Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man named 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.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and though there is plenty of space on a tombstone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.
So Laughter In The Dark opens. What a genius Nabokov is, a master chess-player of the novel. So elegant, so merciless, so QED. Albinus dabbles as an art critic and picture expert, and the book is like a morality play painted by an Old Master. In fact Albinus has “a beautiful idea” that he tries to pitch to a film producer, in which a well-known picture would be perfectly reproduced on the screen in vivid colors and then brought to life…all suddenly coming to life, with that little man in red putting down his tankard, this girl with the tray wrenching herself free, and a hen beginning to peck on the threshold. A well-known picture perfectly reproduced in vivid colours – that’s exactly what this book is.
It’s quite a feat to create the atmosphere of a morality play and yet have characters who are so complex and scenes that are so heart-rending. Margot, Albinus’ teenage lover, is sex-kitten, vamp and cold-eyed opportunist all at the same time. And here is the real object of her love, Axel Rex:
It amused him immensely to see life made to look silly, as it slid helplesly into caricature. He despised practical jokes; he liked them to happen by themselves with perchance now and then just that little touch on his part which would send the wheel running downhill. He loved to fool people; and the less trouble the process entailed, the more the joke pleased him. And at the same time this dangerous man was, with pencil in hand, a very fine artist indeed.
Quite simply, these two steal Albinus’ soul. We see this, and he sees it, clearly in a terrible scene midway through the book when he makes the choice not to go to his little daughter’s funeral. He delivers himself into Margot’s hands.
‘Why are you up so early? Where are you going?’ asked Margot in a drawling voice broken by a yawn.
‘Nowhere,’ he said without turning round.
In a class of its own.