After charming the border agents at Gatwick, I headed straight to the Chinese embassy’s visa centre on Old Jewry. (For reasons too boring to list here, I had to obtain a Chinese visa during my visit to the UK. Life lesson: while the prospect of international travel and performing is glamorous, the realities without fail, are less so.) The shittiness of my latest return to the UK Might be on par with the time I sat an A-level maths exam two hours after stepping off an international flight. Upon arriving at no. 7 Old Jewry, I handed over my papers only to be informed that I had to fill out all my paperwork again. There was nothing “wrong” with my forms as such. In fact, all the information was accurate and had been typed with meticulous detail. And yet, everything had to be filled out again, and all secondary documents photocopied once more. Why? Because I had printed everything on US Letter sized paper, and not on A4. The forms I had filled out could not be photocopied on to A4 either. They won’t accept copies. Or USA-sized passport photos, for that matter. Or US debit cards. English bureaucracy: rendering headaches and endless frustration since 1066.
After three and a half years, London feels the same. At one point in my life, a trip down from Cambridge would provide a rush of adrenaline. Now, it feels dozy compared to New York. I’ve been here for 5 hours maybe, and I’ve found myself naturally drawn back to Soho and Chinatown, my usual haunt after my monthly pilgrimage to see the Arnolfini Wedding at the National Gallery. They’re loud, congested, giving wandering Londoners the feeling of anonymity more commonly associated with Manhattan. Little has changed; my favorite izakaya continues to heap chicken teriyaki, salad and a mound of rice onto my plate for £4.50. The Kowloon Cake Shop supplies red bean pastries intended for immediate consumption (their shelf life is maybe three hours). Foyles bookstore still has what I’m looking for, each and every time. I’d forgotten to grab a book on my way out the door yesterday, something snappy and digestible. Nabokov it is.
Invitation to a Beheading is an easy read, and essays on its construction and meaning are clicks away on my iPad via JSTOR and Project MUSE (note: in case anyone was wondering, using Oberlin College Library access in a London coffee shop is surreal, to say the least). As with a lot of Nabokov scholarship, interpretations range from the plausible to the farcical. Some rightly point out that English translations don’t do the Russian novels justice when uncovering plays on words that may connect French novels to Russian politics or geography or poetry, etc. The problem comes when people try and “interpret” what Nabokov might be getting at. A common view is that Invitation falls into a Russian “radical” tradition, reducing Nabokov to a disgruntled émigré who sought nothing but literary retribution against the Bolshevik regime. For me, it’s a tough sell. Nabokov didn’t write about politics in any of his other books or essays at all, save Invitation. Furthermore, he wrote it in just a few days as a side project to his Russian magnum opus, The Gift. Apart from being dystopian, it bears little or no relation to Zamatyin’s We, a futuristic sci-fi novel set in the 26th century (think 1984 meets Aelita, Queen of Mars) to which Invitation is often compared. But We deals with themes of authoritarianism, a master state, a leader, etc. and the struggle of individuals to release themselves from the control it has of their sensibilities. None of these elements are present in Invitation. Cincinnatus, the protagonist, is under no pretense that the world he lives in is just. He has no “journey” or true development of character. He’s simply a citizen jailed and sentenced to death for being different. The struggle is not one of escape, physical or mental – he only begs to know on what day he will be executed – nothing more. Those who hold him captive keep changing his execution date, conversing with him in cheery tones, and behave as if his incarceration is a humorous nuisance.
The essence of Cincinnatus’s character is that his mind is always taken elsewhere (hence his imprisonment). A typical rumination may consider his death, his wife or the beauty of a bygone era, but rarely the nature of the state which holds him prisoner. Books and magazines are Cincinnatus’s retreat:
The prison library… was a remote world, where the simplest objects sparkled with youth and an inborn insolence, proceeding from the reverence that surrounded the labour devoted to their manufacture.
Books are Cincinnatus’s passion, his retreat, but it is because of the devotion that goes into preservation of something concrete, when all around him is perpetually and viciously in flux.
Like most accounts of political trials, Nabokov’s novella offers far more about the accuser than the accused. If there are lessons to be learned from history, one might be that processes of external incrimination and judgment are often far more memorable and insightful than the relatively uncomplicated plight of innocence. For French Revolution buffs, Georges Danton’s achievements have been largely forgotten. It is only in Robespierre’s betrayal that he becomes famous, foreshadowing the Reign of Terror. Likewise Trotsky is known for his expulsion from Russia, and far less for his military prowess in the Russian Civil War. He is of course most well known for his assassination by Stalin, perhaps the most visible of the purges to those outside Russia. Even now, Steve Bannon’s fall has told us far more about the ideological flexibility of the GOP. Once heralded as alt-right/nouveau-GOP ideological mastermind, he is now cut off from Breitbart and has been ousted from the Trump inner sanctum. Leaders fashion themselves as Robespierres, but many become Dantons.
Damning as Michael Wolf’s book may have been to Trump and Bannon’s public relationship, Fire and Fury failed to reveal anything new about the POTUS. But as the Russia investigation draws on, the sincerity of our search for dirt on Trump is looking more and more like a hostage situation. In the absence of hard evidence, elected officials continue down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. In the midst of government shutdowns and restarts, tensions with foreign nations and a President with an inappropriate and often offensive big mouth, our country’s elected officials are still trying to figure out if it was maybe possible that Jared Kushner might have used executive privilege to do some creative accounting. (And somehow, this relates to the manner in which Putin used Facebook to mind control America, in the latest remake of The Manchurian Candidate.)
The integrity and political tenacity of Cincinnatus’s executioners too are seemingly measured by the extent to which they can consider Cincinnatus’s fate with total and utter insincerity. Take Pierre Delalande, Cincinnatus’s legal advisor and arguably worst culprit. After visiting Cincinnatus three times for the sole purpose of tormenting him, Pierre ends up accompanying him to the scaffold, for a performance to entertain the townsfolk in Thriller Square. As Cincinnatus makes his way to the scaffold, he sees the townsfolk gathering towards him as he converses with Pierre. At one point, Pierre grows impatient with the horse driver, reprimanding him with characteristic sarcasm. But the scene continues:
“I’m sorry I flared up like that,” M’sieur Pierre was saying gently, ‘Don’t be angry with me, duckie. You understand yourself how it hurts to see others being sloppy when you put your whole soul into your work.”
They clattered across the bridge. News of the execution had only just now begun to spread through the town. Red and blue boys ran after the carriage. A man who feigned insanity, an old fellow of Jewish origin who had for many years been fishing for non-existent fish in a waterless river, was collecting his chattels, hurrying to join the very first group of townspeople heading for Thriller Square.
“ . . . but there’s no point in dwelling on that,’ M’sieur Pierre was saying. ‘Men of my temperament are volatile but also get over it quickly.”
While Nabokov does not necessarily fit neatly into any one literary genre (he composed novels in three languages in his lifetime), Invitation bears the hallmark of Russian literature in the presence of mysticism and metaphor. Pierre and the fisherman are one and the same person: the Apostle Peter. My Episcopalian friends will know that just yesterday, the Gospel reading included the famous verse from the Book of Matthew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Both of Peter’s reincarnations are warped. One is the fisherman, doing his job as entrusted to him, though with little care or sense of purpose. The other is the defender (Peter was the first Pope, after all), playing the role of advocate but to a performative, not a judicial, end.
It’s easy to miss Peter’s apparition in Invitation. Like Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky before him, Nabokov was in the business of saturating his novels with hidden references or mysticism (perhaps in compensation to the awkwardness of his prose). By the time you’ve gotten to the end of the book, the brain overloads on the diarrhetic flow of French Revolutionary references, that one scarcely has space for much more. But there’s modern blindness as well. We’re used to thinking of Dystopian societies in “totalitarian” frameworks. Though Hannah Arendt’s sociological tropes would have us believe that social responsibility can never really be laid with the individual, Invitation was written well before society started thinking about Orwell’s Eurasia, about Eichmann’s ignorance or the questions of “thoughtlessness” (some might say mass unintelligence) that are pervasive throughout society when things go really sour.
What Invitation continually gets at is the contradictory double-think that people carry around in in their minds: (1) the things which they know to be true, and (2) the things which they know will get them ahead which run in supposed opposition to those truths. After all it was Peter who was given entrusted with leading the Church, but also thrice denied Christ at the most crucial moment. Christians often cite the human condition, arguing that Peter’s imperfection shows the extent to which Christianity works on our level and leaves room for our foibles. But in typical Nabokovian fashion, there’s a dark cynicism about the benevolence human nature and the good intentions of religion. Peter, Pierre, and Cincinnatus’s oppressors are no such imperfect humans: they are merely spineless, substituting spite and self-gratification for guilt or conscience.
I fear that the current trajectory of the Russia investigation might be far more telling about my party and my generation than about the Trump administration. The President and the GOP are fundamentally altering the manner in which the country conducts itself, and yet the Russia investigation continues for the sole purpose of maintaining a fiction of political action. We’ve now gotten to a stalemate, whereby whatever Trump says, the opposite “must” be true, whatever he does the opposite “must” be correct. I personally think Trump is a lousy President, but our refusal to genuinely engage with the political moment is to take an inheritance, an opportunity, and selfishly squander it.