BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
1932, Bobbs-Merrill Company
Filed Under: Literary.
What I love most about Nabokov is his ability to get away with so much that other authors might seem amateurish for trying. Alliteration and neologism are commonplace in his prose. Even when writing about serious themes, his language sports a playful lilt.
Much like his other novels, Laughter in the Dark is a character study. He excels in rendering people on his pages; his command of the language and his ability to twist it to unique angles make for exquisite characterization. Nabokov is as good or better than any author at fleshing out whole, believable, beautifully flawed characters.
The baby was at first red and wrinkled like a toy balloon on its decline. Soon, however, her face smoothed out and after a year she began to speak. Now, at the age of eight, she was far less voluble, for she had inherited her mother’s reserved nature. Her gaiety, too, was like her mother’s–a singular unobtrusive gaiety. It was just a quiet delight in one’s own existence with a faint note of humorous surprise at being alive at all–yes, that was the tenor of it: mortal gaiety.
The book has a substantive plot too. Albert Albinus is a sympathetic protagonist, a naive dope of an art critic. He meets and becomes enamored with the young, beautiful, and manipulative Margot Peters. He eventually takes her as his mistress. Margot is an aspiring actress, and uses Albinus’s influence to land roles. She schemes continually behind his back, yet even when her manipulation happens before his eyes (such as a letter deliberately intended to be discovered by his wife, scuttling his marriage) he chooses to remain blind to her true character.
This all becomes exacerbated by the presence of Axel Rex. Axel is a painter and a friend of Albinus. At least Albinus thinks him so. In truth, Axel is as much a manipulator as Margot. Unbeknownst to Albinus, Axel and Margot were former lovers, and they pick up a relationship behind the old man’s back. Albinus remains willfully ignorant, continually allowing his suspicions to be mollified by his beautiful young mistress’s lies.
[There’s a spoiler coming now, so if you don’t want the details of a major plot point, skip the next paragraph.]
The situation is brought to a head when Albinus is blinded in a car accident. Margot takes him to a Swiss chalet to live and recuperate. There Axel joins them, without Albinus’s knowledge. He continues his relationship with Margot, while mocking Albinus by stalking around the house nude and silently. In this final leg of the narrative, the book’s title goes from metaphorical to literal. Albinus foolishly gave up his wife and livelihood, and pays for it in a sightless hell where he is forced to depend on an undependable harlot.
[END OF SPOILER]
This is one of the more plot-centric of Nabokov’s early novels. Yet it retains all the trappings of his signature brilliance: creative wordplay, vivid imagery, pitch-perfect characterization. For these reasons, Laughter in the Dark is a nice entry point into his works for fans of Lolita or Pale Fire who are looking to go deeper. It’s an entertaining read for a casual reader too, even if they aren’t enamored with Nabokov. Of course, they should be.
I’ll leave you with one last quote, for no reason except that it’s so good:
Roads bordered with apple trees, and then roads with plum trees, were lapped up by the front tires–endlessly. The weather was fine, and toward night the steel cells of the radiator were crammed with dead bees, and dragon-flies, and meadow-browns. Rex drove wonderfully, reclining lazily on the very low seat and manipulating the steering wheel with a tender and almost dreamy touch. In the back-window hung a plush monkey, gazing toward the North from which they were speeding away.