Lorrie Moore, from “People Like That Are the Only People Here” in Birds of America
OOF. Devastating, yet so, so, so true.
Last summer, I tackled my first Nabokov novel, Lolita. Since I adored that, it only made sense that I try to incorporate more Nabokov into this summer’s reading list, and the first one to make the cut was Invitation to a Beheading. I’m also hoping to fit in Pnin as well, but we’ll just have to see
Invitation to a Beheading is certainly very different from Lolita, though Nabokov’s voice still there, loud and clear. It reminded me of (my probably limited knowledge of) Kafka, in a way. Cinncinnatus C, the protagonist, is imprisoned and sentenced to a death in a nonsensical world and an even more nonsensical prison for an unknowable crime (“gnostical turpitude,” which to me sounds like the name of a fatal tumor, but that probably was not the author’s intention). He is sentenced to be beheaded, though he cannot know when or where. As he interacts, albeit reluctantly, with the guards, prison director, a young eccentric girl, his wanton wife, his in-laws, and his long-lost mother, we begin to see the absurdity of the imminent death of this man, who seems to have committed far less crimes than anyone around him. Yet the ending is mystifying—just as Cinncinnatus begins to truly believe he will die, after all of that waiting, he realizes he can will away the guards, his inevitable beheading, as well as his entire reality. Has he gone crazy? Has he died? Did he make up the entire story? Well, I suppose it’s up for debate.
Nabokov really does set up this reality/non-reality beautifully—Cinncinnatus’ prison is a setting we know and can believe in, but is simultaneously filled with strange and alienating features. When Cinncinnatus is fed by the guards, the guards also feed the spider in his cell. Two of the prison rules include that prisoners can be convicted of rape just for having sexual fantasies, and that prisoners can only joke around with guards on certain days if both “give mutual consent.” Cinncinnatus’ in-laws bring their own furniture when they (very awkwardly) come to visit him. These details of non-reality felt like dark humor at first, but with the context of the ending, just add to the doubt that the story could have ever really happened.
It’s hard to compare Lolita and Invitation because they really are incredibly different—Lolita is constructed entirely of the narrator’s thoughts, and in Invitation we only get those when we are privy to Cinncinnatus’ writing. Invitation feels more political, more philosophical than Lolita, though I’m sure one could argue that that’s not true. But something about the insanity of imprisonment, the plight of the spirit when faced with mortality, feels somehow less about narrative and more about our own limited lives (which may not be limited, if we are to believe the imagination is as strong as Nabokov is right). Still though—if you like Nabokov, but haven’t given this one a try, please do! It’s a wonderful work, and a very different kind of summer reading.
It looks like, as long a list as I have of books I want to read, I will probably need to begin to read for senior project. But, I plan to hopefully write about that too. Stay tuned!
I mean, seriously, how had I not read this before? Someone ought to revoke my college major. Stephen Mitchell is the man.
And yes, I have sucked at updating my tumblr on what I’ve been reading. Things came up—namely a one-week job then a 5-day jaunt to Chicago which was wonderful but didn’t add up to much reading getting done. I finished this a week and a half ago—I’ll try to get better. As always, as always.
I don’t think the book needs a ton of introduction—after all, it’s all in the title—but it is a compilation of letters Rilke sent to a young poet who would periodically send him his work and letters detailing his worries and woes as a young writer. The book is only Rilke’s replies, which are now infamous and are seen as one of the best guides for young writers on dealing with loneliness, anxiety, inspiration, love and motivation in the process of writing. It’s difficult to simplify his ideas and literary calls to action, but if I didn’t, I’d just be spewing out his words myself, and the letters are far too beautiful for that. I can’t imagine how exhilarating it must have been to open up these electric letters addressed to yourself from him, that detail the wonder of solitude and the ecstasies of love and creativity. Though there are only 10 letters, they are beautiful, thought-provoking, and made of the kind of language that sticks with you.
Reviewing this book seems pointless because honest to God, what is there to review? This is RILKE. I suppose my biggest regret is not having had this book sooner, in that I honestly feel if I’d had this as a teenager it may have changed how I approached my writing and writing style. Though I myself have been dealing with issues of writer’s block, lack of confidence, and a fear that I may not have what it takes to write, and reading this book quelled some of those fears (though not all), I wish I had had time to grow with it. It’s themes are universal, so I feel I can continue to grow with it still.
I suppose what I can say is, if you feel you are a writer, in any kind of capacity, this book is a must-read. It’s life and literary guidance is essential and classic. I’m so, so, so, SO glad I ended up reading it.
your eyes are too big for your face,
your eyes are too big for the earth.
There are countries, there are rivers,
in your eyes.
Libraryland has been on a real roll lately. I’m not a huge reblogger, but boy oh boy does my love of Neruda know no bounds.