The relation between reality and art lies at the bottom of this peculiar manipulation of a banal tale of a wandering husband destroyed by his love for a worthless woman. From the beginning, Nabokov builds the story up to something more than its plot, and at the same time, tears it down, showing the reader that it is “just a story” with which he, as artist, can do as he pleases. Coincidence occurs throughout the novel, undermining its credibility. Conrad, the novelist, provides the idea which brings Albinus into contact with Rex, and later it is Conrad, met by chance, who precipitates Albinus’ discovery of Rex’s betrayal. Rex happens to be Margot’s great love, although she does not know really who he is, or even where he is, until he suddenly appears at a dinner party given by Albinus. The poster outside the motion-picture theater in which Margot works prefigures Irma’s experience of watching the man from the open window. There are several of these doublings, all placed cleverly, and without comment, throughout the novel. Indeed, this cleverness is part of the point of the novel, which uses a story that ought not to have any aesthetic power at all.
Real life is not romantic enough for Albinus; he must have the kind of romantic adventure which occurs only in films. Appropriately, he has modest connections with the films, Margot wants to be a film star, and Rex has the technical skills to provide Albinus with his dream film. It is, quite deliberately, too coincidental and too often full of cinematic echoes. The reader is made aware of the way in which Nabokov “dresses” the set, and the seemingly awkwardly and irrelevantly placed objects against which the characters act; Rex, in particular, cooperates with the author in manipulating the environment, much as a film director might do. Nabokov is exaggerating and pointing...
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Two Intersecting Lines: Cinematic Elements
In Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark
Like two intersecting lines, novel and film meet at a point, then diverge.—George Bluestone
This comment, taken from Bluestone’s 1957 essay, “The Limits of the Novel and the Limits of Film”, goes on to say that “at the intersection, the book and shooting script are almost indistinguishable” (Bluestone 150). This appears to be a fairly self-evident take on a conventional novel to film adaptation, but how would the final product look if rather than the novel being used as the film’s source for “raw material” (Bluestone 149) the process was reversed and the literary text used film syntax and cinematic characteristics for its basis of construction? This inversion of the more common practice of adaptation is precisely the direction Vladimir Nabokov took in the creation of his cinematic novel, Laughter in the Dark. His use of film techniques: “close-ups, cross-cutting, switches in viewing angle, visual narrative modes, the careful detailing of action, [and] techniques of characterization” (Eidsvik 125) were, it seems, derived from and built on a narrative tradition established by several nineteenth century novelists. In an interesting, almost cinematic twist, the innovations of Dumas and Stevenson were appropriated by screenwriters in the early twentieth century and put on the silver screen only to be stolen back by Nabokov a decade later and returned to the printed page.
Of these liberated cinematic approaches, the one most apparent in Nabokov’s novel is what Gavriel Moses calls an “open-ended, deep focus kind of camera style [that] engages the viewers in a challenge to see” (Moses 68). What he is referring to is the varied and comprehensive aspects we are given by the writer. We are allowed to see numerous scenes from a number of different angles giving us a cinematic gaze that is uncharacteristic of the standard novel form. The climactic car accident — referred to by Moses as “the most spectacular instance of a filmlike sequence to be found in Nabokov’s fiction” (Moses 65) — is the perfect example of this engaging approach. This sequence is wrought with the tension of an impending catastrophe. It is foreshadowed on the evening of Albinus’s first encounter with Margot at the Argus movie theatre. As Albinus watches the film playing on that fateful night he sees a scene with “a car spinning down a smooth road with hairpin turns between cliff and abyss” (Nabokov 22). This apparent metaphor for the life he is to engage in with Margot becomes reality as he speeds with his mistress from Rouginard in figurative blindness towards the car accident that leads to his physical blindness. We are left, in cliff-hanger fashion, at the end of chapter thirty-one with the knowledge that “a sharp bend was approaching and Albinus proposed to take it with special dexterity [while] dashing from the opposite side, toward an unknown meeting, two cyclists crouched over their handlebars” (Nabokov 236). This leads into a complex breakdown of images that lend themselves to a cinematographic analysis. The high angle view, afforded a woman gathering herbs, cuts to an aerial perspective from a plane flying overhead. This extremely distant and all-encompassing perspective eventually links the collision in France with Elisabeth, Albinus’s estranged wife — who “had awakened feeling very restless . . . and . . . could not understand why she felt so strangely uncomfortable” (Nabokov 238) — in Berlin. Her inauspicious premonition is confirmed a few pages later by the intimation that “for a whole year at least [the old woman] . . . would be telling people how she had seen . . . what she had seen . . . ” (Nabokov 238). And with these dubious words we leap forward to the next chapter and the next scene at the hospital where Albinus is on the mend.
Splices in the narrative like the one described above, common to film, are also encountered throughout LITD’s diegesis. These jarring transitions, much like jump cuts, grab our attention and force us to move “mercilessly along” with Nabokov’s “simpler and more direct” (Morris 63) cinematic plot. For example, the transition at the end of chapter sixteen: “‘Not a very successful party, somehow,’ thought Albinus as he yawned himself out of his dinner jacket” (Nabokov 134) to the beginning of seventeen works in this fashion. Abruptly, without mentioning that Margot and Axel had left the party together or even interacted during the course of the evening, we find the scene move in the manner of an abrupt cut from Albinus, alone in his study, to the two former lovers careening down a Berlin street engaged in an impassioned conversation on the nature of coincidence.
We see this technique used again when Paul encounters Axel entering Albinus’s: “they looked at one another and — there was a great outburst of cheering as the puck was shot into the Swedish goal” (Nabokov 170), and then a short while later when Albinus travels to Rouginard with Axel and Margot: “not quite clear what they do with those wooden balls . . . Awkward if he happens to get into conversation with the little girl on the way and she blurts it all out before I tell him” (Nabokov 210). Each of these situations move between thoughts at such a swift and random rate that one must go back and reread the passage to completely grasp its intended meaning. Nabokov uses what could be described as stream of consciousness narrative, to force us to see his novel cinematographically rather than through conventional literary imagery. We must absorb a variety of ideas and sensations at once. Without providing the words for us to base our visualizations on Nabokov manipulates us into finding the pictures that complete the sequence of events he outlines.
There is a similar, but slightly more complicated use of this same approach during the sequence where Albinus goes to see his daughter on her death bed. Initially, we are given the narrator’s view of Irma accompanied by the sounds of Albinus’s arrival: “presently the door creaked . . . but Elisabeth did not turn her head” — then there is a shift to Elisabeth’s first person perspective: “the man who entered halted a couple of feet from the bed” — which abruptly jumps to that of Albinus’: “he could only dimly discern his wife’s far hair and shawl . . . ” (Nabokov 174). The sequence ends with a return to the initial third person perspective as Albinus faints and is caught under the arms by “a distant cousin of his” (Nabokov 174). It all happens quickly and seamlessly. The reader is left scarcely enough time to put the pieces together before the scene is over and we are looking at a recently revived Albinus agonizing over his dilatory arrival.
Moreover, there is a variety of interesting shot types that drift in and out of Nabokov’s novel. Several chapters open with detailed descriptions that could only be described as long, establishing shots. We visualize through this cinematic perspective most clearly at the beginning of chapter nine as Albinus is leaving Margot’s apartment after having slept with her for the first time. His awareness of his environment is heightened and because of his apparent clarity we get a detailed, comprehensive account of the scene:
Berlin-West, a morning in May. Men in white caps cleaning the street. Who are they who leave old patent leather boots in the gutter? Sparrows bustling about in the ivy. An electric milk van on fat tires rolling creamily. The sun dazzling in an attic window on the slope of a green-tiled roof . . . In the front gardens the Persian lilac was in bloom. Despite the early coolness white butterflies were already fluttering about a though in a rustic garden. (Nabokov 83)
This sequence provides us with a general picture of the entire area. It is a beautiful spring morning in the bustling metropolis of Berlin. It is easy to visualize the long, overhead shot that Nabokov is attempting to convey here and it is effective in the way that it forces the reader to see the scene while, at the same time, establishing the atmosphere of the chapter in a literary manner.
As with these more specific examples of shot types and literary montage, the overall structure of the novel appears to be arranged in the style of a movie. This approach, perhaps derived from nineteenth-century novels where there seems to be “ . . . a stress on showing rather than on telling and which, as a result, [reduces] the element of authorial intervention in its more overt manifestations” (McFarlane 4) is key to seeing LITD cinematically. The chapters are short and pointed. Much of the action is implied rather than overtly described. The story moves along very quickly and, relatively speaking, this novel is quite short. There are various peaks and valleys in the plot, but like a Hollywood movie the climactic scenes come towards the end and a final aspect of the story remains unresolved until the last few sentences. This closing segment is particularly cinematic. As Albinus lies dead on the floor we are given the “stage-directions for the last silent scene” (Nabokov 292) implying that the entire novel has been a film viewed through Albinus’s eyes. And with these closing directions we are torn from the comfortable seat we occupied in the movie theatre of the mind and forced back into the physical space where we actually sit reading the novel.
This end segment, along with the opening “fairy-tale” synopsis provides a textual frame for the cinematic experience that Nabokov is ultimately trying to create. The “once upon a time” (Nabokov 7) opening, lifted from the fairy-tale genre, is consistent with film aesthetics and objectives. Jean Cocteau on his adaptation of La Belle et la Bête said that like the fairy tale “a film does not belong either to the past, or to the present, or to the future” (Cocteau 135) and “the style of the great French mythology of the fairy story [provides] that naïve realism which allows one to believe” (Cocteau 44). This timeless, naïve realism is what Nabokov establishes at the outset of LITD. He sets his novel in the ambiguous realm of “once upon a time” which, as Cocteau asserts, ties it more closely to the world of film as both movies and fairy-tales seem to unfold in the perpetual present.
Moving within this timeless, cinematic realm is a number of uniquely familiar, fictional constructs. These characters: Albinus, Axel, Margot, Elisabeth and Paul adhere more closely to early cinematic stereotypes than to the figures found in novels of the early twentieth-century. There exists a fictional world here “populated by instantly recognizable human types” enabling a “broad common response” (Eidsvik 125). Nabokov uses “the Vamp [Margot] and the Straight Girl [Elizabeth] . . . , the Family Man [Albinus], and the Villain [Axel]” (Panofsky 290) from the silent film era to create precise associations for his readers. These moulds place the characters within the context of early cinema and allow the reader clear, instantaneous associations with a minimum of text.
As well, they are all summed up succinctly through their actions, the comments of the unbiased and omniscient narrator, and comments made by the various characters they interact with. We are told by the narrator that Albinus is “not a particularly gifted man” (Nabokov 8); while his inability “to endure anything in bad taste” (Nabokov 94) is disclosed through Albinus’s internal monologue, while the description of him as a “pop-eyed, stammering fool” (Nabokov 107) belongs to Margot’s pseudo Marxist brother, Otto (whose contribution to the characterization, or rather, caricaturization of Albinus is colorful but brief). To Albinus, Margot has a “pale , sulky, painfully beautiful face” (Nabokov 21) while to herself, when she finally sees what she looks like through the unerring eye of the camera, she is “awkward and ugly, with a swollen, strangely altered, leech-black mouth . . . ” (Nabokov 187). It is these divergent perspectives that give the reader a more detailed and objective view of the various characters. What we do not glean from the narrator in the way of commentary we are allowed to pick up from a number of extraneous, seemingly reliable sources. If the perspective is biased, as in the case of Otto, and more precisely, Albinus, then it is counter-balanced by a contending, equally prejudiced viewpoint. In all cases, it is Nabokov’s objective camera-like view that we experience this story through.
Within the scope of this view the Axel Rex construct receives special treatment. Like the other characters, the exterior qualities of Rex are described at a number of points in the text. However, we get the most meaningful insights into his persona when the narrator provides us with the information. On one such occasion we are told that:
his culture was patchy, but his mind shrewd and penetrating, and his itch to make fools out of men amounted to almost genius. Perhaps the only real thing about him was his innate conviction that everything that had ever been created in the domain of art, science or sentiment, was only a more or less clever trick . . . Even when he was talking quite seriously about a book or a picture, Rex had a pleasant feeling that he was a partner in a conspiracy, the partner of some ingenious quack — namely, the author of the book or the painter of the picture. (Nabokov 182)
Rex, figuratively speaking, is Nabokov’s partner. He has “been reserved a place in the stage manager’s private box” (Nabokov 183) and is the “impresario of the real . . . who controls much of the way in which things appear to Albinus in the novel” (Moses 68-69). He does this in the same way that a film director controls the images that appear on screen before his audience. Albinus is on par with the passive moviegoer while Rex is the director’s equivalent.
Along with the director/audience references that permeate LITD are numerous metafictional touches that continually remind the reader of the characters’ cinematic perspectives and the novel’s overall cinematic mode of representation. The movie poster Albinus sees upon entering the Argus is an interesting example of Nabokov’s method in this respect. The poster is of “a man looking up at a window framing a child in a nightshirt” (Nabokov 19-20). This image serves to foreshadow the evening and the situation during which Irma catches the pneumonia which eventually kills her, and it implies that her story is just another part of the cinematic world Nabokov created in this novel. The poster also reinforces the movie aesthetics and values conveyed throughout LITD and it keeps the reader’s focus on those values and that world.
There are numerous other metafictional examples in LITD. The movie that Margot gets a principle role in turns out to be an inverted mirror of the story she plays out in the novel’s main plot. Albinus’ desire to make a film out of a painting is something akin to the earliest films, which “ . . . added movement to works of art originally stationary, so that the dazzling technical invention might achieve a triumph of its own without intruding upon the sphere of higher culture” (Panofsky 284). With this detail, Nabokov is once again connecting his novel with the cinema while characterizing his protagonist as hopelessly conventional and outdated.
The deeper one delves into this novel the more it becomes apparent that virtually every aspect of it is in some way connected to the world of cinema. From the judicious use of color patterns, or “synaesthesia” (Moses 77) that is connected with Eisenstein and Nabokov’s shared interest in audition colorée (the hearing of colors through vowels and music), to the sarcastic tone of the narrator that allows the reader to maintain a comfortable, somewhat detached cinematic distance, all of Nabokov’s efforts point to the creation of a film in the insidious form of a book. By extending the innovations of Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists who used cinematic techniques decades before cinema existed, Nabokov created something new and unique. He reversed the predatory relationship that existed between film and literature in the early part of the twentieth-century and in doing so came up with a new twist on an old form. Throughout this novel, Nabokov satirizes the superficiality of cinema. It is shown to be formulaic, melodramatic and at times vulgar. However, in what appears to be an unconscious effort, he manages to elevate the art of film to the elegant level of his prose. Nabokov may have been smugly laughing at the movies while creating LITD but in the end it is the cinema that is vindicated along with the novelist.
Copyright 2004 Stan Janz
Beja, Morris. “Narrative Literature,” “Narrative Film,” “Film and Literature.” In Film & Literature: An Introduction. New York: Longman, 1979. 3-76.
Bluestone, George. “The Limits of the Novel and the Limits of the Film.” In Film And/As Literature, ed. John Harrington. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. 137-150.
Cocteau, Jean. The Art of Cinema. Trans. Robin Buss. Eds. André Bernard and Claude Gauteur. London: Marion Boyars, 1992. 35-46; 134-144.
Eidsvik, Charles. “The Popular Arts: A Brief Prehistory of the Cinema.” In Cineliteracy: Film Among the Arts. New York: Random House, 1978. 112-127, 130-131, 133.
McFarlane, Brian. “Backgrounds, Issues, and a New Agenda.” In Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 3-30.
Moses, Gavriel. “Albinus Fakes Movies.” In The Nickel was for the Movies: Film in the Novel from Pirandello to Puig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955. 62-95.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Laughter in the Dark. New York: Random House, Inc. 1989.
Panofsky, Erwin. “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures.” In Film And/As Literature, ed. John Harrington. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. 283-294.