Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Although Nabokov is still best-known for “Lolita” (pretty obviously because of the controversial subject matter), he actually had written 10 novels in Russian and 2 in English before that book brought his name to the public eye. Much of his early writing life was when he was living as an émigré in Berlin and so almost inevitably many of the early stories were set there. “Laughter in the Dark” is one of those stories, published in 1933 (his 6th novel) and set in Berlin between the wars.


In some ways, you could maybe think of “Laughter” as a kind of dry run for “Lolita”, featuring as it does a man’s obsession with a barely-of-legal-age young mistress. However, I felt it had more in common with “Despair”, telling as it does of a person in whose life *everything* goes wrong!

Unusually, in the opening paragraph of the book Nabokov summarises the plot very neatly in a few sentences:

“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 a disaster.”

However, as he points out, it would be boring just to tell a life story like that, so instead he goes on to reveal in full the story of Albinus’s fall. A prosperous Berlin businessman, Albert Albinus is married to the pale Elizabeth and has a young daughter Irma. Also constantly on the scene is his brother-in-law Paul. On the surface, then, a nice bourgeois life with all the comforts and nothing to worry about. However, there is something missing in Albert’s life – passion, perhaps. which he never really seems to have felt. Therefore, it’s not actually surprising when he falls head-over-heels into obsession with Margot, a 16-year-old usherette at a local cinema.

“And alongside of these feeble romances there had been hundreds of girls of whom he had dreamed but whom he had never got to know; they had just slid past him, leaving for a day or two that hopeless sense of loss which makes beauty what it is: a distant lone tree against golden heavens; ripples of light on the inner curve of a bridge; a thing quite impossible to capture.”

Margot is a hard nut – from what we would call a troubled background, with a cold, hard family, beatings as a child and an early awareness of what a girl can use to get what she wants. Therefore Albinus is a chicken ripe for plucking, and it isn’t long before Margot is calling the shots. Albinus, unable to turn his back on her, so obsessed is he, finds the conflict between the demands of family life and his need for Margot almost unbearable. Despite his attempts to hide the affair from his wife, things come out and the couple split up. Albinus’s infatuation with Margot continues, despite her terrible demands, her capriciousness and selfishness; and events spiral out of control as humiliation, lies and disaster follow…

young nabokov

The more I read of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, the more I come to admire his prose. Fluent in several languages, he translated many of his original Russian works himself as is the case here (apparently there was an earlier translation by someone else with which he wasn’t happy). He can tell a tale wonderfully, compellingly, and draw you into the world of his characters where you watch helplessly as their lives unravel and there is no power that can stop this.

“He grew accustomed to Margot’s presence in these rooms, once so full of memories. She had only to change the position of some trifling object, and immediately it lost its soul and the memory was extinguished; it was only a matter of how long she would take to touch everything, and, as she had quick fingers, in a couple of months his past life in these twelve rooms was quite dead. Beautiful as the flat was, it no longer had any connection with that flat in which he had lived with his wife.”

The character of Albinus is beautifully drawn, with his obsessions, his inability to draw back in the face of inevitable disaster and his naive hope that all will be well. Margot is a complex girl, a product of her surroundings and upbringing, cruel, capricious but yet needy and somehow sympathetic. Her early love of a man she knows as Miller will come back to stalk her in more ways than one. The shadowy figures of Elizabeth and Irma haunt Albinus, and Paul appears as a kind of avenging angel, encountering Albert or Margot again and again as the narrative continues, and trying to save them all.

Even though the characters aren’t always pleasant, you still find yourself sympathising with them and wishing they could tear themselves away from the horrors to come. And there *are* tragedies – sudden events that hit you in the gut when something undeserved happens. In many ways, what happens to Albinus and Margot is brought upon themselves, but there are innocent victims and Nabokov’s narrative is capable of sudden depth and poignance when you least expect it.

As always, Nabokov takes events and people, unpalatable on the surface, and weaves a compelling story around them; his prose is wonderful, his control of his material masterly and the lid he lifts which exposes human motivations is illuminating. Nabokov is definitely one of my favourite authors and I think I’m going to feel the need to read another of his works soon…. 🙂

( I was prompted to read this owing to another attack of hopeless memory! Browsing in the Samaritans Book Cave, I came across this book and didn’t think I had it so purchased it, and read the first few chapters over a frothy coffee in town. However, when I got home of course I already had it 😦 – really I must find a sensible way to carry lists of books around! But having started it, I was so gripped I had to carry on – so the purchase wasn’t an entire waste!)