions come crashing down when Irma becomes sick and dies, just before the premiere of the film. Rather than consoling his wife, or grieving for the death of his daughter, Albinus persists in his obsession with his mistress. Margot becomes distraught and disillusioned when she sees herself onscreen. She’s a crappy actress. Albinus and Margot pack up and go to Switzerland, in the company of an artist named Rex.

Of course, Rex and Margot were having an affair all along. A friend of Albinus’s named Conrad exposes the affair, and Albinus decides to kill Margot. But he is thwarted, and coming down from the mountains they have a car accident. Albinus is trepanned, and is permanently blind. The doctor wants to put Albinus in a sanatorium, but Margot hatches a plot to steal all his money. She moves him into a chalet, and unknown to him, Rex moves in too. They continue to carry on in front of him, and he can’t tell, except for hearing things from time to time. His wife’s brother rescues him from this hell eventually, and takes him back to Germany. But in trying to exact vengeance on Margot, he ends up shooting himself. The final scene is told in the form of a scripted movie.

Predictable? Damn right. Most things are. Compelling and fascinating? Yes, because the beauty is in the details, just like Nabokov says in his opening summary. Knowing what happens doesn’t lessen the pleasure of reading it at all.