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Laughter in the Dark (1933) is often regarded as one of the most cruel of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels. He is famous for dealing with challenging subjects and using black comedy in his work. This novel tells the story of a well-intentioned family man with a weakness for young girls who is drawn into a complex web of desire, deceit, and revenge which has disastrous consequences. It is also a story told with all Nabokov’s usual subtle twists and verbal panache. It has become much discussed in recent years because it clearly prefigures the more famous Lolita he wrote more than twenty years later.
Laughter in the Dark – a note on the text
Laughter in the Dark (1933) is the sixth novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was first serialised in the Russian language journal Sovremennye Zapiski (Contemporary Annals) in 1932. It was then published in Berlin the following year with the title Camera Obskura in the name of V. Sirin. Nabokov used this nom de plume in his early works to avoid confusion with his father, a writer and politician who was also called Vladimir Nabokov.
It was the first work by Nabokov to appear in English, published in London by John Long in a translation by Winifred Roy. Nabokov disliked this version so much that he made his own translation for its publication in America by Bobbs-Merrill in 1938.
In the Russian original, the protagonist Albert Albinus had the name Bruno Krechmar, and his rival Axel Rex was called Robert Gorn, whilst Margot was called Magda. Nabokov rarely missed an opportunity to ‘improve’ or update his texts.
Following Nabokov’s huge international success with Lolita in 1955, many of his earlier novels were re-translated and re-issued in English. It is possible that Laughter in the Dark was translated again in 1965, since in that year Nabokov renewed his copyright to the title.
Laughter in the Dark – commentary
Nabokov is famous for the inventive and playful manner in which he delivers his stories. Sometimes he teases his readers by planting clues in a game of literary hide and seek, and at others he introduces unusual variations on the conventions of story-telling. Laughter in the Dark begins with two very good examples of this inventiveness.
The first instance is a particularly daring narrative venture: he reveals the plot of his novel in advance. The opening paragraph is presented in mock fairy tale mode:
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.
That is the plot of Laughter in the Dark summed up in two sentences. As readers we know what is going to happen. The more important issues are how it is going to happen, and how will the tale be told?
The second example of narrative inventiveness comes shortly afterwards, and in terms of story-telling strategy it is the exact opposite. He includes cleverly concealed details which do not become significant until much later in the novel. When Albinus enters the cinema where he meets Margot:
He had come in at the end of a film: a girl was receding among tumbled furniture before a masked man with a gun. There was no interest whatever in watching happenings which he could not understand since he had not yet seen their beginning.
Albinus might well have paid more attention to the film – because what he is witnessing (and what Nabokov is foretelling) is how the novel will end. This is a version of the final scene of the story when Albinus goes to shoot Margot. He is not ‘masked’ but blind – and it is she who ends by shooting him. [For those interested, the technical term for this literary device is ‘prolepsis’.]
In 1932 Nabokov was at an early stage of his development as a novelist and in particular his manipulation of narratives – though he had at that time produced the masterly novella The Eye (1930). This is a story in which a first person narrator both tells lies about himself and commits ‘suicide’ half way through the story he is relating.
Nabokov and paedophilia
Nabokov had been writing about older men yearning for and having sexual encounters with young girls ever since his earliest works. The English novelist Martin Amis (a great Nabokov enthusiast) calls this an ‘embarrassment’ in assessing Nabokov’s achievement as a writer.
In A Nursey Tale (1926) an elderly man strolls through the story with a girl whom the protagonist will choose as his erotic object. She is described as ‘a child [my emphasis] of fourteen or so in a low-cut party dress … mincing at the old poet’s side … her lips were touched up with rouge. She walked swinging her hips very, very slightly’.
In Laughter in the Dark Margot is slightly older, though it should be noted that although Albinus thinks she might be eighteen, her brother Otto confirms that she is in fact sixteen and has been virtually a prostitute up to the point when Albinus meets her.
Moreover, Nabokov later wrote a whole novella based on the same theme, The Enchanter (1939) then found fame with an entire novel devoted to the seduction, abduction, and abuse of an under-age girl in Lolita (1955). He was still including scenes of paedophilia in works as late as Ada or Ardor (1969), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins (1974).
In his posthumous and unfinished The Original of Laura (2009) the girl in question is twelve years old and is pursued lecherously by an ageing roué called (believe it or not) Hubert H. Hubert.
The purpose of pointing to the recurrence of this topic in his work is to emphasise that paedophilia is not an accidental subject in his novels, but a theme deeply rooted in his consciousness. Nabokov tried to sidestep any accusations of impropriety by re-naming his obsession as nympholepsy and frequently attributing its origin to the loss of an ideal love during childhood. His verbal flim-flam might have been an understandable form of self-defense in the middle of the twentieth century, but now in the twenty-first it can be seen for what it is – a loquacious and over-elaborated form of self-justification.
It is interesting that these narratives often end with the death of the paedophile. The unnamed protagonist of The Enchanter dies under the wheels of the passing truck after giving way to his impulse to molest the girl he has abducted. Humbert murders his rival and fellow paedophile Quilty, then dies in prison whilst awaiting trial. The blind Albinus sets out to shoot Margot because of her treacherous deception of him with Axel Rex, but is shot by her instead.
The relationships between Albinus, Margot, and Alex Rex are clearly a precursor to Humbert, Lolita, and Quilty in Lolita. One middle-aged man is obsessed with a young girl, but is being cruelly deceived by her engagement with a fellow paedophile.
In works such as Laughter in the Dark Nabokov was publishing under the moral constraints of the early twentieth century. Those who transgressed society’s norms must be punished. But following the turning point of Lolita, which appeared around the same time as the famous legal controversies surrounding The Naked Lunch (1959), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1960), and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), Nabokov gradually lowered the age of his ‘nymphets’ in his later works until it stabilised around twelve.
This takes the question of aesthetic judgements into very murky waters. Most critics of Nabokov ignore this aspect of his work, concentrating instead on his verbal dexterity, his wit, and the gymnastic stunts he brings to the arrangement of his narratives. But the inescapable fact is that it is a subject he returned to again, again, and again.
Axel Rex and Albert Albinus mirror or ‘double’ each other throughout the novel. Albinus is a wealthy art critic, and Rex is a cartoonist whom he first contacts with a view to their producing animations of classical paintings. Rex buys Margot from the procuress Frau Levandovsky and puts her into an apartment for his own use. When Rex disappears, Albinus does exactly the same thing: his first act is to install Margot in a flat as his sexual plaything.
When Alex reappears later in the story Albinus is quite friendly towards him. The two men socialise with each other, and whilst Margot is deceiving Albinus behind his back, they even go on holiday together. In the end, they are not only sharing Margot’s sexual favours but (thanks to Axel’s unscrupulous venality) Albinus’s money.
In their final scene together both men are in a state of undress. Axel is completely naked and Albinus is wearing a dressing gown. Axel caresses Albinus with a blade of grass he had just been sucking. It is also significant that whenever Albinus fears he is being deceived or when he actually discovers her betrayal, it is Margot who he seeks to kill, not his rival Axel Rex.
What does this tell us about the novel? It is often observed that when two men desire(or share) the same woman, this tells us more about their unconscious attraction to each other than to the woman herself. This might be regarded as accidental or a coincidence – except for the fact that exactly the same senario is acted out in Lolita, written almost a quarter of a century later.
Laughter in the Dark – study resources
Laughter in the Dark – Penguin – Amazon UK
Laughter in the Dark – Penguin – Amazon US
Lolita – Penguin – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov – Amazon UK
Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years – Biography: Vol 1
Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years – Biography: Vol 2
Zembla – the official Nabokov web site
The Paris Review – Interview with Vladimir Nabokov
Laughter in the Dark – plot summary
Albert Albinus is a wealthy art critic who has the idea of animating famous paintings, and he seeks someone who might help him technically. He is married to the placid Elizabeth, but has hankerings after young girls, including Margot Peters, an usherette whom he meets in a cinema. Margot dreams of being a film star, but she works as an artists’ model. She is procured by a man called Axel Miller who keeps her in a flat for a month then disappears. She subsequently resorts to prostitution then meets Albinus.
He rapidly becomes obsessed with her. She flirts and torments him, even provocatively visiting his house to check that he is wealthy. Albinus sets Margot up in a flat. When she writes to tell him the address, his wife Elizabeth intercepts the letter then leaves home with their daughter. Albinus moves in with Margot, who is menaced by her thuggish brother Otto with demands for money.
Albinus takes Margot to the Adriatric on holiday, but when they return to Berlin she objects to being hidden from public view. They move into his old apartment where he tries to disguise the fact that they are living together. He finds her a part in a low-budget film which he finances. To alleviate her boredom they throw a party – at which another guest is Axel Rex (previously Axel Miller). Margot regards him as her first true love – but she demands that Albinus seek a divorce.
The cruel and cynical Rex is down on his luck. He befriends Albinus as a ruse to regain Margot, who at first rejects Axel’s advances because he has no money. Albinus’s daughter contracts pneumonia and when she is dying Margot tries to prevent Albinus going to see her. Rex takes advantage of his absence to seduce Margot.
After a year Albinus resolves to return to his former life – but fails to do so. At a private showing of the film Margot is revealed as hopelessly incompetent. Albinus takes her on a motoring holiday as a compensation, together with Axel, who is pretending to be a homosexual. They drive to the south of France, where Margot continues to deceive Albinus with Rex.
Albinus meets an old friend Udo Conrad who naively reveals that he has overheard Axel and Margot discussing their love affair. Albinus confronts Margot with a gun, but she denies wrongdoing. They depart immediately, leaving Rex behind. Albinus crashes the car on a mountain road and recovers in hospital to discover that he has gone blind.
Rex writes to say that he is going back to New York, but in fact he takes over Albinus’s money and secretly moves with Margot and Albinus into a Swiss chalet. Rex and Margot torment the blind Albinus by flirting with each other in his presence. They plan to take over his property assets then leave him.
Elizabeth’s brother Paul is suspicious of the large cash withdrawals that Albinus appears to be making from his bank. He goes to Switzerland where he catches Rex and reveals the deception. Albinus wants to stay and kill Margot, but Paul takes him back to Elizabeth. A few days later, learning that Margot has returned to Berlin, Albinus takes a taxi to their old apartment where he tries to shoot her. But in the struggle it is she who shoots him dead.
Laughter in the Dark – main characters
|Albert Albinus||a wealthy German art critic|
|Elizabeth||his placid wife|
|Axel Rex||an unscupulous cartoonist and gambler|
|Margot Peters||a lower-class teenage waif|
|Otto Peters||her thuggish brother|
|Paul Hochenwart||Elizabeth’s loyal brother|
|Dorianna Karenina||a fashionable Berlin actress|
© Roy Johnson 2018
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