This was written twenty-three years before Lolita and also deals with a relationship between an older man and a younger woman. These are the only two Nabokov novels I’ve read so far, so I’m hoping he does branch out a bit in his other novels, but this was still a much different story than what happened between Humbert Humbert and Dolores.
Where Humbert is a calculated predator, Albert Albinus, this story’s older man, is a fumbling and naive fool. He’s a well-off art critic living in Berlin who meets Margot, a seventeen-year-old girl, and becomes obsessed with her. He meets with her on a few occasions and eventually – ‘seduces’ is not the right word here – convinces her to have an affair with him. She is in control from the very beginning, manipulating him every step of the way to get what she wants while slowly dismantling his life. We watch as this relationship progresses and becomes shockingly toxic.
All of the characters are completely unlikable in this. Albinus is truly pathetic and Margot is just a vile human being from the very beginning of the story, to the point where it was difficult to imagine what Albinus saw in her, although she does get some sympathy being the target of a man too old for her. I don’t need characters to be likable, but it’s nice to know what others see in them. Yes, she’s (too) young and beautiful, but even the most beautiful people will become unattractive to you over time if they’re shallow and unbearable. It’s really Nabokov’s writing, though noticeably less polished than Lolita, that pulls you through the middle of this novel.
Laughter in the Dark really shines in its last third, where it becomes delightfully demented. I was not expecting the story to go the way that it did, and it was a lot of fun. It almost felt like a pulpy movie, ending in an unrealistic situation that still managed to be horrific and entertaining to read.
This was first translated to English in 1936, but Nabokov is said to have disliked that translation so much that he decided to translate it himself again two years later. I feel like we don’t often get the chance to read a translation done by the original author, so it’s a bit of a rare treat. It looks like the rest of his Russian novels were translated either by him or his son.
A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.
I’m looking forward to reading more of his novels and curious to see what other subjects he tackles in those stories.