Some page numbers for discussion

Thanks for another insightful round of response papers!

Here are some themes and page numbers for our discussion today.

Time: Morley. Counting days. 20 days and 20 chapters.

Space: Anezka (“Space Oddities”) (19-20); Sophie (shapes): spheres in particular (bunch of passages); Elias (ill-defined and flexible space) (193, 92, 223)

Desire: Victor (Writing and desire): (no desires, save to express myself p. 91)

Sleep: Murray; Gnosticism; dream world. Some relevant pages numbers (from AD): 26,  35, 36, 92, 120 (there are more)

Writing: Sam (51—see blog); Victor (also p. 91!) theme of integrity of the self; Aalia (178-179) Librarian scene. Humanity; Morley (10, 190)

Reading: Giacomo: mythical 19th century (27); Quercus (124-125); Kamil (Quercus, 122-123)

Charles Baudelaire, “L’invitation au voyage”

I share with you here Charles Baudelaire’s poem “L’invitation au voyage” (Invitation to the voyage), in French and English translation for some of our discussion of “that world,” “There, là-bas” in Invitation to a Beheading. Nabokov is an intensely intertextual writer, meaning that he alludes to literature that came before him and challenges the reader to make meaning of these allusions.

For more translations of the poem, you may consult this website:

To learn a bit more about Baudelaire and the significance of Fleurs du mal , you can explore the site some more: And, of course, for the quick check on an author, there is always good ol’ wikipedia.



by Charles Baudelaire

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
–Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.


by Charles Baudelaire / Translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Think, would it not be
Sweet to live with me
All alone, my child, my love? –
Sleep together, share
All things, in that fair
Country you remind me of?
Charming in the dawn
There, the half-withdrawn
Drenched, mysterious sun appears
In the curdled skies,
Treacherous as your eyes
Shining from behind their tears.

There, restraint and order bless
Luxury and voluptuousness.

We should have a room
Never out of bloom:
Tables polished by the palm
Of the vanished hours
Should reflect rare flowers
In that amber-scented calm;
Ceilings richly wrought,
Mirrors deep as thought,
Walls with eastern splendor hung,
All should speak apart
To the homesick heart
In its own dear native tongue.

There, restraint and order bless
Luxury and voluptuousness.

See, their voyage past,
To their moorings fast,
On the still canals asleep,
These big ships; to bring
You some trifling thing
They have braved the furious deep.
–Now the sun goes down,
Tinting dyke and town,
Field, canal, all things in sight,
Hyacinth and gold;
All that we behold
Slumbers in its ruddy light.

There, restraint and order bless
Luxury and voluptuousness.

The hero Cincinnatus C.

What do you make of this statement from Julian Connolly’s book, Nabokov’s Early Fiction?

In Invitation to a Beheading Nabokov depicts for the first time the successful outcome of a character’s struggle to throw off the yoke of subordination and to actualize the powerful authorial potential lying within the self. The conclusion of the novel is meant to evoke the process of imminent ascension into the ranks of the unfettered artist. (184)

Reconstructing our First Invitation Class

Folks, I’m already losing the essence of that class discussion I thought was so good. (One of the challenges of leading a discussion is that one needs full concentration and the memory part of one’s brain doesn’t have time to kick in at full capacity.)

Can you help me reconstruct?

We talked about “this world” and never quite got to “that world” (note for future discussion).

We mentioned Cincinnatus as a writer. Talked about the thickness of a book. The Book of LIfe. The pencil that gets shorter as a more reliable measure of time than the various clocks striking in the novel. (Note: C. as writer deserves more attention from us)

We discussed whether the prison world was exterior or interior to C’s mind. (He “nourishes” that world with his own body? Or was it his own self?) (See Anezka’s comment below on the “beheading” in this context!)

We talked briefly about the “Two Cincinnatuses”. The one he roles up in a ball vs. the one visible to the world.

Transparent vs. Opaque. Allegory or something to take literally, i.e. a way to visualize this world?

We mentioned “Gnostical Turpitude”. Gnosis as “knowledge.” A distinct medieval religious tradition–I’d love to hear more.

We mentioned and put off for later the “spider.” (note for future discussion)

We talked about “the law” just a bit. Parallels to writers like Kafka (stories like “Before the Law” or “The Penal Colony”; the novel The Castle).

We talked about the interchangeability of characters. Rodion, Roman, etc. Paternity/maternity of Emmi.

I asked you to trace exactly how C. moves from “this world” to “that world.” The transition often happens mid-sentence and catches the reader off-guard.

I mentioned that the “Tamara” Gardens have the Russian word “tam” (there) embedded in the name. Someone asked whether it might also sound like “tomorrow” and I suggested we should look to see  whether there is a temporal aspect to the “here” vs. “there.”

We briefly mentioned the theatricality of the whole novel. Costumes galore. M’sieu (spelling? how does he shorten Monsieur) Pierre as a kind of “Pierrot”/ Mr. Punch from the Commedia dell’arte / Punch and Judy tradition.

What else? Would you like to expand on anything?



Luzhin’s “rebirth”

We talked a bit on Thursday about Luzhin as a character who is born, borne, and reborn. In light of this, I want to draw your attention to the beginning of Chapter 11, where Luzhin is being “renovated,” i.e., being fitted with a new suit. We will do some close reading of this passage in class, so linger on it a bit before coming in, please!

The Rabbit Holes of St. Petersburg…

This morning I got stuck re-reading p. 30 of The Luzhin Defense. I wondered if we could actually identify the house where Luzhin’s aunt lives. And I got sucked down a rabbit hole.

So… the famous building in St. Petersburg that immediately came to my mind at the description of a “plum-colored building” with “naked old men straining to hold up a balcony” was this:

This is the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt (the main central drag) and the Fontanka Embankment, just by the Anichkov Bridge (Address: Fontanka 41).  And while it would make sense for Luzhin to get out at Karavannaia Street to go here, the detour to Sergievskaia street (now Tschaikovsky street) seems exaggerated…

So then I started looking at facades on what was once Sergievskaia street and found this, but it doesn’t quite fit.

Of course, how are we to imagine “maps” of real cities in Nabokov? It strikes me that that the “karyatids” (caryatids) function as intertextual allusion to Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg:

Nabokov’s foreword plays much on the name of Luzhin as rhyming with “illusion”. “Allusion” fits this line as well; and we should perhaps think about the Latin root “ludo” (play) here too. Petersburg was one of Nabokov’s favorite novels and these same caryatids feature prominently, coming to life along with other statuary of the city. Moreover, the novel begins with a disembodied “oo” (“pronounced thickly enough to deepen the “u” into “oo”), that moves through the city, a harbinger of terror and revolution….

There ends my early-morning rabbit hole.

I leave you with a set of questions–possibly something we will not even discussion in class but that I want you to think about.

  • How do we “map” fictional cities when we read? By plotting the action on our paper (or internet) maps of real places?  By remembering and thinking about other texts who have “been” in that or similar places before? (For example, Charles Dickens’ London vs. Virginia Woolf’s London.) What can the reader glean from playing close attention to the topography of a novel? How does the novel use real and imagined topography to shape its fictional world? How do novels (and movies, etc.) shape how we see the places in which we live? (Think of Hollywood representations of LA, for example.)
  • P.S. (I keep returning to this post). Since I’m apparently on a city kick during this read-through of the novel, consider this passage on the cities Luzhin traverses and (if you feel so inclined) think about it in relation to the (loving?) detail with which Nabokov describes the streets and parks of St. Petersburg early in the novel:

and in many other cities, which were all identical–hotel, taxi, a hall in a café or club. These cities, these regular rows of blurry lamps marching past and suddenly advancing and encircling a stone horse in a square [another possible allusion to Petersburg, where, like in Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman,” the statue of Peter the Great comes to life], were as much an inevitable and unnecessary integument as the wooden pieces and the black and white board, and he accepted this external life as something inevitable but completely uninteresting]

P. S. Luzhin is also afraid of the daily cannon, another place marker. See tourist info on Peter and Paul Fortress ( The daily noontime cannon figures prominently in literature of St. Petersburg, especially in texts told from a child’s point of view. (Another such text is Osip Mandelshtam’s The Noise of Time.) (Mandelshtam is the important twentieth-century poet I mentioned as also having attended the Tenishchev school.)

In closing I leave you with another image of the Fontanka in St. Petersburg, which is truly a glorious city set on water, known sometimes as the “Venice of the North”:

And (I can’t help myself!) one more: The Tavricheskii park, where Luzhin kills time after visiting his aunt (p.52):