adultery, cheating, Choice, Control, Individual Will, Laughter, Laughter in the Dark, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Mid-Life Crisis, Novel, prose, Sexual Fantasy, Sexuality, Tropes, Vladimir Nabokov, Writing
I made my wife laugh terribly so that she almost fell over. I was glad that my personal pain amused her so as it’s a sign that our marriage is healthy and whole and we will probably make it. Then again if Jack Davenport gives up cigarettes and suddenly takes an interest in brown haired sarcastic women from East Texas I’m screwed. But I’ll save adultery till after the lead-in.
I suspect that laughter, in fact I know that laughter, is one of the most enjoyable and horrific experiences that a human being can experience in their life times. Most of us live our lives desperate not to be laughed at, while many in their time do everything in their power to make sure those around them are doing nothing but. Laughter as a mechanism is really nothing but a series of brief and controlled coughs that are, psychologically speaking, often a response to absurdity. It’s a way to respond to the unnatural, the strange, the weird, or simply anything that deviates from the norm.
I tend to go to bed long after my wife because I like to read and write during my time off from work, and this night was no different from any other. I brushed my teeth, took my benadryl and melatonin, locked up the house, counted the cats, and went to bed. Once I was beneath the covers my usual struggle to fall asleep began and I tossed and turned, like I usually do, trying to just relax, get cozy, and drift off. It was several minutes into this nightly struggle when my wife began to snore. I tend to be the one who snores because my sinuses are broken-down tractors and so I tend to make cacophonous roars at night, but tonight it was my wife’s turn. I reached over, and gently shook her and she responded by laughing. It was a soft albeit malevolent chuckle that was like something from a bad horror movie, but it froze me in place and scared the shit out of me. I didn’t move until she rolled over onto her other side, but I had only a moment before she laughed again.
Sleep was not to take me that night, and I was left, in the dark, beside a laughing creature I couldn’t see.
I know she wouldn’t kill me, and that’s because I trust her. Though that trust is something precious which leads me to infidelity and Nabokov.
Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few novelists whose work I’m still regularly reading and collecting. Part of this is simply distance from graduate school and warming up to my new life and identity as a library employee. I’m spending my days immersed in the collected volumes of literature, and because of that I’ve been able to return to many of my true passions: comics, non fiction, Criterion films, and anything that has to do with sex between men. Yet despite this shift of focus I’m still dedicated to reading literature voraciously and a few of the fiction writers I still spend my time and energy on tends to be Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov. Each of these writers has their own charms and appeal, but Nabokov will always be one of the first I gravitate towards because there has always been something about the way the man writes.
Recently I completed his novel Laughter in the Dark (at this my reader goes “ahh” and sees what I did there) and looking at the introduction perhaps the reader will see something akin to what I see:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called 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 although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome. (7).
I predict my reader’s reaction, or at least one of them, “dude that’s so meta.” I haven’t decided yet if “meta,” which in this instance is short for “metafiction,” is meant to be an insult or not. I think it is because usually if something is labeled as “meta” it is usually synonymous with the more condemnatory word “pretentious.” Writers who try to make the reader aware that they are reading a story are usually hacks, or at least are perceived as such. “Meta” as a narrative tool for writers and story tellers was something that really seemed to come to prominence during the 80s when Ferris Bueler and Goodfellas made it not just a unique trick, but a fundamental part of the story, but today’s audiences seem far more concerned with hearing an actual journey and escaping from the world rather than observing craft.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh and too general, as there might be plenty of readers who enjoy “meta” narratives, or narratives that use meta as a tool. But I don’t believe I’m wrong.
Nabokov as a writer was skilled and far too careful to be unaware of the effect such an opening would have on his reader and by the end of Laughter in the Dark they are sure to have observed that he’s very much correct in his early assessment. Reading the novel myself I was often struck by the recurrent thought: “I’ve read this story before.” It was both true, and untrue. It was untrue in the fact that I hadn’t in fact read the story of Albinus, but it was true in the fact that I had read this narrative before. The story of a middle aged man who has become inured or bored with his daily existence and so seeks to escape his boredom, and dim awareness of his coming mortality, in the arms of a younger woman isn’t anything new. In fact the story of a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger and more physically attractive mistress is so common it borders on cliche.
The reader may wonder then what is so impressive about a novel which explores so paltry a common theme? Why should I read a book about a middle aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman when I could just watch an episode of Desperate Housewives or Cheaters?
The answer to the second question, is actually the same as the first: the quality of Laughter in the Dark is dramatically more impressive.
As is always the case, Nabaokov doesn’t just use words to tell a story, Nabaokov uses words to play while he tells a story. Anyone who has bothered to read Lolita, Pnin, or Invitation to a Beheading is sure to remember that Nabokov manages to make even the most grotesque something beautiful and possibly even sublime. And looking at Albinus’s first sexual encounter with his mistress Margot, the homeless model and aspiring actress, is able to observe the careful attention the man pays to his craft:
He was conscious of a dull discomfort. He was hungry; he had neither shaved nor bathed; the touch of yesterday’s shirt against his skin was exasperating. He felt utterly spent—and no wonder. This had been the night of which he had dreamed for years. The very way in which she had drawn her shoulder blades together and purred when he first kissed her downy back had told him that he would get exactly what he wanted, and what he wanted was not the chill of innocence. As in his most reckless visions, everything was permissible, a puritan’s love, priggish reserve, was less known in this new free world than white bears in Honolulu.
Her nudity was as natural as though she had long been want to run along the shore of his dreams. There was something delightfully acrobatic about her bed manners. And afterward she would skip out and prance up and down the room, swinging her girlish hips and gnawing at a dry roll left over from supper. (83-4).
Nabokov is not the first writer who has managed to recreate human sexuality through writing, and he is not the first to observe that when two people, who have not spent years together, fuck they tend to do so with abandon. What’s unique, or at least feels unique when I read this passage, is how Nabokov plays with the language. Rather just describe which parts are rubbing or penetrating or getting sweaty as some writers might, Nabakov understands the capacity of words to affect mood and feeling. I felt this sexuality while reading it, and loathe as I am to admit it, I understood and appreciated Albinus’s passion. And that capacity to understand a man whom I find detestable is the make of a great writer.
Albinus is a man in yet another in a long line of Nabokovian narrators (I hope Nabokovian is a word and if it isn’t I’ve just invented it, dibs) obsessed with control. He sees in his life some hole, or absence which disturbs and troubles him immensely and so rather than try to find personal satisfaction he attempts to control his existence by engaging in a sensuous relationship with a younger woman. But like all Nabokovian narrators malevolently preoccupied with their lack of control, Albinus’s desires are ultimate his undoing as the woman he tried to control eventually leads the man to his downfall.
Margot eventually meets a young painter and sadist named Rex who seduces her and convinces her to help him steal Albinus’s money. The plan slowly works, until Albinus suffers a terrible car crash and is struck blind.
And here is where the predictable narrative began to change, because Albinus at this point differed from the numerous instances of Mid-life crises in literature, for while their demises usually amounted to cuckolding Albinus’s demise was far more complex with Margot and Rex setting up shop in a large house and having regular affairs while Albinus stumbled around in the dark. And the eventual reveal leaves the man bitterly destroyed as Nabokov writes magnificently:
With extraordinary distinctness he pictured Margot and Rex—both quick and alert, with terrible, beaming, goggle eyes and long, lithe limbs—packing after his departure; Margot fawned, and caressed Rex among the open trunks and then they both went away—but where, where? Not a light in the darkness. But their sinuous path burned in him like a trace which a foul, crawling creature leaves on the skin. (283-4).
Infidelity is a theme which leaves me rather troubled and it’s almost certainly because I have poor self image. I recognize that my wife would never cheat on me, but I can never completely know that she wouldn’t. In my more darker moments I have visited the possibility of discovering that she might have been cheating on me with another man, and because I also suffer from depression, and because I’m a writer with an overactive imagination, this thought is often accompanied with all manner of cruel and malicious images. The emotion that such a betrayal would create in me is, at times, too monstrous to consider.
I’ve seen in the lives of family and friends what adultery and infidelity can do to someone firsthand, and so it needs be repeated that even if it’s a familiar narrative, Nabakov was keen to observe that some of the details are an important reminder of what is implied by the sin.
Adultery is often employed, effectively or piss-poorly, by a number of writers and creators for the purpose of generated drama or character development and this is because the act creates real disruption in the universe. The cheater violates the trust of their partner and that distrust can poison any relationship, twisting it into something corrupt and unhealthy. The person who is cheated on is left permanently altered because they have to wonder why their partner strayed: was it something they did or didn’t do, was it because of a single action or was it multiple little things that just built, or perhaps, and even worse, did the other person never actually care for them? All of these realities collect together, and many artists have explored it because infidelity is, unfortunately, just something that isn’t going away.
Nabokov doesn’t just write a story about infidelity however, because as the opening passage suggested, that’s a story that has been told ad nauseum. It’s the details of the story that ultimately matter because that is where one can determine the quality of the story. Laughter in the Dark isn’t just a predictable narrative about a middle aged man trying to escape his mid-life crisis, it’s the story of a man who attempted to control his reality to the point that he lost his entire being because he pursued a passion relentlessly to his ultimate ruin.
Reading of Rex and Margot laughing and fucking while Albinus was in the next room was something that bordered on horrific, not just because of its potential plausibility, but because by the end of the story, I wasn’t sure whether or not I didn’t feel Albinus didn’t deserve it.
Laughter in the Dark is not the strongest novel that Nabokov has ever written, but much like his other works the man was able to push past the subtleties of everyday existence to create something unlike anything the reader has experienced. What is a peacock feather to a blind man, and are it’s edges like the tongues of snails that leave such bitter trails of memory on men whose virtue was not so great that they deserved a second glance?
I don’t have a good answer, but I know that when Middle Age arrives I’ll just try to get into stamp collecting or model cars, because the alternative is far less pleasant.
All quotes cited from Laughter in the Dark were quoted from the Vintage paperback edition.
I didn’t get a chance to include this quote in the essay, but I did want to have it somewhere so I’ll add it here in these little notes of mine. This quote comes from his short book letters to a young contrarian.
Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it’s an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynching’s and executions. Very often, crowds or audiences will laugh complicity or slavishly, just to show they “see” the joke and are all together. […] It’s therefore not true to say, as some optimists do, that humor is essentially subversive. It can be an appeal to the familiar and clichéd a source of reassurance through shared hilarity. (116).
I wanted to include some information below about infidelity for the reader in case they don’t realize how prevalent adultery is in our society. At least 1 in 3 relationships can be expected to be damaged or completely destroyed by one partner cheating. That is, to quote a friend of mine who I hold dearly to, one too many.
A final note on the images:
I usually try to include as many relevant images in these essays as I can. This is because I write rather densly and so I try to give my reader a break with a few visuals that bear some general connection to the theme of the article. However, since I work with the free package provided by WordPress, I only have so many free MB of space before I’ll eventually run out, and since I’v written about Nabakov at least three times now I thought I would save some space and use some old images. I hope they haven’t appeared too odd to the reader who probably didn’t even notice it until I posted this charming and flattering image of Miley Cyrus.
I guess if you squint hard enough her licking the mirror could be construed as a kind of commentary on Albinus’s egomania coupled with his compulsive need to satisfy his erotic longings and use Margot at the expense of his wife and daughter….But then again it’s probably just Miley Cyrus licking a mirror.
I’m not sure what just happened in this paragraph but it feels terribly revealing.