Gavriel Shapiro
Delicate Markers Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading

Acknowledgments ix
List of Illustrations xi
Introduction I
Chapter 1 On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin 9
Chapter 2 Man of Letters Revisited 31
Letter and Image 32
Letter and Color 56
Chapter 3 Christian Tradition and Iconography 71
Chapter 4 Russian Literary Allusions 125
Chapter 5 Nabokov's Flowers of Evil 183
Afterword 209

I wish to thank the staff of the Cornell University John M. Olin
library, and particularly Anne R. Carson, Julie S. Copenhagen, Robert J.
Kibbee, Frederick M. Muratori, and Caroline T. Spicer. I have received
valuable advice from Gennady Barabtarlo, Nora Buhks, Rachel Davis, D.
Barton Johnson, Marie Lienard, Charles Nicol, Stephen Jan Parker, Vera
Proskurin, Christine A. Rydel, Patricia Harris Stablein, and LeonaToker.
I am indebted to Thomas R. Beyer, Jr., the general editor of the Middle-
bury Studies in Russian Language and Literature, and Owen Lancer and
Lisa Dillon, of Peter Lang Publishing, for their forbearing guidance. My
special thanks go to John V. Curatolo, Richard L. Leed, Slava Paperno,
and Nikita Proskurin for sharing with me their wisdom as well as their
computer wizardry. As always, I am immensely grateful to my sister,
Luba Freedman, for her unflagging support and counsel.
I am thankful to the following persons and institutions for permission
to reproduce illustrations: Phototheque des collections du Mnam-Cci,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris / Photographic Collection of the
National Museum of Modern Art, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris
(cover); Farabola Foto (Fig. 2); Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Fig. 3);
Nebelspalter Verlag (Fig. 6); Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (Fig. 9); Donetsk Regional Art Museum (Fig. 10),
Gennady Barabtarlo (Fig. 11); Robert Hunt Library (Fig. 12); Slavic and
Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden
Foundations (Fig. 15); Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House)—
(Figs. 16,17, and 18); Oskar Reinhart Collection (Fig. 20).
I gratefully acknowledge the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov for
permission to quote portions from the writer's works.
Finally, I wish to thank the Hull Memorial Publication Fund of
Cornell University for generously supporting the publication of this book.
Preliminary versions of Chapters 3 and 4 appeared in, respectively,
Russian Language Journal (1979) and Russian Literature (1981). A
portion of Chapter 3 appeared in Nabokov Studies (1996).
The system of transliteration I have employed throughout the book
is a simplified version, used by the Library of Congress. The only
exceptions are Nabokov's own transliterations and those used in

secondary sources.
All references to the English translation and the Russian original of
the novel are to Invitation to a Beheading (Ht^ York: G. P. Putnam's
Sons, 1959) and to Приглашение на казнь (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979). In
both the text and the notes they are given in arabic numerals by page
numbers preceded by the letters E and R which, respectively, stand for
the English and the Russian text. All unattributed translations are mine.


In reading, one should notice and fondle details.
There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of
generalization when it comes after the sunny
trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
Invitation to a Beheading (Приглашение на казнь) is Vladimir
Nabokov's (1899-1977) eighth and penultimate Russian novel. He began
composing it on June 24, 1934, wrote its first draft in "one fortnight of
wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration," thought it finished by
September 15, but continued revising the manuscript throughout that
year.1 The novel was first serialized in the Parisian emigre periodical
Contemporary Annals (Современные Записки) in 1935-36 and then
appeared in book form in 1938. In 1959, the novel was translated into
English by Nabokov's son, Dmitri, in collaboration with the author.2 That
Nabokov oversaw the English translation presents a literary scholar with
a unique opportunity: collating the novel's texts in the two languages not
only allows a better understanding of Nabokov's style but also helps to
elucidate the authorial intent.3
Over its more than sixty-year existence Invitation to a Beheading, a
masterpiece which Nabokov himself held in '4he greatest esteem,"4 has
1 See Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), 68; Brian
Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1990), 408-9.
- Nabokov supervised the translation of all of his Russian novels into English—a link
between his "Russian" and "American" years. The reverse, linguistically, was the case
with Lolita, which Nabokov wrote in English and himself translated into Russian.
3 For an earlier comparison of the novel's Russian and English texts, see Robert P.
Hughes, "Notes on the Translation of Invitation to a Beheading" in Nabokov. Criticism,
Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. and Charles Newman
(Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 284-92; for a study which considers
the issue on a large scale, see Jane Grayson, Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of
Nabokov's Russian and English Prose (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
I Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 92.

received a great deal of critical attention, second only to Lolita. In this
enormous corpus of critique one may discern several prevailing interpre-
tations, such as the political, the metaliteraiy, and the metaphysical.5 The
obvious drawback of any such interpretation is its limited scope which
inevitably leads to certain simplification and reduction of the work to
merely one semantic level.
This monograph, which is the first book-length study of Invitation to
a Beheading,; takes an altogether different approach. It focuses on diverse
subtexts, the implicit meanings-^-or, in Nabokov's words, the "delicate
markers"—which pervade his entire oeuvre, in the belief that such
analysis allows more complex and multifaceted perspective on the novel.
A subtext may sometimes imply commonly accepted meanings or
traditional associations, as for instance with Christian iconography. At
other times it may involve references to other texts. In his study of Man-
del'shtam, who like Nabokov "wrote nothingprosto tak[for no particular
reason—G. S.]," Kiril Taranovsky defines subtext in this latter sense as
"an already existing text (or texts) reflected in a new one."6 That other
text, cited directly or alluded to, illuminates and ultimately helps to
decode the given text. Taranovsky suggests two main types of subtext
which "contribute to our better understanding": 1) '4he text which sup-
ports or reveals the poetic message of a later text," and 2) "the text treated
polemically by the poet."7 We shall examine one more type, very charac-
teristic of Nabokov's verbal art namely, the bait subtext: Nabokov lures
his readers into believing that it reveals the novel's message, only to
undermine this impression later on.8
11 Delicate Markers
5 For the most recent discussion of these interpretations, see Sergei Davydov's essay on
the novel in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Vladimir E. Alexandrov
(New York: Garland Publishing, 1995), 188-203.
6 Kiril Taranovsky, Essays on Mandel'stam (Harvard Slavic Series 6) (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1976), 6 and 18. Because Nabokov, like Mandel'shtam, was
such a conscious literary craftsman, I find Taranovsky's concepts of subtext especially
applicable to his oeuvre.
7 Taranovsky, Essays on Mandel' stam, 18.
' This bait subtext was noted by Alfred Appel, Jr. in regard to Lolita. See Vladimir Na-
bokov, Lolita [ The Annotated Lolita], ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (New York: McGraw-Hill,

Of no less importance are "self-quotations and reminiscences," which
may be viewed as the author's own subtexts. In such cases, the context in
Taranovsky's sense—"a set of texts [primarily by one and the same
author] which contain the same or a similar image" may overlap with the
subtext.9 Such "self-quotation" plays a significant role in Nabokov's
works. Taranovsky's ideas on subtext, including those on "self-quota-
tion," have been applied to Nabokov's oeuvre by Pekka Tammi.10 As we
shall see, much of the imagery of Invitation to a Beheading echoes or is
echoed in his other works, fictional and nonfictional, written both before
and after the novel.
Conditioned by Nabokov's cultural background, his creative interests
and life experience, the novel's subtexts range widely through the Euro-
pean heritage, from antiquity to the time of its composition." Many are
linked to the arts, including music, theater, and cinema, but most es-
pecially literature and painting.
While the significance of literature and of literary sources in Nabo-
kov's works is well known and frequently studied, the role of painting,
and of the visual in general, has not been sufficiently addressed. And yet
painting figures prominently in Nabokov's oeuvre. In his boyhood and
early youth Nabokov entertained the idea of becoming a landscape
painter.12 He received excellent training under the tutelage of several
artists, especially the distinguished Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, to whom
Nabokov dedicated a poem, characteristically entitled "Ut pictura poesis"
(1926), and whom he later described as "that unique master of the line."13
1970; rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 358.
9 Taranovsky, Essays on Mandel'stam, 18.
10 See Pekka Tammi, "Seventeen Remarks on Poligeneticnost' in Nabokov's Prose,"
Studia Slavic a Finlandensia 7 (1990): 189-232.
| For details concerning Nabokov's cultural background, his interests and experiences,
see Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years.
12 Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 17 and 166-67.
I See Руль, April 25, 1926, 2; and Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (Norfolk, Conn..
New Directions, 1944; rept. 1961), 154.

Delicate Markers
Even though in time Nabokov came to realize that his vocation was litera-
ture and turned from the brush to the quill, his keen sense of vision and
color, his great interest in and vast knowledge of the fine arts, are all
manifest in his belles-lettres. (Incidentally, it was not uncommon among
Nabokov's contemporaries to shift from one creative area to another.
Thus, Boris Pasternak, who studied musical composition at first, became
a poet, and so did Vladimir Maiakovskii, who at first studied painting.)
As Maurice Couturier has perceptively observed, "At times, it seems that
he [Nabokov—G.S.] is dreaming of an art that would not make use of
language, and would not be a simulacrum of communication; his ideal art
is painting (an old flirt), rather than music, because it is meant for the
eyes and is unrelated to time.'"4
For the most part, the scholarship on Invitation to a Beheading, when
dealing with subtexts, has primarily concerned itself with literary allu-
sions.15 However, the importance of treating subtexts in their plurali-
14 See Maurice Couturier, "The Subject on Trial in Nabokov's Novels," in Proceedings of
a Symposium on American Literature, ed. Marta Sienicka (Poznan: Uniwersytet im.
Adama Mickiewicza, 1979), 136.
15 See, for example, Petr Bitsilli, «Возрождение аллегории», Современные Записки 61
(1936): 191-204; Gavriel Shapiro, «Конфликт между протагонистом и окружа-
ющим его миром в повести Н. В. Гоголя «Шинель» и в романе В. В. Набокова
«Приглашение на казнь»», Russian Language Journal 34, no. 119(1980): 109-19and
«Русские литературные аллюзии в романе Набокова «Приглашение на казнь»»,
Russian Literature9 (Ш\): 369-78; Julian W. Connolly, "Nabokov and Zhukovsky,"
The Nabokovian [ The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter] 11 (1983): 43-47; Pekka
Tammi, "Invitation to a Decoding. Dostoevskij as Subtext in Nabokov's Priglasenie na
kazn'" Scando-Slavica 32 (1986): 51-72; Nora Buhks, «Эшафот в хрустальном
дворце: О романе Вл. Набокова Приглашение на казны', Cahiers du Monde russe,
35 (1994): 821-838. For an article dealing with pictorial subtexts in the novel, and more
specifically with Christian iconography, see Gavriel Shapiro, «Христианские мотивы,
их иконография и символика, в романе Владимира Набокова «Приглашение на
казнь», Russian Language Journal 33, no. 116(1979): 144-62.
Nabokov scholars, however, exhibit increasing awareness of the importance of
considenng other subtexts in his oeuvre. For example, see Alfred Appel, Jr., Nabokov's
Dvi Опетм (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) for cinematographic subtexts,
and most recently, regarding Камера обскура, Buhks, «Волшебный фонарь или Ка-
мер» Обскура—кино-роман В. Набокова», Cahiers du Monde russe et sovietique 33
(1992) 181-206. For some pictorial subtexts in The Gift, see her «Эротика литера-
турных аллюзий в романе В. Набокова Дар», in Amour et emtisme dans la littirature

ty—visual, historical, as well as literary—is hard to overestimate. Such
treatment helps us to understand better Nabokov's frame of mind and the
range of his interests at the time of composing the work. All this, in turn,
furthers our interpretation of the work in the context of Nabokov's entire
creative oeuvre.
In his commentary on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Nabokov demon-
strates the importance of considering the whole variety of subtexts. And,
in regard to his own oeuvre, he is most emphatic about this. For example,
apparently vexed by the critics' superficial reading of Bend Sinister as
merely an allegory of totalitarianism, Nabokov takes the trouble in the
1963 Introduction to the novel to explain its main themes and to point to
its significant subtexts. Upon revealing some of the novel's literary
allusions, among others to Shakespeare, Melville and Mallarme, he
queries rhetorically:
It may be asked if it is really worth an author's while to devise and distribute
these delicate markers whose very nature requires that they be not too conspicu-
ous. Who will bother to notice that Pankrat Tzikutin, the shabby old pogromystic
(Chapter Thirteen) is Socrates Hemlocker; that "the child is bold" in the allusion
to immigration (Chapter Eighteen) is a stock phrase used to test a would-be
American citizen's reading ability; ...that the urchins in the yard (Chapter
Seven) have been drawn by Saul Steinberg; that the "other rivermaid's father"
(Chapter Seven) is James Joyce who wrote Winnipeg Lake}1"
The examples of "delicate markers" which Nabokov gives here are very
telling: apart from the tongue-in-cheek allusion to Joyce's Finnegans
Wake, he includes historical (Socrates), societal (immigration test), and
pictorial (Saul Steinberg's cartoons) references, thereby demonstrating on
a small scale the diversity of his cultural scope and the multitude of the
novel's subtexts.
Even more than Bend Sinister, which follows and somewhat resem-
bles it, Invitation to a Beheading presents a Nabokov scholar with a diffi-
cult task. Because of its distinctly dystopian nature, the novel is devoid
of a concrete setting, and therefore the "delicate markers," which if "not
russe du XXe siecle, ed. Leonid Heller (Bern: Peter Lang, 1992), 153-68.
16 Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (New York: Holt, 1947; rept. New York: McGraw-
Hill, 1974), xi-xii.

Delicate Markers
too conspicuous," still are usually fairly recognizable in Nabokov's other
works, are here much more covert, much more difficult to discern.
The main purpose of this book, then, is an attempt to "notice" and ex-
plain the function of such "delicate markers" in Invitation to a Beheading.j
considering them within the broader context of Nabokov's oeuvre. Thus,
notwithstanding its sharp focus, this study is conceived not so much as a
reader's guide to a single esoteric text, but rather as a looking glass in
which a significant side of Nabokov's verbal art in general is examined.
The discussion ranges from poems, short stories, and plays written in
Nabokov's early "Russian years" to novels and literary scholarship
written throughout his "American years."
In Chapter 1, before turning to the discussion of various subtexts in
Invitation to a Beheading; 1 shall demonstrate their importance to
Nabokov by examining the genesis of "Sirin"—the pen name which he
used for his Russian works for almost twenty years (1921—40). This
chapter, which ostensibly is not linked to the analysis of the novel, is of
primary importance to the rest of my discussion. It introduces the reader
to the intricacies of Nabokov's creative process by distinctly demonstrat-
ing the writer's penchant for drawing on the whole array of cultural
associations, especially literary and pictorial, in his fiction.
Nabokov's predilection for the visual and his keen sense of color are
evident in alphabetic iconicism and chromesthesia, two notable elements
of his creative art which 1 discuss in Chapter 2. Alphabetic iconicism is
based on the physical shape of letters, in Nabokov's case both Cyrillic
and Roman. After illustrating this phenomenon with examples of
individual letters, 1 focus on the 'P' and 'C' monogram formed from the
double initials of the executioner M'sieur Pierre, also known as Петр
Петрович, and his antipode Cincinnatus C., the novel's protagonist. I
pursue the interlocking meaning of this monogram in both the Russian
original and the English translation.
Chromesthesia, more commonly known as colored hearing, is a rare
ability to associate a given letter and its sound with a certain color, best
known from Arthur Rimbaud's celebrated sonnet "Vowels" ("Voyelles,"
1871). 1 shall show how our interpretation of the novel is enriched when
we view the names of its personages, and especially their initials, through
the spectrum of Nabokov's "alphabetic rainbow."
Nabokov's vast knowledge of the fine arts and their traditions found

expression in the novel in his employment of Christian iconography. The
discussion of this in Chapter 3 centers on the iconography of John the
Baptist and Salome, evoked by Nabokov's treatment of Cincinnatus and
Emmie, as well as on those of Christ and the Antichrist, in which roles,
respectively, Cincinnatus and M'sieur Pierre are cast. I shall try to give
reasons for Nabokov's bringing this novel into the distinct orbit of
Christian imagery.
In Chapter 4, I explore the numerous Russian literary allusions,
mainly nineteenth-century, in the novel. I discuss their various functions
and Nabokov's diverse strategies of dealing with them, and address the
reasons for their manifest surreptitiousness. These literary allusions are
viewed in the context of the salient role which the notion of the "mythic
Nineteenth Century" plays in the novel.
The "mythic Nineteenth Century" also figures in Invitation to a Be-
heading in references to non-Russian European culture, specifically to
Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal. Chapter 5 focuses on the echo-
ings of such poems as "L'lnvitation au voyage," "Un voyage a Cythere,"
"Le voyage," and "Sur Le Tasse en prison d'Eugene Delacroix," as well
as on images of Delacroix's painting itself. Finally, I shall show that
Nabokov goes beyond Baudelairean allusions and realizes the French
poet's title metaphor, creating in the novel its own world full of "flowers
of evil."

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
To myself I appear as an idol, a wizard bird-
headed, emerald gloved, dressed in tights made of
bright-blue scales. 1 pass by. Reread it and pause
for a moment to ponder these lines.
—Vladimir Nabokov, "The Fame"
On January 7,1921, in the Berlin-based Russian daily newspaper The
Rudder (Pysib), there appeared a three-poem cycle, "Legends" («Сказа-
ния»), and a story "Sprite" («Нежить») signed Vlad. Sirin—the pen name
that Nabokov would use for the next two decades, with all the works of
his "Russian years," Invitation to a Beheading included. Nabokov sought
a pen name to distinguish himself from his father, Vladimir Nabokov, Sr.,
who regularly contributed to The Rudder, of which he was the founder
and editor, and to other emigre periodicals. The real identity of Vladimir
Sirin was, however, widely known in Russian emigre circles. It became
known also to foreign readers as early as the 1930s, when the writer
would sign his translated novels—Sirin-Nabokoff or Nabokoff-Sirin.1
1 See Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 180.
The pen name Sirin, which Nabokov made so famous, was used by two other literati
in the first quarter of this century. Adelaida Kazimirovna Gertsyk (1874-1925), a poet
and literary critic, signed her publications with that name. See, for example, her review
of Swinburne's early novel, Love's Cross-Currents, in Scales (Весы) 2 (1906): 70. The
Scales was widely read by the literary-inclined Russian intelligentsia and was no doubt
available to Nabokov at his parents' home, even though it is listed only for 1904 in the
catalogue of his father's library. See Систематический каталог библиотеки Влади-
мира Дмитриевича Набокова. Первое продолжение (St. Petersburg, 1911), 22-23,
no. 2798. Dmitri Iur'evich Kobiakov (1903-78), a poet and novelist, also employed this
pen name. See Русская книга 7-8 (1921): 25. From the available references, it is im-
possible to establish whether Kobiakov assumed his pen name before or after Nabokov.
For the most recent discussion of the pen name Sirin with regard to Kobiakov, see D.
Barton Johnson, "The Latvian Nabokov: 'Breiterstrater—Paolino' & 'Tokalosh,'" The
Nabokovian 34 (1995): 31-38. For the attribution of the pen name Sirin to Gertsyk and
to Kobiakov, see I. F. Masanov, Словарь псевдонимов русских писателей, ученых
и общественных деятелей, 4 vols. (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Vsesoiuznoi Knizhnoi

Delicate Markers
Almost half a century later, in his second interview with Alfred
Appel, Jr., in August 1970, Nabokov shed some light on his choice of this
пот de plume.
In modern times sirin is one of the popular Russian names of the Snowy Owl,
the terror of tundra rodents, and is also applied to the handsome Hawk Owl, but
in old Russian mythology it is a multicolored bird, with a woman's face and
bust, no doubt identical with the "siren," a Greek deity, transporter of souls and
teaser of sailors. In 1920, when casting about for a pseudonym and settling for
that fabulous fowl, I still had not shaken off the false glamour of Byzantine
imagery that attracted young Russian poets of the Blokian era. Incidentally, circa
1910 there had appeared literary collections under the editorial title of Sirin
devoted to the so-called "symbolist" movement, and I remember how tickled I
was to discover in 1952 when browsing in the Houghton Library at Harvard that
its catalogue listed me as actively publishing Blok, Bely, and Bryusov at the age
Clearly, when choosing his pen name, Nabokov was attracted by the
richness of cultural associations, ranging from antiquity to the early
twentieth century, that the word Sirin trailed in its wake. At the same
time, it should be noted that Nabokov's aesthetic tastes evolved over the
years: as he himself indicates in the interview quoted earlier, he later
regretted the choice of his pen name, but at the time he "still had not
shaken off the false glamour of Byzantine imagery that attracted the
young poets of the Blokian era." An integral part of this fascination was
lubok, a revival of interest in which one witnessed in Russia at the turn
of the century. Later on, Nabokov's attitude to lubok became negative.
Thus already in his first novel, Магу (Машенька, 1926), the narrator
speaks with disdain of "popular music" («лубочная музыка»); in The
Palaty, 1956-60), 3:114. Elena Sikorski, Nabokov's sister, includes this information in
her letter to him of May 31,1959. See Vladimir Nabokov, Переписка с сестрой (Ann
Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1985), 98.
Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 161. Dmitri Nabokov errs when he intimates that Sirin
"most probably has no connection, as some have suggested, with the word siren." See
Dmitri Nabokov, "On a Book Entitled The Enchanter" in Vladimir Nabokov, The
Enchanter trans. Dmitri Nabokov (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1986), 100.
For a discussion of Nabokov's indebtedness to Blok, including mention of the imagery
Ю his veree, see Vladimir E. Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld(Princeton. Princeton
University Press, 1991), 215-17.

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
Defense (Защита Лужина, 1929-30), the residence of Luzhin's
prospective in-laws is referred to as "this gimcrack apartment," or in
Russian, « этой лубочной квартире»; and in The Gift (Дар, 1937—38;
1952), the protagonist dubs the chess problems printed in the Soviet
Russia "chess comic strips" (in Russian, «шахматные лубки»).5
Let us consider these cultural associations in more detail, exploring
their relevance for Nabokov and his creative endeavor.
First, the owl. In ancient Athens, the owl, associated with the goddess
Athena, was a familiar symbol of wisdom, knowledge, and the Academy
generally, since scholarly pursuits were considered nocturnal activities.4
As the seventeenth-century Russian poet Simeon Polotskii wrote in his
poem "Knowledge" («Веждество»): "An ancient image was given to
knowledge / By portraying an owl gazing in the night."5 Besides connot-
ing wisdom and learning, the owl was also considered sacred to the
Muses. This idea is echoed by the earlier seventeenth-century English
poet George Chapman in the poem "The Teares of Peace" (1609), in
which owls are referred to as "The Foules, that to the Muses Queene we
3 See, respectively, Vladimir Nabokov, Mary, trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with
the author (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 45 and Машенька (Berlin: Slovo, 1926;
rept. n.p.: Ardis/McGraw-Hill, 1974), 71; The Defense, trans. Michael Scammell in
collaboration with the author (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1964), 105 and Защита
Лужина (Berlin: Slovo, 1930; rept. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), 114; The Gift, trans. Mi-
chael Scammell with the collaboration of the author (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons,
1963), 186 and Дар (New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1952; rept. Ann Arbor:
Ardis, 1975), 195.
4 To be sure, the owl was also viewed as a bird of ill omen by some, but I do not find this
relevant here. For the variety of beliefs related to the owl, see Emest Ingersoll, Birds in
Legend, Fable and Folklore (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1923; rept. Detroit:
Singing Tree Press, 1968); and Faith Medlin, Centuries of Owls in Art and the Written
Wor*/(Norwalk, Conn.: Silvermine Publishers, 1967).
5 For the original, see Fedor Buslaev, Русская хрестоматия. Памятники древней рус-
ской литературы и народной словесности с историческими, литературными и
грамматическими объяснениями и с словарем, 11th ed. (Moscow, 1909), 325.
6 George Chapman, The Poems, ed. Phyllis Brooks Bartlett (London: Oxford University
Press, 1941), 199.

Delicate Markers
In Ancient Rome, superstitions linking owls to Death and the Under-
world endowed them with magic power to protect man and his property
from evil forces. For this reason, owls were nailed to the doors of
houses—a custom Apuleius described in his Metamorphoses (III,
23)—and amulets with an owl image were worn as protection from the
evil eye.7 The belief in the protective nature of owls is evidenced in
various medieval Physiologus collections, and was observed by
ethnographers as late as the beginning of the twentieth century in some
Russian provinces, where for this purpose slain owls were hung from the
ceilings of stables.8 It seems that in choosing a pen name, Nabokov
embraced all these meanings: to him, the Sirin-owl signified wisdom or
knowledge (he was a student at Cambridge University at the time),
pointed to his scholarly (lepidopterous) and literary aspirations, and
served as a talisman. It is also likely that in referring to sirin of modern
times as '4he Snowy Owl, the terror of tundra rodents," Nabokov in
retrospect allegorically alluded to his own position in his native land, the
contemporaneous Soviet Russia, whose totalitarian regime he vehemently
condemned and whose rulers consequently banned his works from
publication and circulation there. (More than a century earlier, Gogol at
the close of Taras Bulba used a bird image to allude allegorically to his
own position in contemporaneous Russian literature. In both Russian and
Ukrainian, Gogol's native language, гоголь means a "golden-eye
Next, there is the ancient mythical Siren, the "deity" to which
Nabokov refers in his interview. In calling the Siren "a teaser of sailors,"
| See Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 2 vols., ed. and trans. J. Arthur Hanson (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1989), 1: 166-69. Also, see Heinrich Schwarz and Volker
Plagemann, "Eule," in ReaJlexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, ed. Otto Schmitt et
al. (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1937-), 6: col. 272.
Konstantin Sherotskii, Очерки no истории декоративного искусства Украины (Kiev,
1914), 37-39.
I See Gavriel Shapiro, «Николай Гоголь и гордый гоголь: писатель и его имя»,
Russian Language Journal 43, no. 144(1989): 153.
Nabokov's works started appearing in his native land only in the 1980s, after his death.

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
Nabokov evokes Book XII of Homer's Odyssey. There, Circe warns
Odysseus about the Sirens, past whose rocky island he has to steer his
ship. The Sirens' island is strewn with the bones of men who, by the
irresistible lure of their song, have perished there. Though warned by
Circe of the Sirens' lethal charm, Odysseus is still curious to hear their
song; he has his companions plug their ears with wax and bind him to the
mast, thereby ensuring the ship's safe passage. This event spells the
Sirens' ruin: an oracle has predicted that they will die if ever a ship passes
by them unharmed. The famous Attic stamnos in the British Museum
collection depicts this episode: Odysseus standing firmly tied to the mast,
his ship sailing past the island, and one of the Sirens hurling herself into
the sea.10 In general, the frequent appearance of the Sirens on vases, quite
independently of Homeric imagery, attests to their popularity in antiquity :
we find a fair-bodied Siren, her dark wings spread, on an amphore from
the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum which Nabokov could have seen
in his boyhood and early youth." The quintessential temptress and
enchantress, the Siren undoubtedly appealed to Nabokov, who is
constantly teasing his readers and enchanting them with his verbal art. In
his novella The Enchanter (Волшебник, writ. 1939), the real enchanter
is not the nameless protagonist, even though the narrator ironically calls
him so, but of course the author himself. This idea is specifically encoded
in the novella's Russian title whose partial anagram, Нбковл, suggests
the writer's last and first names. And Nabokov affirms the importance of
this power of a writer when he says: "A major writer combines these
three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that
predominates and makes him a major writer.'"2
| For the stamnos, see John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Archaic Period
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), ill. 184.1.
" This particular vase has been in the Hermitage collection since 1834. See S. P. Boris-
kovskaia, «Мастера и стилистические группы позднекоринфских ориентализиру-
ющих ваз», Труды Государственного Эрмитажа 13 (1972): ill. 14 and 16n. 50. The
Hermitage Museum has been open to the public since the mid-nineteenth century. See
Nina Biriukova, сотр., Decorative Arts in the Hermitage (Leningrad: Aurora Art
Publishers, 1986), 5.
12 Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (New York and London: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1980), 5.

Delicate Markers
In fact all three of these capacities of the writer can link him to the
Siren. The stories told by the Sirens are instructive because, as these
legendary creatures put it, they "know all the toils that in wide Troy the
Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods" and "all things
that come to pass upon the fruitful earth" (Odyssey, XII: 189-91).13 Ffom
earliest antiquity on, the Sirens were characterized as possessing divine
knowledge. It is following this tradition that Ovid dubs them the "know-
ing" Sirens (doctae sirenes) (Metamorphoses, V: 555). In later times, the
term "Siren" was applied to indicate great learning and eloquence, and
the Byzantine humanists used the word to praise Homer and Pindar—as-
sociations that Nabokov would find congenial.14
The power to enchant links the Sirens to the Muses, a connection
which no doubt strongly appealed to Nabokov when he was selecting his
pen name. This connection is already suggested in the ancient Greek
legends: according to one, the Sirens were the daughters of the Muses;15
according to another, the Sirens dared to challenge the Muses to a singing
contest. Enraged by the Sirens' impertinence, the Muses plucked off their
feathers and adorned their own heads with them.16 In his Moralia (IX, 14:
745-46), Plutarch identifies the Sirens with the Muses when commenting
on a passage in which Plato relates his vision of the Sirens as dwellers in
the empyrean realm, where with their singing they greet souls journeying
through the universe (The Republic, Book X).17 It is perhaps to this Plato-
" Homer, Odyssey, 2 vols., trans. A. T. Murray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1953), 1:444-47.
14 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2 vols., trans. Frank Justus Miller (Cambridge: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1960), 1: 276. See Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery
(London. Bums & Gates, 1963), 356-57.
15 Specifically, the Sirens were said to be the daughters of Melpomene, the Muse of drama,
or of Terpsichore, the Muse of light verse and dance. See Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary
ofClassical Mythology (New York: Blackwell, 1987), 421-22.
41 Bernard de Montfaucon, Antiquity Explained and Represented in Sculptures, 2 vols.,
MB. David Humphreys (London, 1721-22; rept. New York: Garland, 1976), 1: 68 and
I See respectively, Plutarch, Moralia, 16 vols., trans. Frank Cole Babbitt et al. (Cam-
Mtpr: Harvard University Press, 1927-68), 9: 281-83; and Plato, Great Dialogues,

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
nic vision that Nabokov alludes with the title of his verse collection—The
Empyrean Path (Горний путь, 1923).
In referring to the Siren as a "transporter of souls," Nabokov alludes
to her other incarnation as the Muse of the Underworld, in which guise
she frequently appeared on tombs and sarcophagi. The Siren was also
associated with the otherworldly joys of celestial harmony, somewhat
reminiscent of Plato's vision of her as a divinity of the beyond.18 This
aspect of the Siren could have had a special attraction for Nabokov, the
writer whose world perception was pervaded with the idea of the
hereafter or the otherworld (потусторонность), as Vladimir E. Alexan-
drov has amply demonstrated in his recent study.
Nabokov in that 1970 interview also identifies the Sirin, as in old
Russian mythology, "a multicolored bird, with woman's face and bust."
It was from the culture of Byzantium, which drew much from that of
Ancient Greece, that this mythical bird made its way to Kievan Rus',
where its image was frequently used for decoration, both in jewelry and
in architecture. We find a pair of these mythical halfbirds-halfmaidens
depicted on a golden enameled earring and another such creature carved
in a stone relief.19
We come across mention of the Sirens in the Chronicle of Georgius
Hamartolus, the late ninth-century Byzantine historian.20 This legendary
bird, with a slightly altered name (Sirin), most likely first appeared in
revised edition, trans. W. H. D. Rouse (New York: New American Library, 1970), 486.
| Cf. Georg Weicker, Der Seelenvogel in der alten Litteratur und Kunst (Leipzig:
Teubner, 1902); Ernst Buschor, Die Musen des Jenseits (Munich: Bruckmann, 1944).
Also see John Pollard, Seers, Shrines and Sirens (London: Allen & Unwin, 1965), 141;
Emily Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1979), 205; Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, 421-22.
For a detailed discussion on the Sirens, see Кйго1у Marot, "The Sirens," Acta Ethno-
graphica 7 (1958): 1-60; and more recently, Siegfried de Rachewiltz, DeSirenibus. An
Inquiry into Sirens from Homer to Shakespeare (New York: Garland, 1987).
" See N. P. Kondakov, Русские клады. Исследование древностей великокняжеского
периода (St. Petersburg, 1896), pi. II, fig. 9; and Tamara Talbot Rice, A Concise History
of Russian Art (Hew York: Praeger, 1963), ill. 22.
20 See Carolus de Boor, ed., GeorgiiMonachi Chronicon, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1904),

Delicate Markers
Eastern Slavic texts, in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, in the so-
called Old Slavonic-Russian translation of Hamartolus's Chronicle.21
From there the Sirin found its way to the 1512 Russian Chronograph, the
141st chapter of which, entitled "On Sirins" («О сиринех»), reads:
To the shining sun, there appeared on the river Nile two humanlike beasts: from
the navel up a male and a female, and from the navel down—a bird..., and they
are called the sweet-singing Sirins. Unless they cease singing, a man, upon
hearing their song, will become entranced and, walking after them, will die.22
The Siren, we recall, was depicted with the attributes of a female. As can
be seen from this excerpt, the Sirin, unlike its Greek predecessor, is of
both feminine and masculine gender.
The fascination of the Russians with the Sirin from the seventeenth
throughout the mid-nineteenth century was so great that references to this
mythical bird abound in literature, the visual arts, and even everyday life.
Thus, we come across a description of the Sirin, reminiscent of the Siren
of antiquity, in the seventeenth-century Physiologue, and the Sirin, a bird
of Paradise, appears at times in spiritual verses (духовные стихи).23 The
11 See V. M. Istrin, Хроника Георгия Амартола в древнем славянорусском переводе,
3 vols. (Leningrad: Izdatel'tvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1920-30), 1:428.
" For the original, see Полное собрание русских летописей, 24 vols. (St. Petersburg,
1841-1921), 22: 300.
3 About Sirin in the seventeenth-century Russian Physiologue, see Fedor Buslaev,
«Русские духовные стихи», in his О литературе: Исследования; Статьи (Moscow:
Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1990), 321. According to Viacheslav Vs. Ivanov and
Vladimir Toporov, Sirin appears in spiritual verses; see their «Сирин», in Мифы наро-
дов Мира, 2 vols., ed. S. A. Tokarev (Moscow: Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia, 1980-82),
2: 438.1 was unable, however, to find any specific references to Sirin in such verses,
even though birds of Paradise are frequently mentioned there. For example, in the verse
entitled "On the Last Judgment" («О Страшном Суде») we read that "in Paradise, there
are grapes—green trees / And birds of Paradise." And the poem 'Tsarevich Jehoshaphat
the Hermit" («Царевич Иосаф Пустынник») reads: "And birds of Paradise will sing
/ Archangel voices." See, respectively, V. G. Varentsov, сотр., Сборник русских
духовных стихов (St. Petersburg. D. E. Kozhanchikov, 1860), 164; and E. A. Liatskii,
сотр., Стихи духовные (St. Petersburg: Ogni, 1912), 64. It is noteworthy that Liatskii,
who also wrote articles on Chemyshevskii, is mentioned in The Gift. See The Gift, 2S7
and Дар, 275.
Curiously enough (and a coincidence Nabokov would have liked), Vladimir Peretts's

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
Sirin (or perhaps the Alkonost, another heavenly bird, with which the
Sirin has many iconographic affinities) is depicted on the stone medallion
of the Church of Resurrection "na Debre," built in the city of Kostroma
in the mid-seventeenth century.24 We also learn that in 1675, in the
chambers of Tsar Alexis, there was a table with the two Sirin images on
it, and so fond of the Sirin was the Tsar that he called his favorite Siberian
falcon by this name.25 The popularity of the Sirin was not limited to the
Tsar's court—its image commonly adorned the interiors of Russian
The popularity of the Sirin in Russian culture is also evident from its
frequent appearance in embroidery. A fragment of a mid-nineteenth-
century linen sheet from the Olonetsk Province, which neighbored that
of St. Petersburg where the Nabokov family estates were located, is not
unlike those "gaudily embroidered shirts, sashes and kerchiefs" Nabokov
later recalls in his English article "Laughter and Dreams."26 It depicts a
Sirin with fully extended wings and very elaborate, multicolored
luxurious feathering; in the upper left comer there is a human figure with
a cane. This is, of course, a wayfarer, lured by the Sirin's entrancing
article "Birds of Paradise" («Райские птицы»), in which Sirin is mentioned, appeared
in 1899—Nabokov's birth year; see Энциклопедический словарь (St. Petersburg: F.
A. Brokgauz and I. A. Efron, 1890-1907), 51:214. For a survey of the birds of Paradise,
including Sirin, in Russian written sources, see Valentin Kiparsky, "Paradiesvogel im
russischen Schrifttum," Societas Scientiarum Fennica 39, no. 2 (1960): 3-18.
Ц Dmitri Rovinskii, who erroneously calls this church the Ascension Cathedral, avers that
the depicted mythical bird is the Sirin. See D. A. Rovinskii, Русские народные картин-
ки, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg: R. Golike, 1900), 1: 231. Some contemporary scholars,
however, believe that the mythical bird in the medallion is rather the Alkonost. See I.
M. Razumovskaia, Кострома (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1989), 206; for the
medallion, see ibid., 57.
25 See Ivan Zabelin, Домашний быт русского народа, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1872),
1, pt. 1: 160; and A. N. Popov, «Сокола и кречета царя Алексея Михайловича. (Из
письма к А. С. Хомякову)», Русская Беседа 2, смесь [varia] (1856): 76 and 80.
24 See Karussel/Carousal/Cairousell (1923); rept. Cs/rozjsi?/(Aartswoud, the Netherlands:
Spectatorpers, 1987), 19.

See L. V. Efimova and R. M. Belogorskaia, Русская вышивка и кружево (Moscow:
Izobrazitel'noe iskusstvo, 1985), ill. 92.
M See V. N. Ivanov, Кострома, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1978), 101 and 104.
| See lurii Ovsiannikov, The Lubok: 17th- 18th Century Russian Broadsides (Moscow:
Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1968), ills. 80 and 81.
See Систематический каталог библиотеки Владимира Дмитриевича Набокова (St.
Petersburg, 1904), 39, no. 893.
See M V Dobuzhinskii, Воспоминания (Moscow: Nauka, 1987), 277.
1()0 Delicate Markers
We find a similar portrayal of the Sirin in Russian broadsides, better
known as the lubok or Russian folk pictures, which, according to some
scholars, exerted considerable influence on the embroidery.28 In one
lubok which dates from the late eighteenth century, we come across such
a Sirin, with extended wings and luxurious multicolored feathering. The
caption of this lubok, reminiscent of the Russian Chronograph entry
suggests that the Sirin, who resides in the East, in the Garden of Eden
occasionally visits our domain, and those who listen to its heavenly songs
forget everything in this world and die. The caption of another lubok
about the Sirin appearing in India, where, to avoid temptation by the
bird's singing, the people fire a cannon, and the Sirin, startled by the
unusual noise, flies away.29 (One might recall that the cannons of the
Russian Civil War forced Nabokov himself to flee Russia.)
Nabokov was no doubt familiar with the lubok. Rovinskii's funda-
mental study of Russian folk pictures is listed in the catalogue of his
father's library.30 It is quite possible that an appreciation for the lubok and
Russian folk toys was instilled in Nabokov by Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, his
drawing teacher, who greatly valued these art forms.31 Nabokov's deep
understanding of folk art is evident in "Painted Wood," another English
article also published in Carrousel in 1923—that is, only two years after
his assuming the pen name Sirin. Here he writes: "What strikes me too,
is the connection between wooden Russian toys and the bright damp
mushrooms and berries found in such profusion in the dark rich depths
of northern forests. I seem to see the peasant unconsciously drinking in
their purple, blue, scarlet hues and remembering them afterwards when

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
carving and painting a plaything for his child."32 (Nabokov's vision of
peasant toys could also have been inspired by Mikhail Fokin's Russian
Toys [1922], "a ballet of dolls in the style of peasant wood carvings.")33
Later in this article, Nabokov speaks of the Russian fairy-tale fire-
bird, which in the popular mind was undoubtedly akin to Sirin, the mys-
tical bird of Paradise. According to Nabokov, '4his wonderbird made
such an impression on the people's imagination that its golden flutter
became the very soul of Russian art; mysticism transformed seraphim into
long-tailed, ruby-eyed birds, with golden claws and unimaginable wings;
and no other nation on earth is so much in love with peacock feathers and
weathercocks." Nabokov's perception of this bird at the time as "the very
soul of Russian art" must have influenced his choice of the pen name.34
Finally, in addition to all these earlier associations, the Sirin was also
a contemporary, "Blokian era" image, as Nabokov in that interview
acknowledges. With the renewal of interest in Russian folk art, particu-
larly the lubok, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Sirin reemerged
in Russian culture. It was probably Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), an
artist with a strong predilection for Russian folk art, who was most re-
sponsible for reviving the image of Sirin, as well as the two other
mythical birds, Alkonost and Gamaiun. In 1896, he completed his Sirin
and Alkonost: The Birds ofJoy and Sorrow (Сирин и Алконост, птицы
радости и печали; Moscow, Tret'iakov Gallery), and a year later,
Gamaiun, the Prophetic Bird (Гамаюн, птица вещая; Makhachkala, The
Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts). Vasnetsov included these two paintings
in his personal exhibition which opened in the St. Petersburg Academy
of Fine Arts on February 4, 1899, attracting much attention from art
32 Carrousel, 21.
33 See Michel Fokine, Memoirs of a Ballet Master, trans. Vitale Fokine (Boston: Little,
Brown and Company, 1961), 272 and 307.
34 Carrousel, 22. See Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 180-81. Cf.
Nabokov's later rejecting the idea of being called "a frivolous firebird," with an
apparent emphasis on "frivolous." See Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 193.
It is noteworthy that between 1921 and 1926 there existed an emigre monthly devoted
to Russian art and literature, Firebird (Жар-птица), in which Nabokov published his

See N. A. Iaroslavtseva, сотр., Виктор Михайлович Васнецов: Письма. Дневники.
Воспоминания. Суждения современников (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1987), 158-59 and
34 See Sergei Diagilev, «Сложные вопросы. Наш мнимый упадок [ч. 1]. Поиски красо-
ты. Основы художественной оценки [ч. 2)», Мир Искусства 1-2 (1899): 1-16 and
3-4 (1899): 37-61. On Diagilev's and Filosofov's view of Vasnetsov's art, see Aleksandr
Benois, Возникновение «Мира Искусства» (Leningrad: Komitet populiarizatsii khudo-
zhestvennykh izdanii pri Gosudarstvennoi Akademii istorii material'noi kul'tury, 1928),
See Искусство и Художественная Промышленность 3 (December 1898): following
184; Diagilev, «Поиски красоты. Основы художественной оценки», 59; Ieronim
lasinskii, «Сирены и сирины. Справка», [разд. «Художественная хроника»] Мир
Искусства 3-4(1899): 17-19.
See Nabokov, The Gift, 26S and Дар, 283.
For Nabokov's appreciation of these artists, see his Speak, Memory. An Autobiography
(New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966), 236; and Strong Opinions, 171. For
Delicate Markers
critics.35 Some of them, such as Sergei Diagilev and Dmitri Filosofov,
held Vasnetsov's talent in exceptionally high esteem, seeing in him "the
torch-bearer of the new Russian art, a genius, a resplendent phenomenon
of the new Russia."36 This upsurge of interest in Vasnetsov and his work
also resulted in heightened fascination with the Sirin. Vasnetsov's Sirin
and Alkonost appeared as a full-page illustration in the 1898 December
issue of The Art andCraft Industry (Искусство и Художественная Про-
мышленность); and in the 1899 March-April issue of The World of Art
(Мир Искусства), in an article richly illustrated with Vasnetsov's works,
Diagilev reproduced the early eighteenth-century Sirin image from the
inner chest lid, while Ieronim lasinskii, in the same issue, printed an
informative note "Sirens and Sirins" («Сирены и сирины»).37 (Many
years later, Nabokov mentions lasinskii [1850-1931], who wrote prose
under the pen name Maksim Belinskii, as Chernyshevskii's favorite
writer in the 1880s.38) Nabokov, who since his youth had admired the
works of The World of Art painters, such as Konstantin Somov,
Aleksandr Benois, and Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, must have read these
articles. The complete set of the journal for 1899 was available to him in
his father's library.39

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
Approximately three weeks after the opening of Vasnetsov's
exhibition, in late February 1899, Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921), the bur-
geoning Symbolist poet, wrote the two poems "Gamaiun, the Prophetic
Bird" («Гамаюн, птица вещая») and "Sirin and Alkonost, the Fairytale
Birds of Joy and Sorrow" («Сирин и Алконост, сказочные птицы
радости и печали»).40 The poems, inspired by Vasnetsov's images of the
mythical fowls, were not published at the time: when in the fall of 1900
Blok offered them to Viktor Ostrogorskii, the editor of God's World
(Мир Божий) rebuked the young poet for occupying himself with such
irrelevant subjects.41 The poems remained unpublished for a long while:
"Gamaiun" first appeared in 1908 in the daily Kievan News (Киевские
Новости), whereas "Sirin and Alkonost" was initially published, without
date of composition, only in 1919, in the first issue of the St. Petersburg
journal Notes of Dreamers (Записки Мечтателей)—printed, curiously
enough, by the Alkonost press.
The poem "Sirin and Alkonost" consists of twenty-four lines, the first
twelve of which are devoted to the Sirin. This section of the poem reads:
Густых кудрей откинув волны,
Закинув голову назад,
Бросает Сирин, счастья полный,
Блаженств нездешних полный взгляд.
И затаив в груди дыханье,
Перистый стан лучам открыв,
Вдыхает все благоуханье,
Весны неведомой прилив...
И нега мощного усилья
Слезой туманит блеск очей...
Вот, вот, сейчас распустит крылья
the complete set of The World of Art for 1899, see Систематический каталог библи-
отеки Владимира Дмитриевича Набокова, 38, по. 882.
40 Each poem bears the subtitle: "A Painting by V. M. Vasnetsov." See A. M. Gordin and
M. A. Gordin, Александр Блок и русские художники (Leningrad: Khudozhnik
RSFSR, 1986), 18 and 21.
41 See Blok, Собрание сочинений, 8 vols. (Moscow and Leningrad: GIKhL, 1960-63),
7: 14.

27 Delicate Markers
И улетит в снопах лучей!42
(Tossing the waves of its thick curls,
Flinging its head back,
Sirin, full of happiness, casts about
Its gaze full of otherworldly bliss.
And, holding its breath,
Exposing its feathered torso to the rays,
It inhales the entire fragrance,
The surge of mysterious spring...
And mollitude of mighty effort
Befogs the shine of its eyes with a tear...
Wait, wait, it will spread its wings
And will fly away in the shafts of light!)
Sirin, this heavenly bird of joy and happiness, so symbolic of Nabokov's
Russian childhood and youth, could have been chosen by the displaced
and homeless young writer as a lucky charm. Further, the Sirin as
portrayed here, with the tossed-back head—a gesture already known from
the Ancient Greek heritage as connoting rapture and divine vision—and
the gaze full of "otherworldly bliss" («блаженств нездешних») could
appeal to Nabokov's perception of art as the supernal realm.43 Nabokov
expressed his attitude to art as early as 1918 in his programmatic poem
"The Poet" included in the collection with the telling title, The Empyrean
Path. Young Nabokov seals this poem with the following manifest lines:
Я в стороне. Молюсь, ликую,
и ничего не надо мне,
когда вселенную я чую
в своей душевной глубине.
То я беседую с волнами,
то с ветром, с птицей уношусь
и со святыми небесами
Ц Blok, Собрание сочинений, 1. 403-4. It is noteworthy that the Sirin in this poem by
Blok is of masculine gender.
Л See Moshe Barasch, "The Tossed-Back Head: The Ambiguity of a Gesture in Re-
naissance Art," in his Imago Hominis. Studies in the Language ofArt (Vienna: IRS A,
1991), 152-60.

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
мечтами чистыми делюсь.44
(I keep aloof. I pray, 1 rejoice,
and need nothing,
when I sense the universe
in the depth of my soul.
Now I converse with the waves,
Now with the wind, with a bird 1 fly away,
and with the sacred heavens
I share my pure dreams.)
And, finally, the flight anticipated in the concluding lines of the Blok
poem stanza could have reminded Nabokov of his leaving Russia. Given
Nabokov's strong belief that life often imitates art, it is also tempting to
see in it a foreboding of Nabokov's future 'flights,' both literal and liter-
ary—from country to country and from language to language.45
The Sirin also appears in Blok's poem "An Artist" («Художник»),
published in 1914 in the almanac Sirin which Nabokov facetiously men-
tions in the 1970 interview. In this poem, subtitled "Creation" («Твор-
чество»), the Sirin is associated with creative inspiration—an idea sure
to attract Nabokov:
С моря ли вихрь? Или сирины райские
В листьях поют? Или время стоит?
Или осыпали яблони майские
Снежный свой цвет? Или ангел летит'?46
(Is it a whirlwind from the sea? Or are the heavenly Sirins
Singing in the leaves? Or is time standing still?
Or did May apple trees shed
Their snowy blossoms? Or is it an Angel flying?)
Any and all of these numerous associations and images of the Siren
44 See Vladimir Nabokov, Стихи (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), 10.
45 In the Foreword to the English translation of The Gift Nabokov has noted that Chapter
Four of the novel was rejected by Contemporary Annals for the same reasons it was
rejected in the novel itself. The writer then goes on to comment: "a pretty example of
life finding itself obliged to imitate the very art it condemns." See Nabokov, The Gift
9 (unpaginated).
46 Blok, Собрание стихотворений 3: 145-46 and 551.

29 Delicate Markers
and Sirin could have influenced Nabokov's choice of pen name. This
semantic array exemplifies the abundance of subtexts characteristic of
Nabokov's oeuvre in general. Here, in connection with "the Blokian era,"
as Nabokov called it in his interview, we may add yet another consider-
ation, namely that of fatidic dates, which were of great significance to
him. "In common with Pushkin, I am fascinated by fatidic dates," he
remarks.47 Pushkin, whom Nabokov considered Russia's greatest man of
letters, is mentioned here, no doubt, for a fatidic reason as well. Nabokov
relished the fact that he was born in 1899, precisely a century after
Pushkin. Thus, in his commentary on the lines from Eugene Onegin
(Евгений Онегин, 1823-31), "Monsieur Г Abbe, a poor wretch of a
Frenchman, / not to wear out the infant, / would teach him everything in
play, / bothered him not with stern moralization, / scolded him slightly
for his pranks, / and to the Letniy Sad took him for walks" (One, III:
9-14), Nabokov noted that "there, a hundred years later, I, too, was
walked by a tutor."48 While through his birth year Nabokov links himself
to Russia's greatest man of letters, through his birth day—April 23—he
links himself to Russia's greatest epic, The Song of Igor's Campaign
(Слово о полку Игореве, 1185-87).49 These two fatidic dates, which
mark two of the supreme achievements of Russian letters, seemed to
suggest that Nabokov was destined to become a renowned Russian writer
and to translate both The Song of Igor's Campaign and Eugene Onegin,
Pushkin's magnum opus, into English. Nabokov was also acutely aware
41 Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 75.
48 See Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, trans, with commentary by Vladimir Nabokov,
4 vols. (New York. Bollingen, 1964); rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1975), 1:96 and 2:41.
Щ See Nabokov's "Foreword" to his translation of the epic, in which he points out that the
campaign started on April 23, 1185. Vladimir Nabokov, trans., The Song of Igor's
Campaign (Hew York. Vintage Books, 1960), 1. Nabokov came across this date in the
Hypatian Chronicle, whose 1185 entry reads: "The year of 6693. . . At that time Igor
Sviatoslavovich, the grandson of Oleg, left Novgorod in the 23rd day of the month of
April, on Tuesday." See Полное собрание русских летописей 2: 223, col. 637. All the
ettwr sources date the beginning of Igor's campaign to April 13. See В. I. Iatsenko,
«Черниговекая повесть о походе Игоря Святославича в 1185 г.» in Исследования
•Сяом о волку Игореве*, ed. D. S. Likhachev (Leningrad: Nauka, 1986), 42.

50 See Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 13-14. For more details on Nabokov's use of fatidic
dates, see Pekka Tammi, Problems of Nabokov's Poetics: A Narratological Analysis
(Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1985), 327-29 and Priscilla Meyer, Find What
the Sailor Has Hidden. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan
University Press, 1988), 88. On the use of birthdays in the works of Nabokov's
contemporaries, specifically in the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva and Velimir Khlebnikov,
see Barbara Lonnqvist, «К значению дня рождения у авангардных поэтов», in
Readings in Russian Modernism. To Honor Vladimir Fedorovich Markov, ed. Ronald
Vroon and John E. Malmstad (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 206-11.
See N. V. Kotrelev, «Неизвестные автографы ранних стихотворений Блока», in
Александр Блок. Новые материалы и исследования, 4 vols. (Литературное наслед-
ство 92), ed. V. R. Shcherbina (Moscow: Nauka, 1980-87), 1: 230-31 and 247.
In his Russian memoirs, Другие берега, Nabokov refers to Vladimir Gippius as "a
mysterious author of remarkable verses" («тайный автор замечательных стихов»).
And in Defense, Gippius undoubtedly served as the prototype of the protagonist's class
master, "not a bad lyric poet" («недурной лирический поэт».) See, respectively,
Vladimir Nabokov, Другие берега (New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1954;
rept. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1978), 170; and Nabokov, The Defense, 26 and Защита
Лужина, 34.
On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
of his shared birthday with Shakespeare, a fact he liked to point out, and
its possible significance for his role in the English letters.50
Although Blok's "Sirin and Alkonost" had appeared only once,
without date of composition, less than two years prior to Nabokov's
choosing his pen name, he could nonetheless have learned the year of its
composition in a number of ways. Blok commonly disseminated his
poems in manuscript form among his relatives and friends, scrupulously
marking the dates of their composition. Thus, on one such occasion, he
sent his early unpublished works, including "Sirin and Alkonost," to his
Moscow aunt, Sofia Andreevna Kublitskii-Piottukh.51 And it is quite
possible that Nabokov familiarized himself with the poem and its date of
composition before its publication while studying at the Tenishev School,
where Vladimir Gippius, himself a Symbolist poet and an acquaintance
of Blok, taught Russian literature.52 Moreover, even though the poem ap-
peared undated in the Notes of Dreamers, Nabokov could have inferred
that Blok composed it as part of the AnteLucem cycle between 1898 and
1900. It appeared as no. 11 among the 27 poems of the evidently chrono-
logical cycle, and as no. 17 there is a poem entitled "On the Eve of the

31 Delicate Markers
XXth Century" («Накануне XX Века»).53 Finally, Nabokov could have
guessed that "Sirin and Alkonost" was a companion piece to "Gamaiun,"
which was included in the first volume of Blok's 1911 Collection of
I erscs (Собрание стихотворений) under the year 1899.54
When "casting about for a pseudonym and settling for this fabulous
fowl," as Nabokov himself put it, he may well have been fascinated by
the fatidic date symbolism in the parallels between these "Blokian era"
Sirins and his own life. As Vasnetsov's Sirin and Alkonost painting
(1896) led to Blok's eponymous poem (1899), so the acquaintance,
courtship, and marriage of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov to Elena
Ivanovna Rukavishnikov (1895-97) led to Nabokov's birth in 1899. The
Sirin stanza of the 1919 published poem concludes with this mythical bird
taking flight, which corresponds to Nabokov's own departure from
Russia a week prior to his twentieth birthday (April 15, 1919). And,
finally, Blok's poem "An Artist," in which the Sirin is among the images
associated with creativity, was included in the almanac Sirin in 1914, the
year of Nabokov's literary debut, when, similarly to young Blok, he
distributed among his friends and relatives bound copies of the poem
"about the first of the moonlit gardens, with a motto from Romeo and
The importance of Sirin for Nabokov is manifest in his routinely
encoding this pen name throughout his oeuvre, even after abandoning it
in his "American years." He commonly does so in the following ways: (a)
anagrammatically, (b) by means of Sirin's birdly imagery, (c) chromes-
thetically, and (d) with a combination of the three. Let us now consider
some examples of these types of Nabokovian self-references in Invitation
to a Beheading.
The novel contains a striking example of Nabokov's incorporating his
pen name anagrammatically. Thus, when thinking about the author of
Quercus, whose "work was unquestionably the best that his age had
S See "Стихотворения Александра Блока», Записки Мечтателей 1 (1919): 74-85.
** See Wok, Собрание сочинений, 1: 577; Aleksandr Blok, Собрание стихотворений,
3 12nd ed. (Moscow: Musaget, 1911-12), 1: ninth page (unpaginated); the year of
composition is given in the table of contents.
* I Boyd. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 111 and 546.

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
produced," Cincinnatus "would begin imagining how the author, still a
young man, living, so they said, on an island in the North Sea—would be
dying himself' (E123). The latter passage, which in the original Russian
reads, »ипи же начяяал представлять себе, калг атор, человек еще
молодой., живущий, говорят, яа острове в Северном, что-ля, море,
сам будет умирать» (R126), contains an anagram of Nabokov's full
name, including his пот de plume,—Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
Sirin. (For an additional discussion of this episode, see Chapter 4. 1
foresee an argument that this relatively long passage may yield a number
of meaningful combinations. There is only one combination, however,
that corresponds here to the context of authorial presence.56) This sug-
gests that Nabokov, not without self-ridicule, casts himself here in the
role of Quereus"s author. More significantly, these lines clearly indicate
an authorial presence which Cincinnatus fails to comprehend. At the end
of this chapter, when Cincinnatus insistently queries, "Will no one save
me?" (E125/R128), the omnipotent author sends him "a large dummy
acorn" (E126/R128). Hinting at authorial presence in the guise of the
writer of Quercus ("oak," in Latin), the acorn foreshadows Cincinnatus's
rescue by the author at the end of the novel. At the same time, the acorn's
artificial nature, so characteristic of the sham world surrounding
Cincinnatus, is meant, especially immediately prior to the mock-rescue
operation by his tormentors, to warn him against the hope of liberation
by those dummies.57
We come across an example of the second type, albeit metaphorical,
toward the end of the novel, in the preexecution supper episode, in which
the servants are described as having "flitted to and fro like birds of
paradise, shedding plumes on the black and white tiles" (E181/R178-79).
56 Cf. Gennady Barabtarlo's response in a similar case: "Virtually any reasonably long
stretch of letters yields any number of meaningful and more or less compatible lexical
units, but in no way can this trivial fact nullify the one and only solution that fits the
thematic design of its contextual environment and at the same time the author's deepest
philosophical concerns and beliefs obtained outside his fiction," in his Aerial View:
Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics (Hew York: Peter Lang, 1993), 239.
57 Cf. Sergei Davydov, "Teksty-matreski" Vladimira Nabokova (Munich: Otto Sagner,
1982), 156; Leona Toker, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca and Lon-
don: Cornell University Press, 1989), 138; Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld 101.

Delicate Markers
By mentioning the "birds of paradise," Nabokov clearly alludes to his
pen name Sirin, a bird of Paradise, thereby again indicating authorial
presence. To reinforce this, Nabokov mentions "the black and white
tiles," apparently referring to his predilection for chess and also remind-
ing the reader of his "chess" novel—The Defense.
Nabokov also frequently encodes his pen name chromesthetically,
drawing on his ability to see letters and their representative sounds in
colors. In speaking about Cincinnatus's world, Nabokov refers to it as
"blue" (or, in Russian, «синий мир») (E93/R99), thereby alluding to Sirin
through the initial 'S,' which belongs to the blue group in Nabokov's
chromesthetic system. In this way, Nabokov perhaps indicates his
especial closeness to the novel's protagonist, who can be viewed as his
pale, shadow-like alter ego. This seems all the more plausible if we
consider that the phrase синий мир contains an anagram of Nabokov's
pen name Sirin. (In general, Nabokov's choice of pen name, with its sky-
blue initial that denotes creativity and poetic inspiration—see Chapter
2—can be viewed as a self-affirming gesture on the part of the young
aspiring writer.58)
Nabokov employs an analogous device in the episode in which
Cincinnatus, presuming that he has escaped from his captivity, observes
the landscape: "in the rosy depths of the sky, stood a chain of translucent
and fiery cloudlets, and there stretched a long violet bank with burning
rents along its lower edge" (El65). In the writer's chromesthetic system
'V' belongs to the red group as 'S' to the blue.59 Thus rosy sky and fiery
clouds together with the violet bank chromesthetically suggest 'V' and
'S'—the initials of Nabokov's first and pen names—and should be
perceived as a "heavenly sign" that once again foreshadows Cincinnatus's
salvation by the God-like author. (Nabokov employs a similar
chromesthetic device in The Gift. "Fyodor sat between the novelists
Shahmatov and Vladimirov, by a wide window behind which the night
gleamed wetly black, with two-toned (the Berlin imagination did not
* Ct Nabokov's own admission: "1 saw Sirin with an 's' being a very brilliant blue, a light
blue.. I thought it was a glamorous, colorful word." Cited in Andrew Field, Nabokov:
His Life in Kerf (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 149.
* See Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 35; Другие берега, 27.

On Nabokov's Pen Name Sirin
stretch to any more) illuminated signs—ozone-blue and oporto-red," the
latter two suggesting authorial presence through Nabokov's initials 'S'
and 'V.'60) Furthermore, in Russian this clause, «но над невидимыми
садами, в розовой глубине неба, стояли цепью прозрачно огденные
облачка, и тянулась одна длинная лиловая туча с горящими
прорезами по нижнему краю» (R164), set within dashes to draw the
reader's special attention, once more anagrammatically contains the
writer's full name—Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov Sirin.
Nabokov resorts to a similar technique in a more intricate manner
when he encodes his pen name by means of a red-and-blue ball. Besides
being anagrammatic ("red-and-blue," or красно-синий in Russian,
contains Sirin), the phrase points chromesthetically to the initials of
Nabokov's first and pen names—Vladimir Sirin. I shall discuss the
significance of the red-and-blue ball image within the broader context of
the novel's ideographic "signs and symbols" in the following chapter.
Here we simply note that this and other self-encoded references can be
viewed as signs of authorial presence recurring throughout the novel.
Coupled with the narrator's emotional involvement in the fate of the
protagonist, whom he calls "my poor little Cincinnatus" (E65/R73) and
whom he occasionally admonishes against oncoming danger by implor-
ing him to "be careful" (E155/R155), this authorial presence suggests that
the hero will be rescued in the deus exmachina fashion by his omnipo-
tent creator.61
60 See The Gift, 332 and Дар, 358.
" For a discussion of authorial presence in Nabokov's oeuvre, see Tammi, Problems of
Nabokov's Poetics, 317-18. For the deus ex machina device in the novel, see Toker,
Nabokov, 138. Nabokov also employs this technique of coming to his hero's rescue in
other works, such as the story "Cloud, Castle, Lake" («Облако, озеро, башня», 1937)
and the novel Bend Sinister (1947).

Man of Letters Revisited1
On mellow hills the Greek, as you remember,
fashioned his alphabet from cranes in flight;
his arrows crossed the sunset, then the night.
—Vladimir Nabokov
"An Evening of Russian Poetry"
Sorry, that sounds pretentious, but the fact is, since childhood I have
been afflicted with the most intense and elaborate audition colore...
I recommend to you my pink flannel "m." I don't know if you re-
member the insulating cotton wool which was removed with the storm
windows in spring? Well, that is my Russian "y," or rather "ugh," so
grubby and dull that words are ashamed to begin with it. If I had some
paints handy I would mix bumt-sienna and sepia for you so as to
match the color of a gutta-percha "ch" sound; and you would appreci-
ate my radiant "s" if I could pour into your cupped hands some of
those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child..., and if one turned
the curtain slightly on the side window of the oriel, one could see,
along the receding riverfront, facades in the blue-blackness of the
night, the motionless magic of an imperial illumination, the ominous
blaze of diamond monograms, colored bulbs in coronal designs...
— Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift
An interaction between the visual and the verbal is very characteristic
of Nabokov's oeuvre. Invitation to a Beheading contains striking ex-
amples of such synesthesia, especially its alphabetic iconicism and chro-
mesthesia. The act of unraveling these two phenomena yields significant
related subtexts, which in turn further deepen an interpretation of the
1 Cf. "Nabokov as Man of Letters" in D. Barton Johnson's Worlds in Regression: Some
Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985).
For the pioneering discussion of these phenomena in the novel, see Johnson, "The Alpha
and Omega of Invitation to a Beheading," in his Worlds in Regression, 28-46.

1()0 Delicate Markers
Letter and Image
Nabokov displayed great fascination with alphabetic iconicism—the
shape of letters—throughout his entire work, and particularly in In-
vitation to a Beheading. Of special importance in the novel is the iconic
image of an initial, as it carries associations and implications with regard
to a character's persona. For example, the Cyrillic (and the Roman) letter
«М», Marthe's initial, resembles a spider, to which she is repeatedly
compared; the iconic image thereby strengthens the connection between
Cincinnatus's lecherous wife and the creature whose satanic associations
1 discuss in the following chapter. Nabokov's use of this iconic imagery
could have been prompted by Dobuzhinskii's drawing The Devil (1907),
which foreshadows the dystopian world of Invitation to a Beheading. It
depicts the Devil as an M-shaped spider who controls the world, imaged
as a prison courtyard in which the circle of prisoners symbolizes mankind
(Fig. I).3 Marthe's initial, which she shares with the Italian Duce, perhaps
bears a Fascist connotation as well. A photograph shows an M-shaped
arch erected by local Fascist party functionaries on the occasion of
Mussolini's visit and manned by Fascist youth organization members
(Fig. 2). (We may recall that Albinus refers to Italy as "Mussolini's coun-
The Greek initial A of Marthe's son, Diomedon, resembles a
triangular door, a common symbol of death and hell in the fine arts.5 In
3 Cf. Dobuzhinskii's own explanation: "Dostoevskii speaks of 'a bathhouse with spiders
in the comers,' and he, too, it seems, speaks of the lustful she-Spider. Compare this to
the idea of'dependence' ('Power') and the sense of'non-freedom'—the most distres-
sing of spiritual experiences (the evil inseparably linked to the world of reality); the
combinations of these percepts, I think, will clarify to you now the enclosed circle in
which little men move around, and the 'world' prison, and the 'power' of the jailer who
has hidden his face." See Dobuzhinskii, Воспоминания, 442n. 39.
I See Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-
Merrill, 1938; rept. New York: New Directions, 1960), 215.
Hie Greek Delta can be traced to the Phoenician and Hebrew letter Daleth, which means
Е ф^йовг.*' On the door as a symbol of death and hell, see Jan Bialostocki, "The Door of
Ae Survival of a Classical Motif in Sepulchral Art," in his The Message of
images Studies in the History ofArt (Vienna: IRSA, 1988), 14-41 and 238-41.

Man of Letters Revisited 37

Figure 1
Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, The Devil
addition, this Greek letter could be viewed as an allusion to diabolos, the
Devil, thereby supporting our perception of this character's infernal
nature.6 (It is noteworthy that the "demon" is anagrammatically contained
6 See Lidiia Ianovskaia, «Треугольник Воланда и Фиолетовый рыцарь. О «тайнах»

Delicate Markers
Figure 2
A Monumental "M" Erected by Fascist Party Functionaries before a
Visit by Mussolini to the Italian Hamlet of Verres
in the boy's name—Diomedon.)
The ax-shaped Cyrillic letter «Р», the phonetic counterpart of the
Roman 'R,' strengthens our perception of the "evil trinity"—Rodion-
Roman-Rodrig—as the accomplices of the deathsman, M'sieur Pierre.
Pierre's initial, the Roman 'P,' the iconic twin of the Cyrillic «Р», alludes
to his infamous occupation.
ft is this executioner who masterminds the efforts to get control over
Cincinnatus and his soul and to make him accept the 'invitation to a
beheading.' He is Cincinnati's true antipode, and their opposition is
manifest iconically as well. Andrew Field has observed that the Cyrillic
initials of the protagonist and his executioner, «Ц» and «П», "are almost,
fait not quite, perfect inversions of each other."7 And D. Barton Johnson
pOMlBi «Мастер и Маргарита», Таллин, 103-4.
I Aadrevt Fields Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967),

Man of Letters Revisited
has noted that the letters, with their parallel bars upwards and down-
wards, reflect the characters' opposing aspirations of spirit and flesh, and
the shape of the letter «Ц» foreshadows Cincinnatus's "ascension to a
very different world." Johnson has also pointed out that the Cyrillic letter
«П» itself resembles the gallows.8 Furthermore, this is the letter with
which the Russian word палач (an "executioner"), as well as паук (a
"spider") and пошлость ("philistine vulgarity"), all begin.
Field and Johnson focus on the iconic opposition of Cincinnatus and
M'sieur Pierre in the light-bulb monogram. However, this opposition
between the characters is iconically suggested in the episode of their first
meeting much earlier in the novel by the shapes of the backs of the chairs:
"one was lyrate, the other square" (E80). The word "square" here calls to
mind those public squares where, on square-shaped platforms, public
executions were traditionally held. In Russian, the phrase is a great deal
more suggestive: «одна лирой, другая покоем» (R86), that is "one [back
of the chair—G. S.] is lyre-shaped, the other is in the shape of the letter
«П»." Since the furniture in Cincinnatus's cell included only one chair
(see E14/R28), it is clear that the other chair was brought there for that
'special occasion.' Most likely, it was that with the П-shaped back, as it
iconically represents M'sieur Pierre's Cyrillic initial. In addition, покой,
the name of the letter «П», literally meaning "rest, peace" may also imply
death (cf. its derivative «покойник» which means "the deceased"). It
relates to M'sieur Pierre's profession and his representing the Devil,
commonly associated with death.9 The chair with the lyre-shaped back
rather suits "the poet Cincinnatus," as his Cyrillic initial, «Ц», iconically
resembles a lyre.10
8 Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 33 and 36.
9 Nabokov's attitude toward the death penalty was undoubtedly shaped by that of his
father, who zealously opposed it. And his portrayal of the executioner as a Devil-like
figure may be linked to Vladimir Nabokov senior's assertion that "for the execution of
death sentences authority has to resort to the services of outcasts who have lost the last
remainder of moral sense." О смертной казни. Мнения русских криминалистов
(Moscow, 1909), 71.
10 For Nabokov's calling Cincinnatus С. the poet, see his Strong Opinions, 76.

40 Delicate Markers
Monograms, combining letters, are also iconically significant in the
novel." Thus, on "the alligator album" of "that singular photohoroscope
put together by the resourceful M'sieur Pierre," there is a "massive dark
silver monogram" (E169-70/R168). Even though this monogram is not
spelled out, its massiveness and darkness convey a sense of the ominous-
ness with which the photohoroscope seals Emmie's fate.
Earlier in the novel, we find "a round pat of butter embossed with the
monogram of the director" (E48/R59): even the food is designed to
remind Cincinnatus of his captivity. Further, the monogram of the prison
director, Rodrig Ivanovich, that is R or И, in both the Roman and Cyrillic
letters, iconically resembles a gibbet with a hanged body. It can only
enhance Cincinnatus's "anguish" (E48/R59-60) by reminding him of his
impending death.
The later description of the light-bulb monogram made of M'sieur
Pierre's and Cincinnatus's initials is indeed, however, the most striking
and most important example of iconicism in the novel:
For three minutes a good million light bulbs of diverse colors burned, artfully
planted in the grass, in branches, on cliffs, and all arranged in such a way as to
embrace the whole nocturnal landscape with a grandiose monogram of "P" and
"C," which, however, had not quite come off. (E189/R187)
Turning first to the original Russian text, I suggest that this «гранди-
озный вензель из П. и Ц.» is in fact a combination of each of these
characters' double Cyrillic initials, that is Ц. Ц. and П. П. We may recall
that the protagonist is introduced (see, for example, R25) as Цинциннат
Ц., whereas M'sieur Pierre is once (see R167) called Петр Петрович. If
we assume that the tails of the two «LI»s are the elements missing in the
monogram "which, however, had not quite come off," and arrange all
! The monogram motif is evident throughout Nabokov's oeuvre, and particularly in his
poetry. Cf. such poems as "The Cyclist" («Велосипедист», 1917-22): «Я вижу старую
яцмью Но разглядеть не успеваю, / чей вензель вырезан на ней» ("I see an old
bench But have no time to discern, / whose monogram is cut out on it"); in the poem
that opens with the lines, "I shield my eyes and instantaneously" («Глаза прикрою—и
аошаешю», 1923): «и солнца луч, как Божий вензель, / на венском стуле, у окна»
{"lad ш| sunbeam as God's monogram, / on the bentwood chair, by the window");
'у.'^ЯфвГ («Око», 1939): «и на что неземная зеница, / если вензеля нет ни на чем?»
Щ^Н who can care / for a world of omnipotent vision, / if nothing is monogrammed
вмееТ*) See, respectively, Nabokov, Стихи, 59 and 91; Poems and Problems, 100-1.

Man of Letters Revisited
four letters in two perpendicular sets, with each pair forming a diagonally
inverted opposition, we shall arrive at a swastika. It is no accident that
Nabokov combined the letters into a swastika-shaped monogram: this was
designed to symbolize the novel's totalitarian-like atmosphere, not unlike
that of Nazi Germany, which Nabokov, residing in Berlin at the time of
writing the novel (1934), experienced daily. For example, lunching with
Bunin in a Berlin restaurant in January 1934, Nabokov was seated
underneath a huge Nazi flag.12 In particular, Nabokov could have come
across an illuminated swastika, with which Christmas trees in the Nazi
Berlin were commonly crowned (Fig. 3).13 And the swastika as part of the
landscape could have been suggested to Nabokov by, for example, the
German cartoon which depicts swastika-shaped flowers growing in a
meadow (Fig. 4).14
| See Alfred Appel, Jr., "Nabokov: A Portrait," in Nabokov's Fifth Arc, ed. J. E. Rivers
and Charles Nicol (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 19.
13 The Nazi fascination with, and even cult of, fire and illumination is well known.
Nabokov's disgust with exploiting Christmas for propagandists purposes, in this case
commercial rather than political, is manifest in The Gift where he describes how "in the
windows of a department store some villain had had the idea of setting up dummy skiers
on artificial snow beneath the Star of Bethlehem." See The Gift, 102 and Дар, 103.
Nabokov had early memories of colored electric bulbs used for visual representations
in his childhood in St. Petersburg, but by contrast to those in the dystopian city of
Invitation to a Beheading, such remembered scenes evoke a sense of fascination and
enchantment, rather than disgust. Thus he compares his mother's showing him her
jewelry for his "bedtime amusement" to "the illumination in the city during imperial
fetes, when, in the padded stillness of a frosty night, giant monograms, crowns, and
other armorial designs, made of colored electric bulbs—sapphire, emerald, ruby—
glowed with a kind of charmed constraint above snow-lined cornices on housefronts
along residential streets." Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 36.
14 The illustration is taken from the German weekly Simplicissimus. It is most likely this
magazine rather than the novel by the seventeenth-century writer Hans Jacob Christoffel
von Grimmelshausen after which the periodical was named, that Nabokov mentions in
the Russian original of The Gift. See Дар, 375. Affirming this is the English translation
of the novel, where for Simplicissimus Nabokov substituted its English equivalent, the
magazine Punch. See The Gift, 347. Spelled Simplizissimus, the magazine is explicitly
mentioned in Bend Sinister in the same breath with a late nineteenth-century Russian
comic magazine The Dragonfly (Стрекоза). See Nabokov, Bend Sinister, 15. For de-
tailed information about Simplicissimus, see Eugen Roth, Simplicissimus: ein Riickblick

42 Delicate Markers
Figure 3
Illuminated Swastika at the Top of a Christmas Tree
Our supposition that the monogram forms this ominous sign is
supported by a number of swastika-related allusions in the novel. To
sufdtcsatmschc Zeitschrifi (Hannover: Fackeltrager-VerlagSchmidt-Kuster, 1954); and
ItwtS Heller, ed., Simplicissimus: The Art of Germany's Most Influential Satire
Мфювс(№96-1944)(New York: Goethe House and La Boetie, 1979).

Man of Letters Revisited
begin with, the swastika is implied in the image of the spider. These were
connected already in antiquity, as the engraved gorget in Fig. 5 clearly
demonstrates: it displays a spider whose circular body contains a
swastika-shaped cross. Furthermore, at times the swastika itself resembles
a spider: some ancient terra-cotta spheres contain swastikas in the shape
of such multi-legged creatures. A derogatory link between the swastika
and a spider, however, emerged only with the rise of Nazism in Germany.
It is seen in numerous cartoons, such as the one which portrays a man
enmeshed in the web of the "swastika spider," a symbol of rising Nazism
(Fig. 6). This connection between swastika and spider appears elsewhere
in Nabokov's oeuvre as well. Thus, in Bend Sinister, which, as Nabokov
himself has commented, "has obvious affinities" with Invitation to a
Figure 4
Thomas Theodor Heine
Spring Meadow in the Third Reich

Delicate Markers
Figure 5
Swastika-Resembling Cross within a Spider
Beheading, the narrator notes that the emblem of the Ekwilist state bears
"a remarkable resemblance to a crushed dislocated but still writhing
spider... upon a red flaglet.'"5
Another eight-footed creature, the octopus, can also be linked to the
swastika. Some scholars believe that the sign originally derived from con-
ventional representations of this marine animal as early as in Mycenaean
I Nabokov, Bend Sinister, vi and 35. Cf. Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 201.
As L. L. Lee has observed, the Ekwilist state emblem "is obviously derived from the
Nazi swastika and banner, although with an echo of the Red Flag." L. L. Lee, "Bend
Sinister. Nabokov's Political Dream," in Nabokov: The Man and His Work, ed. L. S.
Dembo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 97.
к aeons that the word "Ekwilist" pokes fun at both the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda
wtoeb bad proclaimed all people 'equal1 and of 'one will' with their leaders. (On
•ЩжЛиия" as a possible distortion of "equalism," see Tony Sharpe, Vladimir Nabokov
fLondon Arnold, 1991), 27.)

Man of Letters Revisited
Figure 6
Rene Gilsi
Natural History: Among Spiders a "Cross" Spider
Spins the Finest Net
art.16 And it is indicative that in his joint performance with the spider, that
"youngest member of the circus family," M'sieur Pierre's upside-down
eyes "looked like the eyes of an octopus" (E115/R118). Several years
later, in his novella The Enchanter, Nabokov metaphorically describes a
maniacally obsessive sexual pervert as an octopus-like creature, "who
would lie supine and evoke the one and only image, entwine his smiling
victim with eight hands, which turned into eight tentacles affixed to every
16 Donald A. Mackenzie, The Migration of Symbols and Their Relations to Beliefs and
Customs (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1926), 12.

42 Delicate Markers
detail of her nudity.'"7
Although an altogether different creature, the woodpecker too has
swastika affiliations. Shell gorgets discovered in North America depict
the heads of four ivory-billed woodpeckers arranged in a swastika-resem-
bling shape (Fig. 7); Nabokov could have encountered pictures of this or
a similar design. As we shall see, the 'woodpecker' imagery is of great
import in the novel, as it alludes to M'sieur Pierre's diabolically destruc-
tive role.
Also swastika-related are certain inanimate and abstract configu-
Figure 7
Swastika-Arranged Heads of Four Ivory-Billed
" See Nabokov, The Enchanter, 62; for the original Russian, see Vladimir Nabokov,
Волшебник, in Russian Literature Triquarterly 24 (1991): 27.

Man of Letters Revisited
rations with a distinctly swastika-like shape, such as the labyrinth. This
was commonly so represented on Cretan coins.18 Swastikas as part of
labyrinth-like panels frequently appear on burial urns, since the labyrinth
was associated with death—a link particularly relevant to the winding
labyrinth-like corridor of the fortress in which sentenced-to-death
Cincinnatus is held.19 Along this corridor, where "one bend followed
another," Cincinnatus would pass several times "the very same design of
dampness on the wall, looking like some dreadful ribby horse," before
ultimately reaching "a dead end" (E41/R52). Note the double entendre of
the phrase "dead end." In Russian, the last phrase is originally given as
тупик, which foreshadows «тупое «тут»» ("horrible [literally "obtru-
sive"—G. S.] 'here'") (E93/R98) that in the novel's context suggests the
death-dealing world surrounding Cincinnatus.20
As he later on suddenly realized, "the bends in the corridor had not
been leading him away anywhere, but rather formed a great polyhedron"
(E77/R84). This image of the "dreadful ribby horse" reverberates in the
"decrepit, dreadful horses" (E74/R81) Cincinnatus sees in his imaginary
survey of the infernal city; one of them materializes in the horse which
drives him to the execution—"a bay nag with bared teeth,.. .all in all so
lean and so ribby that its trunk seemed to be enclosed in a set of hoops"
In the world of the novel, the quadruped or tetraskelion (another
swastika-related sign which can be traced to classical antiquity), besides
bearing an obvious beastly connotation, serves as a swastika variant (Fig.
8).21 It describes Marthe's matter-of-fact copulation with her numerous
18 See Eug&ne Fchcien Albert Goblet d'Alviella, The Migration of Symbols (New York:
University Books, 1956), 57, fig. 27.
" See Janet Bord, Mazes and Labyrinths of the World (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976), 16.
For a detailed discussion of the labyrinth and its various meanings, see Penelope Reed
Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages
(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990).
:o Cf. Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 37-39.
" In pre-Christian Britain, swastika was called fylfot, from the Anglo-Saxon fower-fot
which means four- or many-footed. See Elizabeth Goldsmith, Ancient Pagan Symbols
(New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1929), 97.

Delicate Markers
Figure 8
lovers under the dining table, signifying here the utmost vulgarity:
Count how many she had... endless torture: to talk at dinner with one or
another of her lovers, appear cheerful, crack nuts, crack jokes, and all the
while to be mortally afraid to bend down, and chance to see the nether half
of that monster whose upper half was quite presentable, having the appear-
ance of a young woman and a young man visible down to the waist at table,
peacefully feeding and chatting; and whose nether half was a writhing,
raging quadruped. (E64/R72)
An allusion to the gammadion—four Greek "gammas" arranged in
(be form of the swastika—can be perceived in Cincinnati's musing that
"nothing [will] come out of what 1 am trying to tell, its only vestiges
being the corpses of strangled words, like hanged men... evening
silhouettes of gammas and gerunds, gallow crows—I think I should
fNefer the rope, since I know authoritatively and irrevocably that it shall
МЙК ax" (E90-91/R96). Besides showing Cincinnatus's concern that he
cannot express himself adequately, the passage clearly points to his fears
ef execution (rope, ax) and through this imagery to his upcoming tragic
fHH> indeed two Greek «Г» ("gammas") or its derivative Cyrillic iconic
twins, "glagols" (in the original Russian, Nabokov speaks of «вечерние

Man of Letters Revisited
очерки глаголей», that is "evening silhouettes of glagols") form a
gallows. Each letter alone resembles a single-armed gibbet.22 At the same
time, the plural mention of the letter may imply the Nazi-like totalitarian
atmosphere surrounding Cincinnatus as symbolized in the swastika-like
gammadion. We may recall that gammadion, designed to evoke the image
of the Nazi swastika, appears in Bend Sinister, in the episode in which
Krug asks the soldiers, apparently illiterate, to endorse his pass—to
"scrawl a cross, or a telephone booth curlicue, or a gammadion, or
something."23 The gammadion-like swastika can be directly linked to
M'sieur Pierre and his headsmanship. A poster by the renowned anti-Nazi
cartoonist, John Heartfield, which appeared in March of 1934, shortly
before Nabokov embarked on writing the novel, depicts this emblem of
the Third Reich fashioned from four executioner's axes (Fig. 9).24
Incidentally, Nabokov's choice of an ax as the instrument of execu-
tion in the novel most likely was influenced by its traditional use for this
purpose in Germany of which he could learn from one of his father's
published speeches.25 He also heard about it from Dietrich, a university
student, whom he helped write English letters to his American cousin in
1930. This young German, whose hobby was to collect photographs of
executions, "had journeyed to Regensburg where beheading was
violently [in the Russian version of his memoirs, Другие берега,
~ See Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 36.
I Nabokov, Bend Sinister, 16. Lee remarks that the gammadion "can be in the shape of
a swastika." See Lee, " Bend Sinister" 97; also cf. Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 201.
It is noteworthy that this quotation from Bend Sinister contains the protagonist's name,
partly anagrammatized and partly translated: the word "gammadion" contains an
anagram of his first name, Adam, whereas the word "curlicue" contains an anagram of
"circle" which is the English meaning of the Russian круг, his surname.
24 Later (Chapter 3) I suggest that with M'sieur Pierre's photohoroscope Nabokov poked
fun at photomontage, and perhaps at Heartfield as its well-known practitioner. At the
same time, Heartfield's visual imagery, especially its anti-Nazi intent, so relevant to this
novel, could have influenced Nabokov.
"5 See Из думских отчетов. II. Речи В. Д. Набокова (партии Народной Свободы) (St.
Petersburg, 1907), 31.

Delicate Markers
Figure 9
John Heartfield
The Old Slogan in the "New" Reich:
Blood and Iron
Nabokov employs the phrase «по старинке» that is "in the old fash-
ion"—G. S.J performed with an axe."26 The execution did not meet the
expectations of the curious German. As later in Invitation to a Beheading,
where "something went wrong" with Cincinnatus's execution, the
* Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 279 and Другие берега, 239.
It is also worth noting that with Hitler's rise to power, the Nazis had brought the
guillotine back into use in 1933. See Charles Whiting, The Home Fromt: Germany
(Alexandria. Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982), 109.

Man of Letters Revisited
Regensburg execution was an "intense disappointment" to Dietrich
because '4he subject had apparently been drugged and had hardly reacted
at all, beyond feebly flopping about on the ground while the masked
executioner and his clumsy mate fell all over him."27
Dietrich is somewhat reminiscent of M'sieur Pierre, for whom
photography was also a hobby, but who, unlike Dietrich, 'collected' the
executions themselves, rather than merely photographs of them. (The
French character of the executioner's name—Pierre—besides being an
obvious allusion to the French revolution, is echoed in Nabokov's "The
Paris Poem" [1943], "The pain of a severed vertebra wanders / in the
black depths of Boulevard Arago." In his comments to this poem,
Nabokov notes that "until very recently in this street of Paris public
executions by beheading were carried out."28) During World War II,
however, Dietrich undoubtedly found a way both to participate in the
executions, as an "exemplary Nazi officer," and to photograph them for
his personal pleasure (a stop-motion camera?). [Incidentally, M'sieur
Pierre is present in all his photographs, suggesting his using this photo-
device.] In any case, Nabokov envisaged Dietrich after the War demon-
strating the 'photo-treasures' to his со-veterans.29
And finally, the Bruderschaft, with its obvious German overtones,
also resembles the swastika. As we may recall, in the supper chapter,
which contains the light-bulb monogram episode, M'sieur Pierre entreats
Cincinnatus to drink "a bruderschaft" with him (see E185/RI82). Cincin-
natus categorically refuses to take part in this ceremony of fraternization
with his executioner—a refusal which indicates his growing resistance to
his tormentors and foreshadows his noncooperation with them in the
execution scene.30 And there is little doubt that Nabokov, with his keen
27 Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 279; Другие берега, 239.
28 For these lines of the poem in the original Russian and in Nabokov's own English
translation, see his Poems and Problems, 118-19; for Nabokov's comments on the
poem, see Стихи, 320.
29 Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 279; Другие берега, 240.
30 Some twenty years later, Nabokov once again employed the Z^^e/soW? configuration,
which he described as "performed by intertwining arms with one's co-drinker." See
Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 180.

Delicate Markers
Figure 10
Kukryniksy, Bruderschaft
sense of vision, did picture the Bruderschaft as, a swastika-like configura-
tion, an image which the Soviet caricaturists Kukryniksy employed more
than thirty years later in their political cartoon (Fig. 10).
Thus, by projecting the swastika-shaped monogram and by alluding

Man of Letters Revisited
to numerous swastika-related images, Nabokov achieves a great multi-
plication of this ominous sign—an emphatic device that underscores the
Nazi-like atmosphere pervading the world of the novel.
Let us now turn to the light-bulb monogram passage in the English
translation of the novel. At first glance, the Roman initials of M'sieur
Pierre and Cincinnatus, 'P' and 'C,' seem not to involve the opposition
so clearly seen in their Cyrillic counterparts. Hence Robert P. Hughes's
rebuke to the translators, who "might have chosen names for the English
version beginning, for example, in 'A' and 'V,' considering the first
letter's bar no greater or less a deviation from the basic shape than the
hook of 'C' is different from the symmetrical 'P7' [Hughes of course
refers here to the Cyrillic letters «П» and «Ц».]31 Similarly Johnson asserts
that while in the Russian original "the letter shapes are used to mirror the
opposition of the two characters," this effect "is largely lost in the English
translation where the physically dissimilar 'P' and 'C' can only pair the
characters but cannot iconically oppose them."321 suggest, however, that
while writing the novel, Nabokov had in mind not only the Cyrillic, but
also the Roman double initials of the protagonist and his headsman.
Nabokov was trilingual from his early childhood: besides Russian, he had
perfect command of English and French, and was equally at home with
Cyrillic and Roman characters.33 Further, while writing Invitation to a
Beheading in Berlin, Nabokov was surrounded there by the Roman
characters of the German language which, incidentally, he knew much
better than he liked to admit.34 Undoubtedly he envisaged the Latin-
31 Hughes, "Notes on the Translation of Invitation to a Beheading" 285-86.
33 Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 33.
33 In fact, Nabokov learned how to read and write in Russian only in 1906, at the age of
seven, after he had acquired these skills in English and French. See Brian Boyd, "New
Light on Nabokov's Russian Years," Cycnos 10(1993): 5. Nabokov himself erroneously
assigns the acquisition of these skills in his native language to the summer of 1905, a
year earlier. See Другие берега, 7 and 20, and Strong Opinions, 5.
34 For Nabokov's own statement about his poor command of German, see Strong
Opinions, 189. His proficiency in German; in addition to his well-known great mastery
of Russian, English, and French, is reflected in The Gilt, where Fedor, whom Nabokov
endows with a great many features of his own, mentions "the four languages I speak";

54 Delicate Markers
sounding name of the protagonist, Cincinnatus, and the French-sounding
name of his executioner, Pierre, in their Roman characters. And finally,
in 1934, while composing this novel, Nabokov clearly anticipated its
translation into the major European languages, even though the realiza-
tion of this project had to wait for precisely a quarter of a century.35
With what meaning, then, did Nabokov endow the monogram 'P' and
'C' in the English translation? As the first step in creating the monogram,
1 propose turning the letter 'C' on its side. It is to this position of the
letter that the narrator of the story "A Letter that Never Reached Russia"
(«Письмо в Россию», 1925) refers, when he "suddenly realized that one
can distinguish a naive smile even in death."36 Incidentally, in this
position the letter also resembles the roofline of the house at 22
Nestorstrasse where Nabokov lived while working on the novel (Fig. 11).
The letter 'C' so turned clearly resembles a sickle, a symbol of Death,37
and reminds the reader of the fate awaiting Cincinnatus. At the same time,
quite like the Russian «Ц», the upward-looking ends of the letter indicate
his lofty aspirations, and the space between the ends suggests his open-
in the original Russian, the phrase reads: «на тех четырех языках, которыми владею»,
that is "in the four languages, of which I have a command." See The Gift, 86 and Дар,
85. Most recent findings of Brian Boyd that Nabokov had six and a half years of German
in the Tenishev School corroborate this supposition. See Boyd, "New Light on
Nabokov's Russian Years," 7.
35 That year, some of Nabokov's novels, such as Despair, The Defense, and The Eye,
were translated into several European languages for the first time. See Boyd, Vladimir
Nabokov: The Russian Years, 417-18.
36 See Vladimir Nabokov, Возвращение Чорба (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976), 47; Vladimir
Nabokov, The Stones (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 140. For the death associ-
ation of the Cyrillic «С», as signifying the Russian word смерть ("death"), and for its
iconic smiling' image, when turned on its side, see Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 28.
51 Although less commonly than a scythe, a sickle as a symbol of Death can be also found
tn some Apocalypse miniatures; see Fedor Buslaev, сотр., Свод изображений из
днцевых Апокалипсисов (Moscow, 1884), 236. Simeon Polotskii (1629-80) used a
sickle in this sense in his poem "Gray Hair" («Седина»); see V. P. Adrianova-Peretts,
ed.. Русская силлабическая поэзия XVI1-XVI1I вв. (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel',
Bi§ ;158.

Man of Letters Revisited
ended spiritual and creative quest. On the other hand, the letter 'P,'
whose shape resembles an ax, clearly alludes to M'sieur Pierre's
profession of headsman. Furthermore, its enclosed upper half and the line
leading down indicate his lowly ambitions.
If we now consider the Roman monogram, like the Cyrillic one, as
the combination of the double initials, that is 'С. C.,' turned on their sides
and enclosed in one another, and 'P. P.' in the mirror-like fashion, it takes
on an additional and very significant meaning. The sickle-shaped 'C' then
acquires two-dimensional substance, whereas the two adjacent mirrored
'P's resemble a hammer. As in the Russian original, the narrator's remark
in the English translation that the monogram "had not quite come off' is
apt, since a sickle has a handle, which this doubled 'C' lacks, and a
hammer does not have any bar separating the two sides of its widest part
and therefore somewhat differs from the two 'P's of the monogram. In
this form, the monogram obviously calls to mind the hammer-and-sickle,
the symbol of the Soviet Union—that other police state, into which
Nabokov's native Russia had turned.
The hammer-and-sickle makes a distinct appearance in The Gift, on
which Nabokov worked simultaneously with Invitation to a Beheading.
In the original Russian, it is there in the parodical slogan «За Серб и
Молт!», which Nabokov deemed it necessary to clarify for the English
reader: "On the Tauentzienstrasse the bus was held up by a gloomy
procession; policemen in black leggings brought up the rear in a slow
truck and among the banners there was one with a Russian inscription
containing two mistakes: serb instead of serp (sickle) and molt instead of
molot (hammer)."38
Albeit less conspicuously than in the "realistically"-set Gift, this
symbol of the Soviet police state is also present in the dystopian Invita-
tion to a Beheading. The symbol is split here, so to speak, with the ham-
mer and sickle allusions appearing in separate (though adjacent) chapters.
Thus, contemplating the conflict between himself and "this whole
terrible, striped world" (E91/R96), Cincinnatus imagines that "the gigan-
tic carved bear brings its wooden mallet down upon me" (E91/R97). This
graphic imagery of course expresses Cincinnatus's fears of the anticipated
38 See Nabokov, The Gift, 370 and Дар, 402.

Delicate Markers
figure 11
22 Nestorstrasse, Berlin
Vladimir Nabokov's Residence at the Time of His Writing
Invitation to a Beheading

Man of Letters Revisited
execution. At the same time, the bear, a well-known symbol of Russia,
alludes to its contemporaneous Soviet version,39 especially given the
mention of the mallet (in the original Russian, the word is молот which
also means a "hammer"). (The bear is also, of course, the symbol of
Berlin, the capital of then Nazi Germany.) This association with Soviet
Russia is further enhanced by the image of the sickle, which appears
several pages later, in the episode of the first encounter between Cincin-
natus and M'sieur Pierre. To please M'sieur Pierre, who has been
showing card tricks, the obsequious Rodrig asks the librarian to confirm
the hangman's skill by admitting he has seen the same card at the end of
the trick that he thought of at the beginning. The librarian refuses to
cooperate and, flatly denying M'sieur Pierre's skill, leaves the cell. For
this act of disobedience, Rodrig harshly disciplines the librarian. The
prison director follows him into the corridor; his off-stage violence
toward the librarian is suggested by his exhaling "noisily like a horse"
upon his return to Cincinnatus's cell. "In his tightly clenched fist was a
woolen scarf," which the librarian used to cover his neck. Furthermore,
in the act he has broken his thumbnail, which "protruded like a sickle"
(E87/R93). This sickle image, added to the neck-baring scarf-stripping,
serves as a death warning to the librarian and, more importantly, as a
reminder to Cincinnatus, whose 'disobedience' is much more serious, of
the impending beheading.
Another image of the sickle also has some connection to the librarian.
After his act of defiance which was punished thus by Rodrig, the librarian
obeys his superiors unquestioningly throughout the novel. Apparently at
their command he brings several "bedraggled little volumes of a work in
unknown tongue," which Cincinnatus "had not ordered" (E122/R124-25)
and which, as he shortsightedly assumes, had arrived in his cell "by
mistake" (E122/R125 and E179/R177). The letters in these volumes are
"sickle-shaped," the type "somehow reminiscent of the inscriptions on
museum daggers," and some of "their faded pages" are "tinged with
tawny blotches" (E125/R127). These volumes were undoubtedly brought
to Cincinnatus intentionally to remind him once again of the upcoming
39 It is telling that some forty-five years after Nabokov wrote the novel, the Soviet
authorities chose a bear as the symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

58 Delicate Markers
execution: their sickle-shaped letters are meant to remind him of death,
and their dagger-like type and blotched pages, of violence and blood. (In
Russian, the last two phrases read: «старые, пасмурные странички», that
is literally, "old, gloomy pages," and «в желтых подтеках», that is lite-
rally "in yellow bruises.")40
Mortally frightened by Rodrig's violence, the librarian cooperates
with Cincinnatus's jailers and avoids any informal contact with the
prisoner. When Cincinnatus wishes to converse with him, "trembling, the
librarian left" (E179/R177), no doubt recalling Rodrig's severe repri-
mand. Thus the librarian, who is "only bound in human skin" (El79/
R177), completely succumbs to Rodrig's threats. In this he is the opposite
of Cincinnatus, the novel's only true human being, who although he has
his weak moments, resists his tormentors to the very end and ultimately
triumphs over them.
The sickle-shaped fingernail and letters, together with the image of
the mallet, subtly allude to the Soviet state, we may conclude. Both the
mallet and the sickle images appear in the context of violence and
destruction, so characteristic of a totalitarian regime such as Soviet
Russia's. Nabokov alludes once again to "the first Socialist state," this
time sarcastically, through Rodrig's dubbing M'sieur Pierre's unsuccess-
ful card nicks "a miracle! Red magic!" (E86/R92).41 The implication here
is that the "red magic" of the Soviet totalitarian state exists only insofar
as there are Rodrigs to applaud its "miracle."
The inclusion of Cincinnatus's initials in the monogram is another
veiy telling manifestation of the prison-house of language: an attempt by
M'sieur Pierre and Co. to coerce the dissenter, even on the eve of his
execution, into becoming an integral part of the world around him.42 Cin-
46 Cf. Stephen Blackwell, "Reading and Rapture in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading"
Slavic and East European Journal 39 (1995): 42 and 44. For an entirely different in-
terpretation of this passage, see Davydov, 'Teksty-matreski" Vladimira Nabokova, 131.
m For a reading of the phrases "like a sickle" and "red magic" as suggestive of the Soviet
police slate, see Dabney Stuart, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody (Baton Rouge and
London: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), 57.
42 For a discussion of the prison-house of language, see Johnson, Worlds in Regression,

Man of Letters Revisited
cinnatus, however, neither shares M'sieur Pierre's admiration for the
"beautiful" monogram, nor joins in with the guests' "oh[s]l" and "ah[s]!,"
nor their applause, thereby once again resisting his tormentors, albeit
silently (see E189/R186-87). And the very fact that the monogram "had
not quite come off," portends the protagonist's flight from the world
around him at the end of the novel.43
The Cyrillic letters forming the monogram that resembles a swasti-
ka—the symbol of Nazi Germany (with its Roman-based language)—and
the Roman letters forming the monogram that resembles the hammer-and-
sickle, the symbol of Soviet Russia (with its Cyrillic-based language)
suggest the interconnection and interchangeability of these two regimes
and, furthermore, the universal nature of totalitarianism as presented in
this manifestly dystopian novel.44 The remark that the monogram "had not
quite come off" leaves no doubt of Nabokov's firm belief, prophetic in
1934, that that repugnant political system was doomed.
Since Nabokov maintained that life imitates art (see Chapter 1), it is
fitting to end this section on such a typically Nabokovian note: with this
PC monogram, we may playfully suggest, Nabokov not only presaged the
advent of the computer era, but more relevantly with regard to the novel,
the recent notion of "political correctness," which signifies monopoliza-
tion of thought, that first step toward the political coercion of totalitarian-
43 See Richard C. Borden, "Nabokov Travesties of Childhood Nostalgia," Nabokov Studies
2(1995): 105.
44 Some other German and Russian markers, which at times appear together in the novel,
are also indicative of this. Thus, the prison director has a Germanic name, Rodrig, and
a Russian patronymic, Ivanovich; and his wife speaks Russian "with a slight German
accent" (E166/R165). As Nabokov unequivocally asserts, this novel "deals with the
incarceration of a rebel in a picture-postcard fortress by the buffoons and bullies of a
Communazist state" (Conclusive Evidence [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951], 217),
and he viewed the novel, together with Bend Sinister, as the "absolutely final indict-
ments of Russian and German totalitarianism" (Strong Opinions, 156).
45 Curiously, Nabokov appears to be the first to use the phrase "politically incorrect" in
Bend Sinister (168). See Irving Lewis Allen, "Earlier Uses of Politically (In)correct,"
American Speech 70, no.l (1995): 110-12.

1()0 Delicate Markers
Letter and Color
According to Nabokov's own accounts, he possessed the ability,
commonly known as colored hearing, to attach a certain color to a given
letter and the sound it represents.46 Johnson has demonstrated the im-
portance of chromesthesia, as this rare phenomenon is more properly
called, to Nabokov's verbal art. He devotes a chapter to the subject,
supporting his observations with examples from various of Nabokov's
works, including Invitation to a Beheading?1
In the previous section, we have seen how tracing the iconic
associations of the heroes' initials contributes to a better understanding
of the novel. Now, with the same goal in mind, let us reexamine those
initials through the prism of Nabokov's chromesthesia.
For Nabokov, the Cyrillic and the Roman characters do not differ
much chromesthetically. As he has pointed out, "for the most part, a
Russian letter, differently shaped but identical in sound, distinguishes
itself by a dimish tone in comparison to the Latin one."48 For the sake of
precision, however, I shall indicate the color for both a Cyrillic letter and
its Roman counterpart as given by Nabokov himself.
Let us begin with M'sieur Pierre. The Cyrillic letter «П» and the
Roman *P' of his initial both belong to the green group—their colors,
respectively, a gouachy green and the green of an unripe apple. Since
green is the traditional color of a hunting outfit, the Devil, the hunter of
souls, was frequently depicted as wearing clothes of this color.49 It is
44 For Nabokov's discussion of this rare gift of his in relation to the Roman and Cyrillic
alphabets, see, respectively, his Speak, Memory, 34-35 and Другие берега, 26-28.
47 See Johnson, "The Alphabetic Rainbow of Speak, Memory," in his Worlds in
Regression, 10-27; also see Tammi, Problems of Nabokov's Poetics, 329-31.
? Nabokov, Другие берега, 27.
Ямр Jeftrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press, 1984), 69. For a detailed discussion of the subject, see D. W.
Robertson, Jr., "Why the Devil Wears Green," Modem Language Notes 69 (1954):
470-72. The Devil as the hunter of souls was a popular metaphor in Christianity,
atrticularly during the Middle Ages. It found expression in the literature of the period,
for example in Chaucer's "Friar's Tale," where the Devil "hadde upon a courtepy of
mntv" See Geoffrey Chaucer, The Tales of Canterbury, ed. Robert A. Pratt (Boston:

Man of Letters Revisited
symptomatic that in his final appearance as the executioner, M'sieur
Pierre chooses to wear "a pea-green hunting habit" (E207/R202) and a
"pea-green hat with a pheasant feather" (E214/R208), thereby violating
the written instructions, according to which he was supposed to wear "red
pantaloons" (E176/R175). The greenish-hued garb corresponding to his
initial is in better agreement with his fiendish essence.
Further, the pea-green color—гороховый in Russian—evokes the
expression шут гороховый ("laughing-stock," or literally, a "pea-green
jester"). M'sieur Pierre's jester-like behavior—he tries, for example, to
entertain Cincinnatus with the card tricks and with the "circus" perfor-
mance (see E86/R92-93 and El 15-16/R118-19), both of which "had not
quite come off"—is very much in the spirit of Christian tradition,
according to which the Devil often debases himself to the role of the fool,
thereby foreshadowing his final ridicule and disgrace.50
M'sieur Pierre's predilection for pea-green calls to mind another
Russian expression, гороховое пальто, literally a "pea-green coat," a
pejorative nickname for the Third Department (political police) agents
who closely watched "ideologically unreliable" individuals in Tsarist
Russia. We come across this expression in The Gift. "At the requiem held
for him [Chernyshevskii—G. S.] in St. Petersburg the workmen in town
clothes, whom the dead man's friends had brought for the sake of
atmosphere, were taken by a group of students for plainclothesmen and
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 287 (In. 1382).
Dmitri Likhachev, the Russian medievalist, also discusses green as the color of the
Devil and of the Green Dragon. See D. S. Likhachev, «Литературный «дед» Остапа
Бендера», in his Избранные работы, 3 vols. (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literature,
1987), 3:357. In this article, Likhachev points to the usage of green as an infernal color
in works by Dickens, Bulgakov, and II 'f and Petrov. For a more detailed discussion of
green as infernal in II If and Petrov's Twelve Chairs in the context of nineteenth- and
twentieth-century literature, see Iu. K. Shcheglov, Романы И. Ильфа и Е. Петрова.
Спутник читателя, 2 vols. (Vienna: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, 1990-91), 1:
50 Russell, Lucifer, 63 and 76.
In some Russian dialects, such as that of the Voronezh Province, шут (a "jester") was
a synonym of the Devil. Cf. Vladimir Dal', Толковый словарь живого велико-
русского языка, 4 vols. (St. Petersburg: M. О. Vol'f, 1880-82; rept. Moscow: Russkii
iazyk, 1978-80), 4: 650.

1()0 Delicate Markers
insulted" (in Russian, the passage reads, «На панихиде по нем
Петербурге приведенные для парада друзьями покойного несколько
рабочих в партикулярном платье были приняты студентами за сы-
щиков,—одному даже пустили «гороховое пальто»»).51 The image is
certainly pertinent to Invitation to a Beheading since M'sieur Pierre keeps
Cincinnatus under his constant and close surveillance and toward the end
of the novel claims that "the structure of Cincinnatus's soul is as well
known to me as the structure of his neck" (El 75/R174).
Significantly, Marthe's uncomely daughter, Pauline, shares M'sieur
Pierre's initial. It is noteworthy that in the family visit episode she is
described as wearing a "green polka-dotted dress" (in Russian, it is more
suggestive: «зеленое в белую горошинку платье», that is, literally "a
green dress with white little peas"—E100/R105). We have observed with
regard to M'sieur Pierre that the green color of a character's initial
suggests his association with the Devil. This is also applicable to Pauline
who was bom out of wedlock, that is, conceived in lechery—the infernal
nature of which is constantly emphasized by Christian tradition.
Pauline's brother Diomedon—also the fruit of Marthe's extramarital
liaisons—fits in this color-initial scheme. His initial, 'D,' belongs to the
yellowish group, and yellow, also an infernal color (see Chapter 3), sug-
gests the boy's being an offspring of Hell. Furthermore, yellow is also
known as the color of deceit, disgrace, corruption and, as John Ruskin
indicates in his Deucalion, treachery.52 Incidentally, these associations
may be the reason for M'sieur Pierre's wearing a yellow wig (see El59/
51 The Git), 295 and Дар, 316.
52 See Clara Erskine Clement, A Handbook of Legendary and Mythological Art (Boston:
Ticknor, 1881), 8; Wilhelm Wackernagel, "Die Farben- und Blumensprache des
Mittelalters," in his Abhandlungen zur Deutschen A/terthumskunde und
Kunstgeschichte, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1872), 1 187-89; John Ruskin, Complete
Works, 39 vols., ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderbum (New York: Longmans,
Green, and Co., 1903-12), 26:192. Nabokov could have read Deucalion already in his
youth, as this work was available to him in his father's library. See Систематический
каталог библиотеки Владимира Дмитриевича Набокова, 44, по. 997. In addition,
Nabokov could have encountered yellow as a negative color in the works of the Silver
Age writers, such as Innokentii Annenskii. For a discussion of yellow as a color of evil
omen, see Vsevolod Setchkarev, Studies in the Life and Works of Innokentij Annenskij
(The Hague: Mouton, 1963), 139.

Man of Letters Revisited
R158) in his unsuccessful attempt to emulate the fair-haired
Diomedon can most obviously be linked to M'sieur Pierre through
his predilection for killing. Indeed M'sieur Pierre may find in the boy his
prospective professional successor. That killing the cat was not an
exceptional act on Diom'edon's part, and that cruelty is inherent in the
boy's nature, is clear from his mother's rather peculiar rebuke: '"Diome-
don, leave the cat alone this instant,' said Marthe. 'You already strangled
one the other day, one every day is too much'" (E103/R108).54 Further,
the "bulldog grip" (El 16/R119) of M'sieur Pierre's denture reverberates
in Diomedon's "bulldog jowls" (E101/R106).55 Although not matching
his color initial, Diomedon's outfit, "a gray blouse" (E101/R106) is of
some significance. The Devil was frequently portrayed as pale gray, the
color of illness and death, and Diomedon's outfit is an ample warning of
his prospective association with deepest gloom and grief.56 It is telling
that shortly before Cincinnatus's execution, M'sieur Pierre's accomplices
appear dressed in "gray shirts" (E207/R202).
53 We may recall that Giotto portrayed Judas with yellow hair in his The Pact of Judas
(Padua, the Arena Chapel). See Moshe Barasch, Giotto and the Language of Gesture
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 163.
54 The boy's name, meaning "little Diomedes," is also quite telling. Greek mythology
knows two personae by that name: one is the Thracean king who kept the fierce horses
that lived on human flesh; the other was an Achaean hero who participated in the siege
of Troy. Although the latter Diomedes was clever and courageous, he also killed without
hesitation. Thus, the common denominator for these two legendary figures is cruelty
which Diomedon, that little Diomedes, shares with them. See Michael Stapleton, A
Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology (New York: Bell Publishing Company,
1978), 68. Cf. Nassim Winnie Berdjis, Imagery in Vladimir Nabokov's Last Russian
Novel (Дар), Its English Translation (The Gift), and Other Prose Works of the 1930s
(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995), 155.
55 Cf. a Lolita character, Frederick Beale, Jr., "looking like a kind of assistant executioner,
with his bulldog jowls" (102). See Pekka Tammi, "Studies in the Style and Meaning of
Vladimir Nabokov's Novel Lolita," Ph.D. diss., Helsinki University, 1977,153n. 64.
56 About that meaning of gray, see Moshe Barasch, "Renaissance Color Conventions:
Liturgy, Humanism, Workshops," in Color and Technique in Renaissance Painting: Italy
and the North, ed. Marcia B. Hall (Locust Valley, NY: Augustin, 1987), 142 and
Russell, Lucifer, 132-33.

1()0 Delicate Markers
The names of the triune Rodion-Roman-Rodrig all start with the
Russian letter «Р» and English 'R.' Both letters are described by Nabokov
as belonging to the black-brown group, with the Russian letter being
quite smooth in comparison to its English counterpart—"a sooty rag
being ripped."57 The color of this letter, which is reflected in the black
wigs of Rodrig and Roman (see E14/R28 and E40/R52), suggests the
association of this "evil trinity" with Death and the Devil. (Incidentally,
P/R is the ultimate Cyrillic letter and sound, and the penultimate double
Roman letter and ultimate sound in the name of Pierre, the satanic
executioner.) Additionally, the black-brownness of the letter evokes the
association of the entire 'jailing-executing crew' with the black-shirted
Fascists and the brown-shirted Nazis. (Cf. the discussion of the iconic
function of the letter 'M' earlier in this Chapter.)
The infernal nature of the prison director, Rodrig Ivanovich, is also
reflected in the colors associated with his monogram, with which the
butter pat served to Cincinnatus is engraved (E48/R59). Previously, we
considered the iconic meaning of this monogram; here we shall address
what it means chromesthetically. 'R,' as I have mentioned, belongs to the
blade-brown group, while T belongs to the yellow;58 the former bearing
diabolic and Fascist-Nazi, and the latter infernal, associations. The
fiendish nature of Rodrig Ivanovich, indicated by the colors of his initials,
is reflected in Cincinnatus's immediate surroundings which cause him
"stone anguish": in the blackness of his rough "wool blanket," in the
brownness of the "little skirt" of "the skim on the chocolate" (E48/R58),
and in the yellowness of his cell walls whose "cold ochre smelled of the
grave," and was "pimply and horrible" (E124/R127).
Rodrig's (laughter, Emmie, is another character who bears both
demonic and Nazi associations. The girl's initials, «Э» in Russian and 'E'
in English, the former belonging to the whitish and the latter to the
yellowish groups,59 accentuate these associations. These colors are
v See Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 34; Другие берега, 27.
M See Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 34; Другие берега, 27.
" Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 35; Другие берега, 27. In his early story "The Fight"
<•Драка», 1925), set in contemporaneous Germany, there is Emma, "a young girl in a
checkered dress, fair-haired, with pointed pink elbows," and in King, Queen, Knave
k I

Man of Letters Revisited
reminiscent of the mulberry: appearing first as an attractive waxen
yellowish-white but eventually turning black, the berry was viewed as a
symbol of the Devil, who may at first appear attractive but eventually
betrays his dark essence. This perception of the mulberry is reflected in
German folklore: to prevent their children from eating this berry, mothers
would sing them a song about the Devil who uses it to put blacking on his
shoes.60 Nabokov in all likelihood knew about the mulberry's devilish
connotations: in his story "Double Talk" (1947), later retitled "Conversa-
tion Piece, 1945," which describes a philistine discussion held in a post-
World-War-II German-Russian chauvinistic circle of f(r)iends, there is a
character called Mrs. Mulberry.61 Furthermore, the Russian for "mul-
Ьеггу''-тут-also homonymously suggests ("here"), the word which has
negative connotations in the world of the novel.
The hues of Emmie's initial, reflected in her hair color, also indicate
that she belongs to the Aryan type which the Nazis portrayed in their
propaganda as blond or yellowish-blond (Fig. 12). (Curiously, this
picture is another example of life imitating art; the pose of the girl in the
picture is reminiscent of Emmie's: "she was leaning against the wall,
supporting herself only with her shoulder blades and elbows, sliding
forward on her tensed feet in their flat shoes, and straightening up again"
Furthermore, Emmie's constantly playing with the ball and her
dancing agree with the Nazi emphasis on athletics, in which the Aryans
of course were expected to reign supreme. Thus, in The 6*/? there appears
a typically Aryan "German girl of the sporting sort, with an orange face
(Король, дама, валет, 1928), also set in Germany of the 1920s, there is a mention of
Emmy, Franz's sister, who most likely will marry a butcher, not unlike Emmie in
Invitation to a Beheading, whose photohoroscope foreshadowed her marriage to a much
more horrendious butcher, the executioner M'sieur Pierre. See, respectively, Nabokov,
The Stories, 143 and Руль, September 26,1925,2-3; King, Queen, Kosve (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1968), 93-94 and Король, дама, валет (Berlin: Slovo, 1928; rept. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 92-93. Cf. Hughes, "Notes on the Translation of Invitation
to a Beheading," 286.
60 See Russell, Lucifer, 232 and T. F. Thiselton Dyer, The FoJk-Lore of Plants (London:
Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, 1889), 75.
41 See Nabokov, The Stories, 5.83-93,

Delicate Markers
Figure 12
A Member of the BDM
(League of German Maidens)
in Athletic Kit
and golden hair."62 (We may note that in promulgating the ideal female
as blond and athletic, the Soviet propaganda of the 1930s was akin to the
Nazi. To this, for example, attests Aleksandr Deineka's Bathing Girls
[1933, Moscow, Tret'iakov Gallery].) Both of these "Aryan" traits,
blondness and athleticism, are emphasized in the novel: Emmie is
e See The GiU, 186 and Дар, 195-96.

Man of Letters Revisited
portrayed with "silky-blond hair" (E47/R57), "little blond hairs on her
bare arms and shins" and with "whitish lashes" (E75/R82-83), and she is
characterized as "the muscular child" (E148/R148)63 In this regard she
contrasts with Cincinnatus, who has "blond locks" and a "blond quiver-
ing moustache" (E211/R206) but is so small and physically frail that in
"an outburst of childish boisterousness" the twelve-year-old Emmie rolls
him about "like a puppy" (E148/R148). Cincinnatus's physical "inade-
quacy," which is reflected in his "fleshy incompleteness" (E120/R123),
and, more important, his being "a lone dark obstacle in this world of
souls transparent to one other" (E24/R36), the "peculiarity" for which he
is sentenced to a beheading, could hardly be at greater odds with the
typical Aryan of Nazi propaganda—athletic and conforming to the norms
of the collective. The absence of the black-brown letter and sound 'r'
from Emmie's name perhaps suggests that she is initially given an alter-
native: to run away with Cincinnatus or to succumb to the forces of
Evil.64 This dichotomy is present in her looking at Cincinnatus "shyly"
and at the same time "slyly" (E75/R82). The latter attitude soon domi-
nates. Emmie's corruption is indicated by her "having dismissed
Cincinnatus forever" (E166/R166) after betraying him. For the betrayal,
Emmie is immediately "rewarded" with M'sieur Pierre's under-the-table
fondling, which should be seen as a preamble to her later becoming his,
that is the Devil's, bride, as the photohoroscope foretells.
Earlier we noted that Marthe's initial, 'M,' iconically resembles a
spider and has Fascist connotations. As for the color attached to the initial
'M'—pink flannel for both the Cyrillic and Roman characters—it is
purposefully delusive, suggesting warmth and charm.65 Marthe's pinkish-
63 The word "Aryan" is of course never mentioned in this dystopian novel. More than
thirty years later, however, in the Russian translation of Lolita, the Emmie-look-alike
appearance of Lolita, blond and dancing, is described as that "of Aryan rose" («арий-
ской розы») See Vladimir Nabokov, Лолита (New York: Phaedra Publishers, 1967),
This absence was noted by Davydov, who has suggested that "the sonorous Y in the
names of the jailers... is a sound index of this hylic [evil] substance." See his "Teksty-
matreski" Vladimira Nabokova, 118.
5 Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 35 and Другие берега, 27. Thus Cicero considered pink a

1()0 Delicate Markers
ness or rosiness are repeatedly pointed to throughout the novel: Cincin-
natus remembers "her doll-like rosiness" («кукольный румянец»-
E20/R34) in the courthouse, and "her rosy [розовые] kisses tasting of
wild strawberries" (E28/R40) during their courtship.66 Very soon, how-
ever, Cincinnatus discerned that a "hard, bitter little soul" (E141/R142)
was hidden underneath Marthe's deceitfully attractive feminine veneer,
and, moreover, that her "doll-like rosiness" indicates she is a soulless
"dummy" (in Russian, Marthe is dubbed кукла, that is literally a "doll"
or a "puppet") (E142/R143).67
Marthe's deceitfulness is manifest in her "simian ears," which she
hides 'kinder strands of beautiful feminine hair" (E142/R143). In Christ-
ian tradition, the ape, we may recall, is associated with the Devil, the
King of Deceit; with vice; and particularly, as befits Marthe, with lust.68
Marthe's true nature, however, is chromesthetically reflected in the
middle letter 'r,' which she shares with the diabolic M'sieur Pierre and
Co. and which is outwardly manifest in her constantly wearing a black
dress (see, for example, E99 and 195/R103 and 191).69 Marthe's
predilection for black perhaps strengthens the Fascist association
mentioned earlier. This seems especially so in the family visit episode:
Marthe appears in Cincinnatus's cell, "wearing her best black dress,"
with her current suitor, "a telegraph employee," dressed in "the smart
black uniform" (E99-100/R103-4). (Even though Cincinnatus also wears
"soft" color, and the sixteenth-century Italian humanist Lodovico Dolce believed that
as a mixture of red and white, pink—rasa in Italian—combines the redness of blood with
charm and grace. See Barasch, "Renaissance Color Conventions," 145.
66 In art, the strawberry often symbolizes seduction and sensual pleasure. See Mirella Levi
D'Ancona, Botticelli's Pr/mavera (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1983), 93.
67 It is noteworthy that M'sieur Pierre—the parody of the Devil, the King of De-
ceit—whose association with Marthe 1 discuss in more detail in the next Chapter,
appears before the execution as "rosy" and "attractively rouged" («розовый» and
-красиво подрумяненный») (E207/R202) and is dubbed by Cincinnatus the "red-
cheeked hunter" («румяный охотник»; E213/R208).
" See James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (H&N York: Harper & Row,
1979), 22; Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 11.
** Cf Davydov, "Teksty-matreski" Vladimira Nabokova, 118.

Man of Letters Revisited
a black outfit, a dressing gown, he does it unwillingly. This black
dressing gown, which is referred to as "abhorred" [E48-49/R59],
symbolizes the protagonist's temporary submission to the world around
Both «Ц» and 'C,' the Russian and English initials of the protagonist,
belong to the blue group, tin-like and light blue respectively. And it is
certainly no accident that Cincinnatus refers to his world as being "blue"
(E93/R99).70 Blue, the color of the skies, "shows greatness of soul and
elevation of mind," according to Italian Renaissance humanists.71 Like the
shapes of the letters, the colors reflect the lofty spiritual and creative
aspirations of Cincinnatus, who sees poetry as the highest flight of the
spirit. Cincinnatus admits that he is "envious of poets. How wonderful it
must be to speed along a page and, right from the page, where only a
shadow continues to run, to take off into the blue" (E194/R190). Several
years prior to the publication of this novel, in his review of Antonin
Ladinskii's collection of poems, Black and Blue (Черное и голубое),
Nabokov writes: «Голубое—отсвет небес на сугробах, на плаще музы,
на морской воде. Но настоящее «голубое», это разумеется не-
бо,—«Голубые холмы небес», «голубое бессмертие», «голубые стро-
пила»,—и какая тонкая, какая правильная мысль выражена в
строках «Только земля, черная дорогая мать, научила любить голу-
бое и за небесное умирать»» ("Blue is the reflection of the skies on
snow-drifts, on Muse's mantle, on the sea water. But the genuine 'blue'
is, of course, the sky, 'the blue hills of the skies,' 'the blue immortality,'
'the blue rafters'—and what a gentle, what a true thought is expressed in
the lines: 'Only the Earth, the black dear mother, has taught [us] to love
the blue and to die for the heavenly'").72 One wonders whether this line
70 Although in the Russian original Nabokov uses голубой and синий for "light blue" and
"blue," respectively, in the English translation he commonly employs merely the word
"blue" for the both shades. I found only one instance when the word голубизна, a
derivative of голубой, is rendered as "azure"—"the azure of his temples" (E24/R36).
71 See Barasch, "Renaissance Color Conventions," 144.
12 See Руль, January 28, 1931, 2.
In Blok's cycle, Verses on a Beautiful Lady (1904), light-blue (голубой) is associated
with unattainable and azure (лазурный) with mystical revelation and the otherworldly,

1()0 Delicate Markers
of Laditiskii's, which Nabokov quotes here, could have affected his
depicting a fragile and yet, as it turns out, genuine relationship between
Cecilia C. and her son.
It is noteworthy that for Nabokov the tin-like Cyrillic «Ц» is inferior
in intensity of blue, the measure of poetic talent, to the moist-blue
Cyrillic "C", the initial of Sirin, Nabokov's pen name; reflecting the
difference between the creative powers of the character, "the poet
Cincinnatus," and his creator.73 Even though the world of Cincinnatus is
characterized as "blue," that is as quite creatively rich, his ability to
express himself corresponds to his more pale and therefore creatively
more modest initial.
Although no creativity is ascribed to Cecilia C., she is privy to it by
her having given birth to Cincinnatus. From her "a piece had once been
taken for Cincinnatus—a pale, thin skin, with sky-blue veins" (El31/
R132), which reverberates in "his [Cincinnatus's—G. S.] veins of the
bluest blue" (E121/R124). The genetic kinship reflected chromesthe-
tically, through their sharing the same initials, is also suggested through
her name. St. Cecilia, an early Christian like 'Tit, Pud, and the Wander-
ing Jew" (E125/R128) mentioned in the novel Quercus or like those in
Cincinnatus's contemplations perhaps influenced by this reading (see
Е193/ R189), lived in Rome in the second or third century A. D., in the
reign of Emperor Alexander Severius. She was known for her creative
powers: tradition has it that she invented the organ and knew how to play
all musical instruments; she thereby became the patron saint of music and
musicians. In Raphael's St. Cecilia in Ecstasy (Bologna, Pinacoteca
Nazionale), we come across the same color juxtaposition as between
Cincinnatus's and his creator's initials in the original Russian: the
while blue (синий) is perceived as azure's earthly counterpart. See Katherine T.
O'Connor, "Theme and Color in Blok's «Стихи о Прекрасной Даме»," Studies
Presented to Professor Roman Jakobson by His Students, ed. Charles E. Gribble
(Columbus: Slavica Publishers, 1968), 239-40.
See Nabokov, Другие берега, 27. In the Roman alphabet, the distinction is not as clear:
*C* is light blue, while 'S,' is "a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl"—al-
though in his interview with Andrew Field, Nabokov defines the color of'S' as "a very
hHHwotbluc, a light blue." See, respectively, Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 35 and Field,
Nabokov: His Life in Part, 149.

Man of Letters Revisited
organetto in the hands of St. Cecilia is tin blue, whereas the heavens to
which she is directing her gaze are azure, suggesting that her music is
merely a pale reflection of the Divine.74 A Christian martyr, St. Cecilia
died of neck wounds inflicted on her in the thrice-attempted beheading.
Thus, Cecilia's name predestines Cincinnatus's creativity and portends
his prospective fate.75
The most intricate and by far the most interesting case of chromes-
thesia in the novel is that connected with the red-and-blue ball. As I noted
at the end of Chapter 1, these two color groups correspond to the Cyrillic
and Roman initials of Nabokov's first name and pen name at the
time—Vladimir Sirin.76 The Cyrillic «В» and the Roman 'V' are pink-
flesh and pink-quartz, and the Cyrillic «С» and the Roman'S' are moisty-
blue and "a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl," respectively.77
Additionally, red-and-blue, in the Russian original красно-синий, con-
tains the anagram sirin.
In light of this, the red-and-blue ball may be viewed as a curious
manifestation of authorial presence.78 We may recall that the ball appears
| For a detailed discussion of the painting, see Andrea Emiliani, ed., La Santa Cecilia di
Raffaello (Bologna: ALFA, 1983).
75 See Prosper Louis Paschal Guerander, Life of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, trans,
from French (Philadelphia: P. F. Cunningham, 1867); Johann Peter Kirsch, Dieheilige
Ccicilia in derromischen Kirche des Altertums (Paderbom: Ferdinand Schoningh, 1910;
rept. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967). The inclusion of the St. Cecilia legend in "The
Seconde Nonne's Tale" of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales attests to its popularity, particu-
larly in the Late Middle Ages. See Chaucer, The Tales of Canterbury, 441-53.
I Cf. The Gift, where the colors of "illuminated signs—ozone-blue and oporto-red" also
suggest 'V' and 'S,' that is Vladimir Sirin. See The Gift, 332 and Дар, 358.
77 See Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 35 and Другие берега, 27.
78 On authorial presence in Nabokov's oeuvre, see Tammi, Problems of Nabokov's
Poetics, 314-56 passim, and A. A. Dolinin «Цветная спираль Набокова», in Vladimir
Nabokov, Рассказы. Приглашение на казнь. Роман. Эссе, интервью, рецензии,
сотр. A. A. Dolinin and R. D. Timenchik (Moscow: Kniga, 1989), 455-57.
This child's red-and-blue ball [in the original Russian, it is called blue-and-red]
"reappears" several years later in Nabokov's play The Event. See Vladimir Nabokov,
The Man from the U.S.S.R. and Other Plays, trans. Dmitri Nabokov (New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 127; for the original, see Vladimir Nabokov, Пьесы

1()0 Delicate Markers
in the novel three times. First, in the episode in which Cincinnatus
accompanied by his jailers, walks the fortress corridor. Given its infernal
labyrinthine configuration, the reencountered "design of dampness on the
wall, looking like some dreadful ribby horse" (E41/R52), not unlike the
one used to drive Cincinnatus to the place of execution, and the occa-
sional burnt-out bulb (in Russian, the adjective is мертвая, that is
"dead"), the corridor creates a gruesome impression. This impression is
suddenly interrupted by a very bright picture: "At one spot, where an
unexpected and inexplicable sunbeam fell from above and glowed mistily
as it broke on the eroded flagstones, Emmie, the director's daughter, in
a bright checkered frock and checkered socks... was bouncing a ball,
rhythmically against the wall" (ibid.). Emmie's checkered attire in this
her first appearance in the novel foreshadows her connection to M'sieur
Pierre, later described as "all in stripes" (E59/R68), and to "this whole
terrible, striped world" (E91/R96) around Cincinnatus. M'sieur Pierre
likewise first appears before Cincinnatus in a "shaft of sunlight falling on
him from above" (E59/R68), which creates a deceptively exhilarating
impression of him. These visual links are supported by an auditory one:
the rhythmic, bouncing sound of the ball, later described with the
woodpecker-like ток-ток sound, that is also associated with M'sieur
Pierre (see Chapter 3).
Several days later Cincinnatus again sees Emmie with the ball at that
same spot in the fortress corridor. This time an explanation for the earlier
"inexplicable sunbeam" is given:
Ahead, in a flood of pale light, Emmie was bouncing a ball against the wall.
At this point the passage was wide, and at first it seemed to Cincinnatus that
the left wall contained a large, deep window, through which all that strange addi-
tional light was flowing.... No, it was only the semblance of a window; actually
it was a glazed recess, a showcase, and it displayed in it false depth—yes, of
course, how could one help but recognize it!—a view of the Tamara Gardens.
This landscape, daubed in several layers of distance, executed in blurry green
hues and illuminated by concealed bulbs, was reminiscent not so much of a
terrarium or some model of theatrical scenery as of the backdrop in front of
(Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1990), 104. And in Nabokov's first English novel, The Real Life
of Sebastian Knight (writ. 1939, publ. 1941), the narrator says: "The child came up to
me and silently showed me a new red-and-blue pencil." See Vladimir Nabokov, The
Real Life ofSebastian Knight (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1941), 142.

Man of Letters Revisited
which a wind orchestra toils and puffs. Everything was reproduced fairly accu-
rately as far as grouping and perspective was concerned, and, were it not for the
drab colors, the stirless treetops and the torpid lighting, one could slit one's eyes
and imagine oneself gazing through an embrasure, from this very prison, at those
very gardens. (E75-76/R82-83)
Emmie's bouncing the ball thus before this pitiful parody of the Tamara
Gardens, is designed to forewarn Cincinnatus against his erroneous per-
ception of the Gardens as the ultimate там /there, against his false hopes
that the girl will liberate him from the prison, against his perception of
M'sieur Pierre as a fellow inmate and, in general, against the fallacious-
ness of the whole world around him, "all of this theatrical, pathetic stuff'
(E204/R200), of which he becomes aware only toward the end of the
Somewhat earlier in the novel, the same ball rolls into Cincinnatus's
cell as though on its own:
Just then, silently and not very fast, a red-and-blue ball rolled in through the
door, followed one leg of a right triangle straight under the cot, disappeared for
an instant, thumped against the chamber pot, and rolled out along the other
cathetus—that is, toward Rodion, who all without noticing it, happened to kick
it as he took a step; then, following the hypotenuse, the ball departed into the
same chink through which it had entered. (E66/R75)
Here the red-and-blue ball is most manifestly a sign of authorial presence.
Rolling "silently and not very fast," as in a slow-motion film, the ball is
meant, as it were, to alert the protagonist to the importance of its
appearance.80 This chink, through which the ball enters and departs, is
supposed to intimate to the sleeping-not sleeping Cincinnatus that he will
be liberated from captivity by his creator and not by "a little girl" when
79 Cf. the narrator's remark in The Gift that the name Tamara "would have better suited the
doll." See The Gift, 45 and Дар, 40. Later, Nabokov apparently changed his mind about
the name when in his memoirs he gave it to his first love, Valentina Shul'gin. See
Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 229-41. For a discussion of the fallaciousness of the Tamara
Gardens, see Chapter 5.
Cf. Nabokov's stage-directions for Act One of The Event "At first the stage is empty.
Then a red-and-blue child's ball appears from the right and rolls slowly across."
Nabokov, The Man from the U.S.S.R. and Other Plays, 127 and Пьесы, 104. Also cf.
me "smooth movement of slow-motion film" and "Lolita in slow motion advancing
toward Humbert's gifts." See The Enchanter, 61 and The Annotated Lolita, 316.

1()0 Delicate Markers
'the door is ajar" (E61/R70), as earlier suggested by the alluring
draw ings in the book catalogue. This also foreshadows Cincinnatus's own
discovery of "the little crack in life, where it broke off, where it had been
once soldered to something else, something genuinely alive, important
and vast" (E205/R200), that crack through which he escapes at the end of
the novel, to join those "beings akin to him" (E223/R218).
This idea of an escape through a chink or crack reverberates in
Nabokov's last novel. Look at the Harlequins! (1974); the allusion to
Invitation to a Beheading is signaled by the word 'beheading' and by a
bilingual pun, since the English word "torpor" is phonetically reminiscent
of the Russian топор (an "ax"):
Error meant instant retribution—beheading by a giant or worse; the right guess,
per contra, would allow me to escape to an enchanting region situated just
beyond the gap I had to wriggle through in the thorny riddle, a region resem-
bling in its idyllic abstraction those little landscapes engraved as suggestive
vignettes—a brook, a bosquet—next to capital letters of weird, ferocious shape
such as a Gothic В beginning a chapter in old books for easily frightened
children. But how could I know in my torpor and panic that this was the simple
solution, that the brook and the boughs and the beauty of the Beyond all began
with the initial of Being?
A chapter later, in the novel poem «Влюбленность» ("Being in
Love,") Nabokov employs the key words "chink" and "ajar" when
speaking about потусторонность ("hereafter")—the leitmotif of his
I See Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! (Hew York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 16
and 25-26. This latter chink-crack-ajar connection has been noted by Gennady
Barabtarlo in his "Within and Without Cincinnatus's Cell: Reference Gauges in
Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading," Slavic Review49 (1990): 396. Cf. also Leona
Toker's discussion of the-door-ajar imagery in King, Queen, Knave in her Nabokov, 60.

Christian Tradition and Iconography
Night falls. He has been executed. From Golgotha
the crowd descends and winds between the olive
trees, like a slow serpent; and mothers watch as
John downhill into the mist, with urgent words,
escorts gray, haggard Mary.
—Vladimir Nabokov, "The Mother"
Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty
beastly, but I really don't care, they are outside
my inner self like the mournful monsters of a
cathedral facade—demons placed there merely to
show that they have been booted out.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions
Students of Invitation to a Beheadinghave long noted that the novel
contains references to well-known Christian motifs, from the New
Testament and later Christian iconography. It was perhaps Julian
Moynahan who first observed such a motif in the ending of Invitation to
a Beheading, "here these mysterious vocalists rather suggest the celestial
choir gathered to greet the saved soul as it enters the Everlasting through
the gates of death."1
1 See Julian Moynahan, "A Russian Preface to Nabokov's Beheading," Novel 1 (1967):
15. For a detailed discussion of this subject in the novel, see Shapiro, «Христианские
мотивы, их иконография и символика, в романе Владимира Набокова
«Приглашение на казнь»». For more recent references to Christian motifs in the novel,
see Tammi, "Invitation to a Decoding. Dostoevskij as Subtext in Nabokov's Priglasenie
nakazn'" 69; Svetlana Pol'skaia, «Комментарий к рассказу В. Набокова «Облако,
озеро, башня»», Scando-Slavica 35 (1989): 117-18, and Buhks, «Эшафот в
хрустальном дворце: О романе Вл. Набокова Приглашение на казну, 828-30. For
| discussion of the Devil theme in Nabokov's oeuvre, with particular attention to
Invitation to a Beheading, see Irena and Omry Ronen, "'Diabolically Evocative': An
Inquiry into the Meaning of a Metaphor," Slavics Hierosolymitana 5-6 (1981): 371-86.
For a somewhat different, Gnostic, interpretation of the novel, which in my view does
not contradict but rather complements the one presented here, see Davydov, "Teksty-
matreski" Vladimira Nabokovaand Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld.

1()0 Delicate Markers
Salient among these references are certain details linking the destiny
of its protagonist-prisoner Cincinnatus to those of John the Baptist and
Jesus Christ/ and other details linking the characters around him led by
his antipode and executioner, the Devil-like M'sieur Pierre, to the Forces
of Evil.
Nabokov's immense erudition regarding the iconography of saints
particularly John the Baptist, is attested to by H. Peter Kahn, a painter
and Cornell Professor of Fine Arts, who was commissioned to make
stained glass windows in the chapel of St. John's Episcopalian Church in
downtown Ithaca, New York. Kahn recalls that Nabokov "recited fifty-
five sainted Johns, in that sort of order in which he loved to categorize.
He told about the main saints, and the minor saints, and the banished
saints, and the Popes that were saints, and so on and so on. Actually we
had two windows in that little chapel, and there are two major St. Johns.
One of them was apparently St. John the Baptist, and the other was St.
John the Evangelist. And Nabokov knew all the attributes, and the
symbols that are associated with these two saints."3
Cincinnatus's tragic end, similar to that of John the Baptist, the
evangelical prophet, is already signaled by the novel's title. Although the
original Russian title reads Приглашение на казнь, that is Invitation to
an Execution (phrasing that in English involves an "unpleasant duplica-
tion of the suffix"), Nabokov states in the Foreword to the English edition
that "Priglashenie na otsechenie golovi ('Invitation to a Decapitation')
was what 1 really would have said in my mother tongue, had I not been
stopped by a similar stutter" (E5).
According to the Gospels and other Christian sources, John the Baptist, Christ, and
numerous martyrs were imprisoned before their execution. Furthermore, one of Christ's
epiphets is the Almighty Prisoner. See, for example, V. A. Zhukovskii, «О молитве.
Письмо к H. В. Гоголю», in his Полное собрание сочинений, 12 vols. (St. Peters-
burg: A. F. Marks, 1902), 10: 78.
John the Baptist is traditionally considered the first among the saints of the New
Testament. In the fine arts, especially of the Renaissance, there are innumerable
depictions of this prophet, saint, and forerunner of Christ, including many of his
See The Achievements of Vladimir Nabokov. Essays, Studies, Reminiscences, and
Stones tram the Cornell Nabokov Festival, ed. George Gibian and Stephen Jan Parker
(Ithaca: Center for International Studies, Cornell University, 1984), 229.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

Another detail that suggests a John-the-Baptist connection is the time
of the year—the end of summer—in which the action takes place. The
novel's twenty chapters span almost a three-week period. Thus in the
penultimate chapter, on the day of execution, M'sieur Pierre says to Cin-
cinnatus: "Good heavens, my friend, you have had nearly three weeks to
prepare yourself' (E207/R202). In chapter 16, three days prior to the
execution, we learn that Emmie has left town (see E171/R169) to return
to school, of which she was speaking two chapters and two days earlier
(see E149/R149). Since school commonly starts on September 1, Cincin-
natus's execution must be taking place at the very end of August. This
becomes especially significant when we recall that August 29 is observed
by both the Greek and the Roman Catholic Churches as the day of John
the Baptist's beheading.4 In all likelihood it was this date that the
executioner M'sieur Pierre marked on his wall calendar with a "crimson
numeral," as the anticipated festive occasion (see E161/R160).5 The red
color of the numeral also suggests Cincinnatus's blood, reminiscent of
the blood of Christ, and at the same time, apparently has a diabolic
connotation, symbolizing "the color of Judas, who betrayed that blood."6
The demonic nature of the world around Cincinnatus is also conveyed
through the seal of the city, "a furnace with wings" (an allusion to hell?),
with the "red letters" of its heading (E14/R28), as well as through the
prison library catalogue which contains "numerous titles [which] were
4 See I. P. Kalinskii, Церковно-народный месяцеслов (St. Petersburg, 1877; rept.
Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1990), 163-64 and F. G. Holweck, A
Biographical Dictionary of the Saints (Si. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1924),541.
5 Cf. the Biblical connotation in the opening lines of Nabokov's poem "Christmas"
(«Рождество», 1921): «Мой календарь полу-опалый I пунцовой цифрою зацвел»
("My half-defoliated calendar has blossomed with the crimson numeral"). For the
original, see Nabokov, Стихи, 55. We may also recall that earlier in the novel M'sieur
Pierre refers to his first meeting with Cincinnatus as "a happy day, a red-letter day"
6 Cf. Moncure Daniel Conway, Demonology and Devil-Lore, 2 vols. (New York: Holt,
1879), 2: 284. Cf. also Gogol's "Terrible Vengeance" («Страшная месть», 1832), in
which "the letters in the holy book are dripping with blood" to indicate that "there has
never been such a sinner in the world" as the sorcerer (Complete Tales, 1: 168 and
Полное собрание сочинений, 1: 277).

Delicate Markers
inserted in red ink" (E54/R64-65).7
In the course of the almost three weeks Cincinnatus barely touches
his dinners (see E15 and 113/R29 and 116) and merely has an occasional
hot chocolate and toast, or soup, or supper (see E25, 48 and 54/R37, 58
and 64). His near fasting can also be related to commemorations of John
the Baptist. In accordance with Russian folk customs, the day of John the
Baptist's death, which was widely known as Иван Постный (John of the
Fast), was observed in fasting—even fish was not allowed and alcohol
was of course strictly prohibited. Accordingly, at the preexecution supper
Cincinnatus does not touch fish and refuses to drink wine.
On that commemorative date it was also considered sinful to deal
with round-shaped objects reminiscent of a human head. Rodrig's wife's
present, "a dozen yellow plums in a round basket" (E33/R45), which
Cincinnatus leaves untouched (see E39/R50), plays up the same
association; it is clearly intended by his tormentors as a cruel double
reminder of his forthcoming fate.8 A similar vicious hint can be perceived
in the "heaps of apples each as big as a child's head" (E185/R182) at the
supper on the eve of Cincinnatus's execution.9 This is especially sug-
gestive if we recall that on several occasions Cincinnatus is compared by
' Incidentally, the seal of the city echoes the blazon of the Rukavishnikovs, Nabokov's
maternal ancestors, "a stylized version of a domna (primitive blast furnace)." See
Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 65-66.
1 Another example of M'sieur Pierre's and his accomplices' cruelty toward Cincinnatus
is their arriving to take him to the scaffold in the daytime, while Cincinnatus had been
convinced "that it must happen at dawn" (E207/R202). That this should be perceived as
cruel becomes clear from Glory (Подвиг, 1931), where Martin Edelweiss, the prota-
gonist of the novel, thinks that "the custom of performing executions at dawn seemed
charitable" because at that hour "a man has control over himself." See Vladimir Nabo-
kov, Glory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), 182 and Подвиг (Paris: Sovremennye
Zapiski, 1932; rept. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1974), 209.
* This phrase evokes Gogol's "The Overcoat," where the robber of Akakii Akakievich's
overcoat "puts a fist die size of a clerk's head against his [Akakii Akakievich's—G. S.]
lips", see Gogol, The Complete Tales, 2: 322; and Полное собрание сочинений, 3:
161. For a detailed discussion of the connection between Nabokov's novel and Gogol's
tale, see Shapiro, «Конфликт между протагонистом и окружающим его миром в
повести Н В. Гоголя «Шинель» и в романе В. В. Набокова «Приглашение на
КАЗНЬ»; for a discussion of Gogolian allusions in the novel, see Chapter 4.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

his tormentors to a child.
Russian custom also interdicted touching on that date any sharp
object reminiscent of the ax with which the prophet was executed.10 But
to torment Cincinnatus, his wardens time and again demonstratively do
exactly this. For example, when Cincinnatus finds himself in Rodrig's
dining room, to which Emmie has brought him instead of the much
hoped-for escape to freedom, the prison director points to him "with his
fruit knife" (E167/R166) where to sit down, and shortly afterwards, again
points to him "with the knife" (E167/R167), when suggesting he look at
the pictures in the photohoroscope album. The fruit knife here seems
especially significant when we recall that earlier, at a low point in his
confrontation with his tormentors, Cincinnatus admits: "I have grown so
limp and soggy that they will be able to do it with a fruit knife" (Е124/
R127).11 Later in the supper episode, Cincinnatus himself plays with a
sharp tool, "unhurriedly, diligently and intently—as if seeking the solu-
tion to a problem—balancing his fish knife in various ways" (Е182/
R180). This suggests that he is fearfully thinking here about the tragic end
awaiting him—precisely as his tormentors want him to.
If Cincinnatus is linked to John the Baptist, it is Emmie to whom the
role of Salome is assigned. While, apart from its Latinate nature (evoking
the Roman Empire epoch), the protagonist's name does not evoke any
close associations with the evangelical prophet, her name, especially in
the original Russian—Эммочка-does relate to the name of the Judean
princess (Саломея in Russian), of which it is a partial anagram. The
names of Emmie's father, Rodrig/Rodion, are partial anagrams of
Salome's stepfather, Herod, or Ирод in the Russian spelling. (It is
noteworthy that the names Emma and Salome appear in the works of
Gustave Flaubert, one of Nabokov's most favorite writers, the one as the
protagonist of his novel Madame Bovary [1856] and the other as a
10 On the Russian folk beliefs and customs in commemoration of John the Baptist's
execution, see S. V. Maksimov, Нечистая, неведомая и крестная сила (St. Petersburg:
R. Golike and A. Vil'borg, 1903), 494-97.
Cf. the discussion of this episode in Berdjis, Imagery in Vladimir Nabokov's Last
Russian Novel, 115-16.

Delicate Markers
character in his novella Herodias[\%ll].)n
Besides the names, Emmie's association with Salome is manifest in
her dancing. She is introduced as "a mere child, but with the marble
calves of a little ballerina" (E41/R52), and her being a dancer is repeat-
edly emphasized in the course of the novel. For example, "she abruptly
stopped with a dancer's magic precision" (E48/R58) and "she hopped off
the cot and ran around the room, as ballerinas run, at a fast striding pace
shaking her hair, and then she leaped, as though flying, and finally
pirouetted in one spot, flinging out a multitude of arms" (E149/R149).
Herodias's dancing daughter is mentioned in the Gospels (Matt. 14,
11 and Mark, 6,22 and 29), where she is called a "little girl" (korasion
in the original Greek).13 (Her name Salome first appears in Josephus
Flavius's The Antiquities of the Jews [18, 5.4].)14 The Gospels' descrip-
tion of her as a young girl undoubtedly influenced later iconography.
This can be seen in such works as the mid-fourteenth-century anonymous
mosaic Salome (Venice, San Marco Baptistry) and the mid-fifteenth-
century painting by Giovanni di Paolo The Head of John the Baptist
Brought to Herod (London, National Gallery).15 In these works of art,
15 It is also curious that the fate of Nabokov's later novel Lolita (1955), with another little
girl, perhaps Emmie's 'distant kin' if not her 'direct descendant,' was similar to that of
Flaubert's, a fact which Nabokov did not fail to notice. In his Cornell lectures, he
elliptically alludes to this similarity:
The book [Madame Bovary—G. S.] is concerned with adultery and contains
situations and allusions that shocked the prudish philistine government of
Napoleon III. Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for
obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be
obscene. I am glad to say that Flaubert won his case. That was exactly a
hundred years ago. In our days, our times.... But let me keep to my subject.
See Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 125.
13 See the bilingual The Student's New Testament, trans. Edgar J. Goodspeed (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1954), 64 and 166; for a discussion of her child-identity,
see Rene Girard, "Scandal and the Dance . Salome in the Gospel of Mark," New Literary
History 15 (1983-84): 311-24.
14 See Josephus Flavius, The Works, trans. William Winston (Peabody, Mass.:
Hendnckson Publishers, 1987), 485.
15 Nabokov could familiarize himself with Salome's iconography generally, and

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

Salome is also portrayed as blond—which is the color of Emmie's hair.
While in the Gospels Salome is characterized as a blind tool in the
hands of Herodias, and her dancing is presented merely as means by
which her vicious mother succeeds in murdering John the Baptist, the
postevangelical Christian tradition has long viewed dancing itself as a
malevolent, Devil-pleasing activity. Thus, John Chrysostom (ca.
354-407), when speaking in his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew about
the feast of Herod and Salome's performance there (Homily 48),
exclaims: "O diabolical revel! О satanic spectacle! О lawless dancing!"
The Byzantine clergyman is even more explicit when he asserts, "For
where dancing is, there is the evil one" and argues "For it is not a head in
a charger that the dancers of our time ask, but the souls of them that sit at
the feast.'"6 This attitude to dancing is manifest throughout Christian
writings, and particularly in exempla—medieval religious tales. Among
these highly moralistic stories we find one about dancers struck by
lightning, another about a woman who is carried off to hell and branded
there, because she is fond of dancing on holidays. She is liberated only
when she promises never to dance again.17
A similar attitude toward dancing can be found in Russian culture,
strongly influenced by that of Byzantium and particularly by the
specifically with that of the San Marco mosaic, in Hugo Daffner, Salome: Ihre Gestalt
in Geschichte undKunst. Dichtimg—BildendeKunst- Musik (Munich: Hugo Schmidt,
1912), 73. Giovanni di Paolo's painting as part of the Martin A. Ryerson collection was
preserved in the Chicago Art Institute until 1944, when it went to the London National
Gallery. Therefore, Nabokov could not have seen the painting itself when writing
Invitation to a Beheading. He could, however, see a high-quality black-and-white
reproduction of it in Lionello Venturi, Pitture italiane in America (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli,
1931), pi. CXLI; or in the English translation of the album, Italian Paintings in America,
3 vols. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1933), 1: pi. 170.
From the sixteenth century on, Salome was commonly portrayed as a maiden or young
woman, rather than a little girl.
16 See Saint [John] Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew in A Select
Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 14 vols., ed.
Philip Schaff (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1886-90), 10:298,299,
and 301.
" See Frederic C. Tubach, Index Exemplorum. A Handbook of Medieval Religious Tales
(Helsinki: Akademia Scientiarum Fennica, 1969), 114, nos. 1423 and 1427.

1()0 Delicate Markers
preachings of John Chrysostom, whose popularity among Eastern Slavs
can be traced back as early as the eleventh century.18 Works of J0hn
Chrysostom figured prominently in the so-called Emerald (Измарагд)
collections, which were widespread in Russia up to the early twentieth
century. In one such Emerald we find "A Lay on Games and Dancing,"
attributed to John Chrysostom, which proclaims: "A dancing woman is
called the Satan's bride, and the Devil's mistress, and the demon's
Gregory the Philosopher, the Bishop of Belgorod (late 12th century),
was clearly influenced by John Chrysostom when he dubs a female
dancer "Satan's bride, the Devil's spouse."20 More than four centuries
later, we find John Chrysostom's formula implied by the anonymous
author of A Writing on the Death and Burial of Prince Skopin-Shuiskii
(Писание о преставлении и погребении князя Скопина-Шуйского,
са. 1612). The phrase at the beginning of this recount, "the bride for Satan
is prepared," alludes to the feast of Herod and foreshadows the death of
the protagonist, who is cast in the role of John the Baptist, while the role
of Herodias is assigned to Ekaterina Shuiskii, the wife of Skopin-
Shuiskii's uncle Dmitri and the daughter of Maliuta Skuratov, the
nefarious chief of Ivan IV's secret police.21 This dance-condemning
formula is also evident in the engraving by the eighteenth-century artist
18 See G. P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1966), 2: 30 and 33; E. Ё. Granstrem, «Иоанн Златоуст в древней
русской и южнославянской письменности (XI-XV вв.)», Труды Отдела Древне-
русской Литературы 35 (1980): 345-75.
" Измарагд, 2 vols. (Moscow: Moskovskaia staroobriadcheskaia knigopechatnia, 1911),
P See Т. V. Chertoritskaia, сотр., Красноречие Древней Руси (XI-XVII вв.) (Moscow:
Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1987), 284.
*' The author erroneously calls her Mariia, which was the name of Ekaterina's late sister
and the wife of Boris Godunov. For the text, see L. A. Dmitriev and D. S. Likhachev,
сотр., Памятники литературы Древней Руси. Конец XVI-начало XVII веков
(Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1987), 60 and 557.
The anonymous author suggests here an analogy with the evangelical motif, not a
replication: Skopin-Shuiskii was believed to be poisoned at the banquet, and his alleged
murderer's despicable lineage was designed to corroborate the charge.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

Andrei Tikhomirov The Ladders Leading to Heaven and Hell, in which
the caption for the 37th rung of the ladder leading to hell reads, "Dancing
is the bride of Satan himself."22
In Nabokov's novel, this ancient metaphoric dance-condemning
formula is subtly evoked by one of the photohoroscope pictures. We may
recall that M'sieur Pierre has concocted the photohoroscope for Emmie
as the reward for her participation in the vicious ploy designed to mock
Cincinnatus's illusory hopes of escape. In this picture, Emmie appears "in
her bridal veil, the groom at her side was tall and slender, but had the
round little face of M'sieur Pierre" (E170/R169).23 Given M'sieur
Pierre's fiendish nature, Emmie can here be viewed as embodying the old
formula "dancing is the Devil's bride."24
In the mid-nineteenth century, Salome reemerged in literature and the
fine arts. Heine, who with his Atta Troll (1843) was most likely responsi-
ble for the revival of this evangelical legend, endowed it with a new
dimension: Herodias, whom he conflated with her daughter Salome,
demanded John the Baptist's head in retaliation for her frustrated passion
toward the prophet. Others adapting the story would portray the
evangelical princess as a peevish adolescent, as did Gustave Flaubert in
his novella Herodias,; emphasize her blonde hair, as did Stephane
Mallarme in his poem Herodiade (writ. 1869, publ. 1898); or focus on her
sudden and unrequited obsession with the prophet, as did Oscar Wilde in
his play Salome (1893).25 Wilde's image of Salome was strongly influ-
I See D. A. Rovinskii, Русские народные картинки, 5 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1881-93),
23 It seems that with this photohoroscope Nabokov pokes fun at photomontage, and
specifically at the Bolshevik and the Nazi regimes which used it for propaganda
purposes. For a discussion on the subject, see Dawn Ades, Photomontage (London:
Thames and Hudson, 1976) and Matthew Teitelbaum, ed., Montage and Modem Life:
1919-1942(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
I On Salome and John the Baptist's executioner as a couple, see Eva Kuryluk, Salome and
Judas in the Cave of Sex (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987), 197-98.
"5 The Salome motif is also present, albeit less conspicuously, in Baudelaire's Lesfleurs
du mal, for example in "Le serpent qui danse," in which the lyrical hero speaks of a
female dancer with the "head of a child" ("tete d'enfant"), not unlike Emmie's, whose
dancing makes him feel like "My dreamy soul weighs anchor I Toward distant skies"

7 Aleksandr Blok, The Journey to Italy, trans Lucy E. Vogel (Ithaca: Cornell University
Delicate Markers
enced by Flaubert's novella and by Gustave Moreau's well-known paint-
ings on the subject, particularly by his The Apparition (Paris, Louvre
1876), in which the young princess is depicted with golden-blond hair '
In Russian culture of the early twentieth century, the Salome motif
was also quite prominent. For example, in his tale "On Herodias's Mad-
ness, How the Whirlwind Got Created on Earth" («О безумии
иеродиадином, как на земле зародился вихрь», 1906), Aleksei
Remizov portrays Herodias's unrequited love for John the Baptist, a
version reminiscent of Heine's Atta Tro/J.26
Aleksandr Blok employs the motif in his second poem on Venice
(«Венеция 2», 1909):
В тени дворцовой галлереи,
Чуть озаренная луной,
Таясь, проходит Саломея
С моей кровавой головой.
Все спит—дворцы, каналы, люди,
Лишь призрака скользящий шаг,
Лишь голова на черном блюде
Глядит с тоской в окрестный мрак.
(In the shadow of the palace arcade,
In the moon's faint light,
Stealthily Salome passes by
With my bloody head.
All is asleep—palaces, canals, people,
Only the gliding footstep of the phantom,
Only the head on the black platter
Gazes with anguish into the surrounding gloom.)27
("Mon ame reveuse appareille / Pour un ciel lointain"). Cf. Nichola Anne Haxell, "Le
Serpent Qui Danse: Woman as Dancer in the Works of Baudelaire, Mallarm6 and
Colette," Romance Studies 19 (1991): 117-24.
24 On Remizov's tale, see S. N. Dotsenko, «Два подхода к фольклору: С. Городецкий
и А. Ремизов», Пути развития русской литературы (Ученые записки Тартуского
университета 883), ed. I. A. Chernov (Tartu: Izdatel'stvo Tartuskogo universiteta,
1990), 123-25.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

As Blok experts maintain, this image of Salome was inspired by the
mosaic of the San Marco Baptistry.28
A year earlier, Nikolai Evreinov's staging of Oscar Wilde's Salome
in the Vera Kommissarzhevskii Theater in St. Petersburg was an event
much spoken about. Nabokov, who was only nine years old at the time,
certainly could not have attended the dress rehearsal of the play, after
which it was forbidden for performance. But he could familiarize himself
with the play at some point in his boyhood, for it was in his father's
library.29 He could also read accounts of this dress rehearsal, particularly
in the book published in 1911 in memoriam of Vera Kommissarzhevskii,
and could see there a reproduction of Nikolai Kalmakov's costume
design for Salome, in which the evangelical dancer is depicted with a
long wave of golden-blond hair.30 And, finally, some twenty years later,
Nabokov could hear about this production from Evreinov himself, at
whose Parisian home he dined in November of 1932; that is, less than two
years before writing Invitation to a Beheading;31
Almost ten years after Evreinov's attempt to produce Wilde's Salome
was thwarted by the censorship, the play was staged by Aleksandr Tairov
in his Kamernyi Theater in Moscow; the premiere took place on October
22,1917.32 Nabokov certainly did not see Tairov's production: he never
visited Moscow, and to the best of my knowledge, Kamernyi Theater did
not perform the play in St. Petersburg that fateful fall. Nabokov left St.
Petersburg for the Crimea on November 15, less than four weeks after the
Press, 1973), 64. For the original, see Собрание сочинений, 3: 103.
1 See Vladimir Orlov, Гамаюн. Жизнь Александра Блока (Leningrad: Sovetskii
pisatel', 1980), 407.
See Систематический каталог библиотеки Владимира Дмитриевича Набокова.
Первое продолжение, 15, по. 2697.
30 See P. P. Gaideburov and N. F. Skarskaia, eds., Памяти Веры Федоровны Коммис-
саржевской (Алконост 1) (St. Petersburg, 1911), following 166.
31 See Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 391-92.
" V. P. Lapshin, Художественная жизнь Москвы и Петрограда в 1917 году (Moscow:
Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1983), 406.

1()0 Delicate Markers
play's premiere, never to return to Russia." He could, however, read re-
views in the press.
Although its popularity had peaked at the turn of the century, the
Salome motif was still quite prevalent in the 1920s and even in the 1930s,
at the time of Nabokov's writing the novel.34 In the early 1920s in Berlin,
an emigre troupe called the Russian Travelling Art Theater performed
Wilde's Salome on September 22-24, 1921.35 At that time Nabokov was
still in Berlin; he would leave for Cambridge on October 5.36 Himself an
aspiring playwright, he most likely took this opportunity to see the play
which had caused such a sensation in his childhood. And in any case, he
certainly read an extensive review of the production in The Rudder; the
newspaper that his father, Vladimir Nabokov senior, founded and edited,
and that Nabokov himself, under his newly-adopted pen name Sirin (see
33 For the date of Nabokov's departure from St. Petersburg, see Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov:
The Russian Years, 134.
34 On this almost century-long fascination with the Salome theme, see John S. White, The
Salome Motive (New York: Eloquent Press Corporation, 1947); Helen Grace Zagona,
The Legend ofSalome (Paris: Librairie Minard, 1960); Patricia R. Kellogg, "The Myth
of Salome in Symbolist Literature and Art," Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1975;
Rita Severi, "Oscar Wilde, La Femme Fatale and the Salomd Myth," in Proceedings of
the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, 2 vols., ed.
Anna Balakian (New York: Garland, 1985), 2:458-63; Rodney Shewan, "The Artist and
the Dancer in Three Symbolist Salomes" Perspective: Art, Literature, Participation, ed.
Mark Neuman and Michael Payne (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1986),
102-30; Robert C. Schweik, "Oscar Wilde's Salome, the Salome Theme in Late
European Art, and a Problem of Method in Cultural History," Twilight of Dawn, ed. 0.
M. Brack, Jr. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), 123-36 and 223-25, and
Anthony Pym, "The Importance of Salome: Approaches to a Fin de Siecle Theme,"
French Forum 14(1989): 311-22.
35 See the production advertisement in Руль, August 28, 1921,4.
ч For this information 1 am indebted to Brian Boyd in a personal letter of May 29,1992.
Nabokov's presence in Berlin at the time of this production is corroborated by the date
and location (September 23, 1921, Berlin) under his poem "Christmas." See Nabokov,
Стихи, 55. Nabokov's having seen a Russian Emigre production of Salome in the early
1920s, most likely the one in question, is confirmed by his wife, Vera, who remarked
of a certain Russian 6migr6 actress: "You saw her as Salome before you knew me."
Field. Nabokov: His Life in Part, 159. Nabokov met his future wife in 1923. See Boyd,
Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 210-11.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
Chapter 1), regularly contributed to, as well as another review in Firebird,
a Berlin literary and artistic emigre periodical of 1920s, in which
Nabokov frequently published his poetry.37 When in Berlin, Nabokov
could also see Richard Strauss's opera based on Wilde's play, or at least
could come across advertisements for it, as it was frequently performed
In Invitation to a Beheading, there is a distinct reminiscence of
Wilde's play with its famous stage direction:"[Salome dances the dance
of the seven veils.]."39 Following his rather unsuccessful "circus" perfor-
mance, M'sieur Pierre sends Cincinnatus a note with "a fleecily curling
script, elegant punctuation marks, signature like a seven-veil dance"
(El 18). The last phrase (which in Russian is somewhat less conspicu-
ous—«подпись, как танец с покрывалом», that is, literally "signature
like a dance with a veil" [R120]) intricately allies M'sieur Pierre with
Emmie the dancer already at this early stage in the novel.
The turn-of-the-century perception of Salome, especially as in
Wilde's play, exerted considerable influence on Nabokov's depiction of
Emmie as "a wild [note the pun!—G. S.], restless child" (E47) seized
with unrequited emotion. In the chapter before the one in which she
betrays Cincinnatus, "she snatched his fingers and began pressing them
to her quick lips" (E148/R148). Earlier in the novel, in the family visit
episode, Emmie is the only one to display strong emotions of grief and
I See Iu. Ofrosimov, «Театр и музыка. Саломея», Руль, September 25,1921,6; G. R.,
«К постановке «Саломеи»», Жар-птица 3 (1921): 2-4.
I Between 1906 and 1933, the opera was performed in Berlin 285 times [Nabokov lived
in Berlin from 1922 to 1937]. See Alfred Loewenberg, Annals of Opera, 1597-1940
(Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978), col. 1267, Furthermore, Salome's dance
of the seven veils, a memorable episode from the opera, was sometimes performed
separately in concerts across Europe. See, for example, Mikhail Karpovich (incidentally,
I Nabokov friend since the early 1930s), «Мое знакомство с Мандельштамом», in
Воспоминания о серебряном веке, сотр. Vadim Kreid (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo
"Respublika," 1993), 265. Nabokov could not have seen the opera or its fragments in
his native Russia, where it was first performed in the St. Petersburg Mariinskii Theater
°nly in June, 1924. See V. G. Karatygin, «Саломея», Жизнь искусства 25 (1924): 6-7.
Oscar Wilde, Salome, trans. Lord Alfred Bounce Douglas, in his The Complete Works,
12 vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), 9:167.

Itelkate Markers
svmpstfev toward Cincmnatus. in contrast to the indifference of his entire
tamih. sschidmg N farther "pale, tear-stained, her nose pink and her
raoutb wet and quivering; she was silent but suddenly, with a slight
crackfe. she rose on her toes, twined her hot arms around his neck,
whispered moaberently and uttered a loud sob" (E106- R110-11). And
she specifically intimates to Cincinnatus that she will save him the next
day. To her suggestion "we'll run away and you'll marry me." Cincin-
natus responds ambiguously and reluctantly: "Maybe when you are a
little older only I already have one wife" (El49 R149). Cincinnatus's
lukewarm response to her proposal prompts jealous Emmie to call her
rival "a tk. old one" (ibid. > Her feelings hurt. Emmie, like Salome as
depicted m modernist literature, strikes back by delivering Cincinnatus
lo (be hands ofhis executioner. And the tea party, which puts an end to
Csicamams's hopes tor escape, can be perceived as a parody of the feast
of Herod (see E165-66 R165-66).
Thus, m his portrayal of Emmie. Nabokov drew on the image of
Salome as it had evolved throughout the centuries, from the Gospels to
day. Emmie is twelve years old and therefore close in age to 'the little
grf or the Gospels. She is likewise a blind tool in the hands of an adult,
m this case M'sieur Pierre, who masterminds and. with her assistance,
casks otfi the vicious ploy designed to torment Cincinnatus—to lure him
into erroneously believing that he will escape from the prison. With her
blood hair she also resembles the Salome of Late Medieval and Renais-
sance iconography, as reflected in the works of San Marco's anonymous
artist and of Giovanni di Paolo. Further, the longstanding condemnation
of dancing, that Devil-pleasing activity, is manifest in the photohoro-
scope. which visually realizes the old metapboric formula "dancing is the
Devil's bnde." And. finally, m accordance with the modernist image of
Salome. paracaJartv as it appears in Oscar Wilde's play, Nabokov por-
tm . s Emmie as a peevish adolescent as en gin g her unrequited love.
But what is the reason for Nabokov's evoking this evangelical story,
for bus ImkngCmcmnatus and John the Baptist? For one, this association
adds юйк tragic atmosphere of the novel . It also serv es as a bait for the
reader who anticipaaes that, like his evangelical predecessor, Cincinnatus
will be beheaded—only to be bewildered by the ambiguity of the novel's
ending. Additionally, it reinforces the reader's sense of Cincinnatus's
being a poet similar to John die Baptist, a prophet. Already in antiquity

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

poets were considered akin to prophets. Like prophets, who were viewed
as vessels of God, poets were perceived as containing the divine spark of
inspiration."0 In more recent times, this connection was manifest in the
specific conflation or juxtaposition of John the Baptist and Orpheus,
particularly favored by the Symbolists and their successors, who viewed
the mythical poet as artist as well as priest and martyr and perceived his
severed head as an expression of the pain associated with the creative
The link between an artist of another sort and John the Baptist can be
seen in Titian's Salome (Rome, Galleria Doria), where the painter en-
dows the prophet with his own features. Nabokov could become ac-
quainted with this idea of Titian as early as 1919 in Louis Hourticq's
book Youth of Titian (La jeunesse de Titien), quite popular at the time/1
In his painting, The Daughter of Herodias with the Head ofSt John the
Baptist, 1891 (Bern, Kunstmuseum), undoubtedly under Titian's influ-
ence, Arnold Bocklin, too, seems to endow John the Baptist with his own
features, as his self-portrait of the same period clearly demonstrates
(Basel, Kunstmuseum).43 Nabokov was certainty familiar with the works
of Bocklin, one of the most fashionable artists of his time. In Mary he
mentions Bocklin's painting The Island of the Dead, and in Glory he
refers to one of his numerous paintings on a marine subject, perhaps to
® For an extensive discussion of this, see James L. KussL ed, Poetry and Prophecy The
Beginnings of a Literary Tradition (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1990).
In Russian literature, Pushkin's poems "The Prophet" («Пророк», 1826) and "A Poet"
(«Поэт», 1827) come immediately to mind. For further discussion, see V. M Zhivov,
«Кощунственная поэзия в системе русской культуры конца XVIII-начала XIX
века», in Труды по знаковым системам 13 (1981): 56-91, esp. 70-83.
*' See Dorothy М. Kosinski, Orpheus in Nineteenth-CentmSymbolism (Aim Arbor
L'MI Research Press, 1989), 202-5.
See Louis Hourticq, La jeunesse de Titien (Paris: Libiairie Hachene, 1919), 138.
Titian's influence on Bocklin regarding the iconography of Salome with the head of
John the Baptist is mentioned in Rolf Andree, Arnold Bocklm, die Gemalde(base\ and
Munich: Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag, 1977), 493.1 am grateful to Luba Freedman for the
observation that Bocklin, like Titian before him, has endowed his John the Baptist with
his own, somewhat stylized, features.

1()0 Delicate Markers
Playing in the Waves.44
Nabokov could also come across a like transfer-of-identity in Oskar
Garvens's cartoon of Richard Strauss, drawn on the occasion of the
premiere of his opera Salome (1905). Garvens depicts Richard Strauss
holding his own head on a platter, thereby facetiously casting the
composer in the role of the prophet (Fig. 13). And finally, with regard to
a poet in particular, Blok's above-cited poem on Venice, where he
envisages his lyrical "F"s head carried past by Salome, involves a similar
projection.45 (It is noteworthy that on March 28, 1922, the evening of his
father's tragic death, Nabokov read to his mother from Blok's Italian
Verses [Итальянские стихи].)46
In Nabokov's oeuvre, there are at least three more examples of this
motif. One, pervaded with parodical overtones, appears in "Spring in
Fialta" («Весна в Фиальте», 1936). The story describes "an artist with an
impeccably bald though slightly chipped head, which he constantly
painted into his canvases (Salome with a bowling ball)." (In the English
translation, which first appeared in Nine Stories [ 1947], the parenthetical
44 See Nabokov, Mary; 36 and Машенька, 58; Glory, 138 and 187, and Подвиг, 59 and
214. Regarding the popularity of Bocklin's art, and particularly of his Island of the
Dead, among Russians from the late nineteenth century on and its reflection in
contemporaneous Russian literature, see Shcheglov, Романы И. Ильфа и Е. Петрова,
45 Written in 1909, the poem was first published in Аполлон 4 (1910); see Blok,
Собрание сочинений, 3: 529-30. For a discussion of the connection between John the
Baptist and the poet in Blok's "Venice 2" («Венеция 2»), see Gerald Pirog, Aleksandr
Blok ^Итальянские стихи; Confrontation and Disillusionment (Columbus: Slavica
Publishers, 1983), 58. In his later works, such as the Prologue to the poem Retribution
(Возмездие, 191&-21), published separately under the title "The People and the Poet"
(«Народ и поэт», 1914), Blok once again identifies the poet with the prophet:
«Вот—голову его на блюде / Царю плясунья подает» ("Here, his head on a platter
I The dancer is handing in to the king"). And then, immediately after this comparison,
goes on to depict the poet who «на эшафоте черном / Слагает голову свою» ("on the
black scaffold I Lays down his head"). See Blok, Собрание сочинений, 3: 302.
* See Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 191.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
Figure 13
Oskar Garvens
Caricature on Richard Strauss Р|СП11ел
of his Opera Salome(№)

1()0 Delicate Markers
phrase is omitted, and the preceding phrase, slightly altered, reads:
"which he constantly painted into his eye-and-guitar canvases.")47 The
image of the poet cast in the role of John the Baptist reverberates twenty
years later in the poem "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'" (1955): "What
is translation? On a platter / A poet's pale and glaring head."48 With this
imagery, which clearly echoes Blok's poem on Venice, Nabokov
expressed his opinion of verse translation as the murder of the poet by
mutilation of his text.49 The Salome motif is also evident in Lolita, in
which Humbert the narrator casts the title heroine in the role of the
evangelical princess, while casting himself in the duplicitous role of now
her royal step-father, now the beheaded prophet.50
Alongside the allusions to the tragic end of John the Baptist, the
novel abounds in references to the life of Christ. We are encouraged to
view the sufferings of Cincinnatus in the light of Christ's passion, death
and resurrection. (One wonders whether, while writing the novel,
Nabokov was mindful of the Passion cantata The Death of Jesus |Der Tod
Jesu, 1755] by his ancestor Carl Heinrich Graun [ca. 1703-59], which he
mentions in his Russian autobiography.51) This enhances the tragic
atmosphere of the novel and considerably affects its meaning, specifically
that of its ending. Furthermore, as with John the Baptist, this link
reinforces our perception of the protagonist as a poet. We may recall that
in Nabokov's evangelical poems, Christ appears as the one endowed with
poetic imagination.52 For example, in the poem "Through the Garden
47 Vladimir Nabokov, Весна в Фиальте (New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1956;
rept. Arm Arbor: Ardis, 1978), 21; The Stories, 417.
48 Nabokov, Poems and Problems, 175.
9 Cf. Nabokov's opinion on verse translation conveyed in Vera Nabokov's letter to Peter
Russell of March 12, 1958: "since a verse translation is inevitably a compromise, it
cannot claim to be a 'translation,' but is, at best, an imitation or (at its worst) a mutila-
tion of the original." Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters, 1940-1977(New York and
London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 252.
50 See Gavriel Shapiro, "Lolita Class List," Cahiers du Monde russe 37(1996): 326-27.
51 See Nabokov, Другие берега, 44.
я Again, with this idea, Nabokov echoes Blok's Italian Verses. Compare the line "Christ,

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
Christ Walked with His Disciples" («Садом шел Христос с учениками»,
1921). Nabokov describes how differently Christ and his disciples re-
spond to the sight of a dog's carcass. While their reaction is «Злой был
пес; и смерть его нага, / мерзостна» ("Evil was the dog; and its death
is naked, / loathsome"), Christ simply says «Зубы у него как жемчуга»
("Its teeth are like pearls").53
Let us begin with the circumstances of Cincinnatus's coming into the
world, which somewhat resemble Christ's miraculous birth. Conversation
between Cincinnatus and his mother Cecilia C. suggests this:
"why don't you tell me again the legend about my father. Can it be true that he
vanished into the dark of night, and you never found out who he was or where
he came from—it's strange..."
"Only his voice—I didn't see the face," she answered as softly as before.
"That's it, that's it, play up to me—I think perhaps we'll make him a
runaway sailor," dejectedly continued Cincinnatus, snapping his fingers and
pacing, pacing, "or a sylvan robber making a guest appearance in a public park.
Or a wayward craftsman, a carpenter... Come, quickly, think of something."
"You don't understand," she cried (in her excitement she stood up and
immediately sat down again). "It's true, I don't know who he was—a tramp, a
fugitive, anything is possible... But why can't you understand... yes, it was a
holiday, it was dark in the park, and I was still a child, but that's beside the point.
The important thing is that it was not possible to make a mistake! ., .Oh, can't
you understand?"
being tired of bearing the cross" from "Venice 1" («Венеция 1») to the opening lines of
the untitled poem in the cycle, "Art is the burden on the shoulders, / But how we, poets,
value life in its fleeting trifles!" Blok, Собрание сочинении, 3: 102 and 115. This
connection between the poet and Christ was noted in Pirog, Aleksandr Blok's
Итальянские стихи, 59.
53 Cf. Barry P. Scherr, "Poetry," in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, 618.
The poem first appeared under the title "A Legend (From an Apocryphal Story)"
(«Сказанье [из апокрифа].») See Руль, November 11,1921,4. Later Nabokov included
the poem in his collection The Cluster (Гроздь, 1922) with the dedication "On the
Anniversary of Dostoevskii's Death [sic]" («На годовщину смерти Достоевского»).
Christ's artistic tendencies are implied in the earlier quoted poem "The Mother" (1925),
which mentions that as a child he "baked mud sparrows." See Nabokov, Poems and
Problems, 32-33. Incidentally, this detail is a further evidence that Chemyshevskii of
The Gift was an antipode of Christ, and not a Christ-like figure as he was viewed by
some of his contemporaries: entirely devoid of aesthetic sense, he never learned "to
fashion sparrows out of clay." See, respectively, The Gift, 227-28 and 225, and Дар,
242-43 and 240.

1()0 Delicate Markers
"Can't understand what?"
"Oh, Cincinnatus, he too was..."
"What do you mean, 'he too'?"
"He was also like you, Cincinnatus...." (E133/R134-35)
Cecilia's unfamiliarity with the identity of Cincinnatus's father, her being
unable to see his face but only to hear his voice, is somewhat reminiscent
of the divine role in Christ's Conception. Also suggestive is Cincin-
natus's inheriting a "certain peculiarity" (E24/R36) from his father.
Mention of the father's possible profession as a carpenter lightly alludes
to Joseph, the husband of Virgin Maiy.54
Cecilia C.'s saying that she was "still a child" at the time of Cincinna-
tus's conception (in Russian, she calls herself девченка [a "young girl"])
corresponds well with Christian iconography, which frequently portrays
a very young Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus; as, for example, in
Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks (Paris, Louvre). The mention
of Cecilia C. in the beginning of the novel as "still so young-looking"
when Cincinnatus was "in his twenties" (E24/R36) and Marthe's later
comment that "she tried to tell me that she was your mother—though I
think even her age wouldn't be right" (E197/R192) suggest the common
portrayal of the Virgin Mary as about the same age as the adult Christ,
specifically in Pieta and in paintings depicting the Coronation of the
Virgin. Incidentally, Cincinnatus, who is "exactly thirty" (E82/R88), is
of the same age as the beheaded John the Baptist,55 and is close in age to
Christ, who is commonly believed to have been crucified at the age of
thirty-three. Nabokov's obvious familiarity with this belief is corrobo-
rated in his story "A Busy Man" («Занятой человек», 1931): "According
to tradition, Jesus Christ lived to the age of thirty-three."56
я The phrase, "a wayward craftsman, a carpenter," also harks back to Nabokov's poem
"The Madman" (1933), in which the deranged hero, "A street photographer in laic life,
/ now poet, king, Parnassian autocrat / (since quite a time kept under lock and key),"
dreams of becoming someone else, "Tailor, carpenter—Or, say, / itinerant pho-
tographer." See Nabokov, Poems and Problems, 74-77.
55 See David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1987), 229.
* See Nabokov, The Stories, 283; and Соглядатай (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1978), 159.
In Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита), Yeshua's age

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

Cincinnatus resembles Christ not only in the circumstances of his
birth and with his age, but also in his physical appearance:
Cincinnatus's face, grown transparently pallid, with fuzz on its sunken
cheeks and a moustache with such a delicate hair texture that it seemed to
be actually a bit of disheveled sunlight on his upper lip; Cincinnatus's face,
small and still young despite all the torments, with gliding eyes, eerie eyes
of changeable shade, was, in regard to its expression, something absolutely
inadmissible by the standards of his surroundings, especially now, when he
had ceased to dissemble... the ripple... running through the transparent hair
on his temples completed a picture, the full indecency of which it is
(27) also differs from the tradition. In general, there are a number of curious parallels
between these two novels written in the 1930s, both of which depict the destinies of the
two writers tormented by the demonic surrounding world, and both of which contain
Biblical motifs, implicit in Nabokov's novel and explicit in Bulgakov's.
Any influence of Bulgakov on Nabokov should be ruled out since Bulgakov's
magnum opus, on which he worked from 1928 until his death in 1940, remained in
manuscript until its publication in 1966-67. On the other hand, it is tempting to
speculate that Bulgakov could have familiarized himself with Nabokov's novel,
serialized in the Parisian Contemporary Annals'm 1935-36, and published as a separate
volume in 1938. Bulgakov's contemporaries, particularly Babel, were acquainted with
Nabokov's works. See A. N. Pirozhkova andN. N. Iurgeneva, comps., Воспоминания
о Бабеле (Moscow: Knizhnaia palata, 1989), 46 and 331-32. We also leam that Sergei
Prokof ev, who returned to the Soviet Russia in the spring of 1936, smuggled in some
of Nabokov's novels. See Ivan Tolstoi, «Набоков и его театральное наследие», in
Nabokov, Пьесы, 25; and the composer's son, Oleg, confirms that his father's library
contained Nabokov's early Russian novels, particularly The Defense. See Harlow
Robinson, Sergei Prokofiev (New York: Viking, 1987), 461. After his return to the
USSR, Prokof ev continued touring the West through the beginning of 1938 and
perhaps on his next visit brought with him more of Nabokov's works. Unlike Babel or
Prokof ev, Bulgakov did not travel abroad, but it is not unlikely that he read Invitation
to a Beheading, given to him by those who did. His sister-in-law, 01'ga Bokshanskii,
traveled to her native Riga in the fall of 1935 (the first installment ofNabokov's novel
appeared in June); his Moscow Art Theater friends went to Paris on a tour in the summer
of 1937 and could have brought him a section or a full copy ofNabokov's serialized
novel. Cf. Elena Bulgakova, Дневник (Moscow: Knizhnaia palata, 1990), 102 and 165.
In any case, it is indicative that Anatolii Smelianskii dubbed Bulgakov's life in the mid-
and late 1930s—"Invitation to a Beheading." See A. M. Smelianskii, Михаил Булгаков
в Художественном театре (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1989), 316 and 319.
For the discussion of Nabokov's and Bulgakov's "remarkably similar insights" (187),
see David M. Bethea, "Bulgakov and Nabokov: Toward a Comparative Perspective."
Transactions ofthe Association of Russian-American Scholars in the U.S. A. 24 (1991):

1()0 Delicate Markers
difficult to put into words—produced as it was of a thousand barely
noticeable, overlapping trifles: of the light outline of his lips, seemingly not
quite fully drawn but touched by a master of masters; of the fluttering
movements of his empty, not-yet-shaded-in hands; of the dispersing and
again gathering rays in his animated eyes. (E120-21/R123)
The best known painting of Christ, which this description of Cincinnatus
calls to mind, is Rembrandt's Christ at Emmaus, also known as The
Pilgrims ofEmmaus (Paris, Louvre). Nabokov refers to this painting by
name twenty years later in Pnin. There, the narrator again emphasizes
Christ's unique, "celestial, expression of eyes and mouth."57
Another Christ-like aspect of Cincinnatus's physique is the almost
incorporeal lightness which enables him to walk on air (see E97/R102).
This is reminiscent of Christ's Ascension, or Christ's walking on the
water. The latter is metaphorically evoked at the very beginning of the
novel, when Cincinnatus's unsteady walk as he returns to the fortress
after the trial is compared to that of "a man who has dreamt that he is
walking on water" (El 1/R25).
Considering the novel's plot as a whole, we may discern that it
parallels the Passion of Christ, and specifically the Last Supper, the
Agony in the Garden, the Betrayal by Judas, the Mocking, and the Road
to Calvary, followed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Not long before the execution, Cincinnatus and M'sieur Pierre arrive
for the traditional supper in the house of the city vice-mayor. This feast,
at which fish is served, calls to mind the Last Supper. (In Mary, Nabokov
mentions a lithograph of Leonardo's Last Supper. He also wrote a short
poem so entitled [«Тайная вечеря», writ. 1918, publ. 1921].)58 Only, at
this parodical last supper, it is not the Christ-like Cincinnatus but his
antipode, the Antichrist-like M'sieur Pierre, who eats the fish which turns
out to be rotten. Fish was served, no doubt, in keeping with M'sieur
Pierre's taste: earlier, when lecturing to Cincinnatus on gastronomical
pleasures, the executioner mentions fish, specifying that he is "a great
fancier of bream" (E153). In the original, this phrase «большой охотник
до леща» (R153) becomes especially suggestive when we recall that the
,T Nabokov, Лил, 95.
я See Nabokov, Mary, 6 and Машенька, 13; Стихи, 16 and Michael Juliar, Vladimir
Nabokov: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1986), 466.

9 See Dal', Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка, 2 250.
60 See V. I. Porudominskii, Николай Ге (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1970), 28-29; N. Iu. Zograf,
сотр., Николай Николаевич Ге. Письма, статьи, критика, воспоминания
современников (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1978), 7.
See Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 399.
See The Gift, 227 and Дар, 242.
Christian Tradition and Iconography
Russian word лещ, besides "bream," also means a "slap in the face."59
This figuratively foreshadows the executioner's receiving "a slap in the
face" when Cincinnatus walks away from the scaffold at the novel's
The Last Supper motif is highlighted in the English translation of
another passage by the key words "last," "supper," and "fish": "Cincin-
natus sat at the table, munching the last of his supper, fishing the prunes
out of their brown juice" (El 50). In the original, the corresponding
sentence does not convey this idea as distinctly, since Nabokov employs
the word commonly used for "supper," ужин, rather than the other,
Church Slavonic word вечеря: «Цинциннат сидел у стола, дожевывая
ужин, выуживая чернослив из коричневого сока» (R150). The Last
Supper motif is visually implied much earlier in the novel, in the pose of
Cincinnatus who, "his head propped on his hand, lay on the cot"
(E108/R111). This reclining pose echoes that of Christ in Nikolai Ge's
painting Last Supper (St. Petersburg, State Russian Museum). The year
of the painting's completion—1863—coincided with Chernyshevskii's
betrayal by Vsevolod Kostomarov, and that led to the corresponding
interpretation of Ge's canvas by the radical intelligentsia.60 Nabokov, who
at the time of writing Invitation to a Beheading was conducting research
for his Chernyshevskii chapter of The Gift,61 was well aware of these
contemporaneous echoings: "His [Chernyshevskii's—G. S.J biographers
mark his thorny path with evangelical signposts (it is well known that the
more leftist the Russian commentator the greater is his weakness for
expressions like 'the Golgotha of the revolution'). Chernyshevski's
passions began when he reached Christ's age. Here the role of Judas was
filled by Vsevolod Kostomarov; the role of Peter by the famous poet
Nekrasov, who declined to visit the jailed man."62

Delicate Markers
Cincinnatus's denunciation took place in the city park when "some-
one said in a loud voice, 'Citizens, there is among us a .' Here fol-
lowed a strange, almost forgotten word,... and Cincinnatus found nothing
better than to get up and walk away, absent-mindedly picking leaves from
bushes bordering the path. And ten days later he was arrested"
(E32/R44). This passage calls to mind the Betrayal of Christ and his
subsequent arrest in the Gethsemane garden. Cincinnatus's persistent
meditations on life and death throughout the novel and his unrelenting
attempts to overcome fear somewhat parallel the tragic events which
preceded Christ's arrest. It is indicative that in the course of these
contemplations Cincinnatus likens himself to early Christians hiding in
catacombs from the persecution of Rome: "there once lived, in caverns
where there is the tinkle of a perpetual stillicide, and stalactites, sages
who rejoiced at death and who—blunderers for the most part, it is
true—yet who in their own way, mastered" (E193/R189). Some of these
early Christians, "Tit, Pud, and the Wandering Jew" (E125/R128) are
mentioned in Quercus, the novel which Cincinnatus is reading in his
The preexecution supper partly plays with the idea of a "wedding" of
Cincinnatus and M'sieur Pierre, with the guests chanting, "Bitter, bitter,
sweeten it with a kiss" (E185/R182). (The "wedding" motif harks back to
M'sieur Pierre's telling Cincinnatus: 'To me you are transparent as—ex-
cuse the sophisticated simile—a blushing bride is transparent to the gaze
of an experienced bridegroom" [E162/R161].)64 This chanting is preceded
63 Tit, or rather Titus, to whom St. Paul addressed one of his epistles, became a symbol of
St. Paul's determination to extend Christianity to Gentiles. He accompanied the Apostle
on his second long journey. See Peter Calvocoressi, Who's Who in the Bible (London:
Viking, 1987), 232. Pud, or rather Pudens, an early Christian, is mentioned in 2 Tim. 4,
The Wandering Jew, also known as Ahasuerus, was cursed for scorning Jesus on his
way to the Crucifixion, but later repented and became a pious Christian. See George К
Anderson, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Providence. Brown University Press,
1965), Nabokov wrote a dramatic monologue Ahasuerus (Агасфер, 1923) and discussed
this motif extensively in his commentary to Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. See, respectively,
Руль, December 2,1923,6; Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 2: 354-57.
и For more on the wedding motif in the novel, see Berdjis, Imagery in Vladimir
Nabokov's Last Russian Novel, 360-61.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

by a witticism of Cincinnatus's brother-in-law, "Here, have a drink on the
brink" (E184). In Russian, this phrase—«Вот хлебни винца до венца»
(R181), literally meaning "Here, drink some wine down before the
crown"—is more suggestive, seeming to allude to Jesus' s Crown of
Thorns.65 This whole episode calls to mind the Mocking of Christ. There
is a certain ambivalence to the scene of besprinkling with wine: on the
one hand, it mockingly evokes the ritual of coronational anointment; on
the other hand, it may remind us of the Eucharist, where wine, the symbol
of Christ's blood, is one of the consecrated elements. Cincinnatus's aloof-
ness through this whole episode, emphasized by the adverb безучастно
(R182) or "unconcernedly" (the word is omitted in the English transla-
tion), tallies with the iconography of the Mocking of Christ, as for exam-
ple, in Titian's Christ Crowned with Thorns (Munich, Alte Pinakothek).
Twice mentioned in the supper episode is a white rose placed by Cin-
cinnatus's plate. According to folk beliefs, such a flower is associated
with death.66 Thus this white rose can be viewed as another carefully
planned reminder by Cincinnatus's tormentors of his approaching exe-
cution, together with "a chandelier [that] dropped one of its candles" and
"a small coffin that had been set out for the exhibition" (E182/R179).
And of course, M'sieur Pierre does his best to calling "his charge's atten-
tion to these phenomena" (E182/R179). All these "signs and symbols"
are designed to depress Cincinnatus, to make him, in his own words,
grow "so limp and soggy that they will be able to do it with a fruit knife"
But what M'sieur Pierre does not take into account—this is one more
in the series of his blunders—is that the white rose, a well-known
Christian symbol of purity, strengthens Cincinnatus's association with
5 Cf. Hughes, "Notes on the Translation of Invitation to a Beheading" 290.
44 Thus, if a white rose-bush unexpectedly blooms, it is a sign of death to the nearest
house; and as late as the end of the nineteenth century in Wales the flower marked the
graves of young unmarried girls. These folk beliefs worked their way into the Church,
for supposedly a white rose found by the place of a certain choir member or monk fore-
shadows his impending death. See, respectively, Dyer, The Folk-Lore of Plants, 106 and
158; and Wolfgang Menzel, Christliche Symbolik, 2 vols. (Regensburg: G. Joseph Manz
Verlag, 1854), 2: 284.

Delicate Markers
Christ.67 The white rose also links Cincinnatus to martyrdom. This latter
meaning is manifest in El Greco's The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (Fig,
14) in which the white rose adorns the garment of St. Stephen, the first
Christian martyr. This very likely reference to El Greco's masterpiece is
of interest in another important respect. The boy in the left foreground,
who points to the white rose, is assumed to be El Greco's son. And the
handkerchief protruding from his pocket bears the painter's signature
followed by the date of the boy's birth.68 Nabokov composed Invitation
to a Beheading in 1934, the year of his son's birth, and therefore this
possible allusion to El Greco's masterpiece could be also viewed as
Nabokov's unique tribute to this important event in his own life.
Furthermore, we may recall that in Paradise, Dante symbolizes with
this flower the triumph of the Church and Christ's mission to humanity:
"In form, then, of a white rose was shown to me the saintly host which
Christ, with His own blood, made His bride"69 (XXXI: 1-3). In light of
this, the white rose that "distinctly adorn[s]" Cincinnatus's place (El82/
R180) perhaps portends not so much his oncoming physical death, as
intended by his jailers, but rather his spiritual triumph over them, with his
own, exemplary, mission to humanity—Nabokov's readers. It is also
likely that to these lofty associations Nabokov added a touch of parody.
We may recall that Aleksandr Blok sealed his poem The Twelve v/iih. the
following lines: «В белом венчике из роз—/ Впереди—Исус Христос»
67 See Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 37.
68 Francisco Calvo Serraller, El Greco: The Burial ofthe Count of Orgaz (London: Thames
and Hudson, 1994), 19.
69 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, 3 vols., trans. John D. Sinclair (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1979), 3:447. See Barbara Seward, The Symbolic Rose(New
York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 44.
It is worth noting that Nabokov's remote ancestor Can Grande della Scala, Prince of
Verona, sheltered the exiled Dante; the poet completed the Inferno and the Purgatorio
at his court and dedicated the Paradiso to him. On Nabokov's genealogical kinship to
this Italian Prince, see Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 188.

Christian Tradition and Icnn
° tonography
Figure 14
El Greco
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1588.
Christ")- NaboKov
("In a white nimbus of roses / In front—Jesias self^conSciously
Wrongly disliked that poem: {The Twelve is dreaaru,
° For the original, see Blok, Сочинения, 3: 359.

1()0 Delicate Markers
couched in a phony 'primitive' tone, with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ
glued on at the end."71
Another Christ-related indication of Cincinnatus's purity is his resem-
blance to a child. In Christian tradition a child represents innocence of
soul and symbolizes the forthcoming bliss.72 This of course harks back to
the Gospels:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest
in the kingdom of heaven?
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
And said. Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as
little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18, 1-3)
Cincinnatus is frequently compared to a child. Thus, in the very
beginning, he is likened "to a child who has just learned to walk"
(El 1/R25); later, when taking a stroll with his wardens, "Cincinnatus was
climbing like a child" (E42/R53). And when, naively expecting Emmie
to deliver him from captivity, he is instead brought by her to her father's
apartment, M'sieur Pierre responds to Rodrig's displeasure by saying,
"'Let them [Cincinnatus and Emmie—G. S.] be,'... 'After all, they are
both children'" (E166/R166).
Twelve-year old Emmie, however, is depicted in various stages of her
adulthood in the photohoroscope which M'sieur Pierre, her prospective
bridegroom, composes for her as a reward for her betrayal of
Cincinnatus. It is as if this betrayal terminates for her the childhood
innocence and purity, and introduces her into the "secure nonexistence
as adult dummies" (E95/R100). By contrast, the insistent comparison of
Cincinnatus to a child suggests his emotional purity and foreshadows the
eventual possible bliss in his joining the other world with "beings akin to
him," parallel to the Heavenly Kingdom.73
71 See Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 97.
n Menzel, Chnstliche Symbolik, 1:475-77.
1 Cf. again Moynahan, "A Russian Preface for Nabokov's Beheading," 15.
As Alexandrov has observed, there is a parallel perception of childhood in Fedor
Sologub's (1863-1927) earlier novel Petty Demon (Мелкий бес, 1907). According to
Sologub, "Only the children, those eternal, tireless vessels of God's joy in the earth,
were alive, and ran, and played. But sluggishness was beginning to weigh even upon

Christian Tradition and Iconography
Let us turn now to Christian motifs in the final chapter, which
culminates in the scene of the execution. Cincinnatus is brought to Thril-
ler Square in a carriage. This does not correspond to Christian iconogra-
phy, which follows the Gospel of St. John in depicting Christ walking
along the Road to Calvary. However it meshes well enough with the other
Gospels' less specific versions of this event, which simply say that Christ
was led away to be crucified.74
An earlier hint at the Crucifixion is given quite unobtrusively in
Cincinnatus's childhood flash-back: the other children's reluctance to
include Cincinnatus in their game made him "prefer that white nook of
the sill, sharply marked off by the shadow of the half-open casement"
(Е96/ R101). That the latter visually projects a cross-like configuration
becomes apparent in Nabokov's earlier story "A Busy Man" in which
thirty-three, the age to which "Jesus Christ lived" and at which the
protagonist is supposed to die, is mentioned in one breath with "the cross
of the casement frame." The cross-like casement frame imagery is
reinforced later in the story in the description of how, when it flashed
during the storm, "the black cross of its sash cast a fleeting shadow upon
the wall."75
This cross-like imagery in Invitation to a Beheading and in the earlier
story prepares the reader for the final episode at the end of the novel.
Describing the crowd that came to see Cincinnatus's execution, Nabokov
seems to evoke the Crucifixion scene, of which Andrea Mantegna's
them, and some faceless and invisible monster, nestling behind their shoulders, peered
from time to time with eyes full of menace into their faces, which suddenly went dull."
As cited in Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld, 107.
Nabokov seems to argue against Sologub's pessimism by presenting Cincinnatus as
a proof of the possibility that a human being may remain true to himself and to
childhood in his later years, in the fallen world of most adults. In Emmie, on the other
hand, Nabokov displays the other possibility: a child becoming prey to the faceless or
rather multifaced Devil in the guise of M'sieur Pierre.
4 In Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Ieshua was also transported to the place of his
execution. See Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, trans. Diana Lewis Burgin
and Katherine Tieman O'Connor (Dana Point, Calif.: Ardis, 1995), 143; for the original,
see M. A. Bulgakov, Собрание сочинений (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982-), 8:175.
'5 Nabokov, The Stories, 283 and 289; Соглядатай, 159 and 170.

1()0 Delicate Markers
Crucifixion (Paris, Louvre) is one of the most famous representations
Thus, "an old fellow of Jewish origin who had for many years been
fishing for nonexistent fish in a waterless river" and who is later men-
tioned as "the little old man with the fishing rod" (E215 and 219-20/
R2I0 and 214) may relate to the fishermen Apostles; and "the youth with
his staff' (E220/R214) to saints such as St. James the Great, the patron
saint of pilgrims, who characteristically appears with the pilgrim's staff.
The "woman... and also her two sisters" (E219/R214) suggest the three
Maries: Virgin Maiy, her sister Mary, wife of Cleophas, and Maiy
Magdalene. "The librarian, reading a newspaper" (E220/R214) may relate
to St. John the Evangelist, whose principal iconographic attribute is a
book; and Nikita Lukich, who arranged the illumination in the park
during the feast, to St. Luke the Evangelist who was believed to be a
painter and is the patron saint of painters.
In this way Nabokov presents a sort of 'bend sinister' crucifixion
scene, with the personae in the crowd being parodies of Christian
figures.76 They are there not to mourn Cincinnatus's 'crucifixion,' but
rather to celebrate M'sieur Pierre's 'performance.' (The crucifixion pose
is alluded to by the remark that the block at the execution platform was
"of sufficient size so that one could easily lie on it with outspread arms"
[E219/R213]. It is foreshadowed by Cincinnatus's lying on the flagstones
of his cell "spread-eagled" [in Russian, the last word is—крестом, that
is literally "crosswise"] [E147/R147].) Only the librarian responds
humanely to Cincinnatus's execution: "On the steps the pale librarian sat
doubled up, vomiting" (E222/R217). This harks back to Cincinnatus's
conceding that he at least is "bound in human skin" (E179/R177).
At the end of the novel, however, these dummies and parodies of
human beings quite unexpectedly witness the humiliation and defeat of
the Antichrist-like M'sieur Pierre who, reduced to a larva-like creature,
is carried away by "a woman in a black shawl" (E223/R217). (In this
regard, especially ironic are the names Pierre [or Peter] and Nikita,
respectively a "rock" and a "victor" in Ancient Greek.) This mourning
maternal figure appears to be the antipode to the Virgin Mary, that is, the
Antichrist's mother. Although Nabokov leaves it ambiguous, it could be
i Cf. Buhks, «Эшафот в хрустальном дворце: О романе Вл. Набокова Приглашение
на казим, 829.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

the same woman who is present in the crowd with her two sisters and
whose turquoise image—another sign of пошлость—is "tattooed on his
[M'sieur Pierre's—G. S.] white biceps" (E219/R214), a symbol of his
fleshliness and destructive power.
The mention of the storm before the execution, and the observation
that "there was something wrong with the sun, and a section of the sky
was shaking," echo the words of the Gospels: "the sun was darkened"
(Luke 23, 45) and "the earth did quake" (Matt. 27, 51).
Cincinnatus's walking away from the scaffold evokes the Resur-
rection of Christ and indicates his spiritual revival. This is foreshadowed
in the preceding chapter by what happens with the moth Rodion has
brought to his cell as feed for the spider. (We may recall that Christian
tradition, influenced by the Greeks and Romans, viewed the moth or
butterfly as a symbol of a human soul.77) At the last moment the moth
escapes its tragic fate:
something went wrong—his [Rodion's—G. S.] gnarled, fearful fingers happened
to release the main fold of the towel, and he immediately cried out and cringed,
as people cry out and cringe whom not a bat but an ordinary house mouse
inspires with revulsion and terror. Something large, dark, and furnished with
feelers, disengaged itself from the towel, and Rodion emitted a loud yell,
tramping in one place, afraid to let the thing escape but not daring to grab it. The
towel fell; and the fair captive clung to Rodion's cuff, clutching it with all six of
its adhesive feet.... Rodion picked up the towel and, swinging wildly, attempted
to knock down the blind flyer; but suddenly it disappeared as if the very air had
swallowed it. (E203-4/R198-99)
This moth, "dark, and furnished with feelers," and in "slumber," is Cin-
cinnatus's totem, as it were, and Cincinnatus is its guardian: when it
seems to vanish, Cincinnatus, however, has seen "perfectly well" (Е204/
R199) where it has settled, but does not tell Rodion. All three characteris-
| Aristotle notes in his Historia Animalium (551 A) that the word psyche also means
"butterfly." See Jan Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1983), 82. The Greeks, who believed that after death a
human soul flies away from the body, frequently depicted it as a butterfly on sarcophagi.
See Hall, Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art, 287; and Grimal, The Dictionary of
Classical Mythology, 397. Influenced by the Greeks, the Romans held similar beliefs
concerning anima, the Latin word meaning both "soul" and "butterfly." See Malcolm
Davies and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby, Greek Insects (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986), 99-100.

1()0 Delicate Markers
tics match those of Cincinnatus: he was perceived by the surrounding
world as "a lone dark obstacle" (E24/R36); he compares the acuteness of
his senses to that of animals: "my sense of smell is like a deer's, my sense
of touch is like a bat's" (E52 /R62); and he refers to his inner life as 'W
dream world" (E93/R99). Like the moth, Cincinnatus initially possessed
"gentle firmness... unyielding gentleness" (E206/R201), which he has
courageously struggled to preserve. But because of his fear of death, he
has lost his strength and internal harmony. Now, on the eve of his
execution, he regains this, being inspired by the moth's "monolithic
straightness of the upper margins and the perfect symmetry of all the
diverging lines" (E206/R201).
Apprehension and spiritual disharmony are reflected in the repeatedly
(five times) mentioned dislocation of the center. During preparations for
the visit which Cincinnatus assumes will be from Marthe but which
instead turns out to be from M'sieur Pierre, "Rodion brought in a wet
cut-glass vase with jowly peonies from the director's garden and placed
it on the table, in the center... no, not quite in the center" (E79/R85).
Similar phrasing occurs three more times in descriptions of Cincinnatus's
cell, all in the course of one and the same chapter—chapter 11, itself
somewhat off-center in this novel of 20 chapters.78 Each time it under-
scores his fear of death: "an underdeveloped, mean little echo inhabited
some part of the slightly concave ceiling, with a light (wire-enclosed) in
its center—no, that is, not quite in the center: a flaw that agonizingly
irritated the eye" (El 19/R121); "the horror of this waiting was somehow
connected with the incorrectly located center of the ceiling"
(E120/R122); "the light came on in business-like fashion in the center of
the ceiling—no, not quite in the center, that was just it—an agonizing
reminder" (E125/R128). Finally, it appears again in the description of the
execution scene: "In the center of the plaza—no, not quite in the center,
that precisely was the dreadful part—rose the vermilion platform of the
scaffold" (E218/R212-13). This is reminiscent of Dante's VitaNuovar.
the anguish of the poet's lyrical "I" is manifest in the words of Love, who
я Here Nabokov no doubt employs the wordplay based on the homonyms of the Russian
«wd, глава, meaning both a "head" and a "chapter." Cf. Barabtarlo, "Within and
Without Cincinnatus's Cell: Reference Gauges in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading,
391A. 5.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

appeared in his dream in the guise of a youth saying, "I am like the center
0f a circle, equidistant from all points on the circumference; you,
however, are not."79 Similarly, in the novel, a geometrical figure with its
center positioned precisely reflects harmony, and conversely, a figure
with a dislocated center signifies disharmony.80
The concluding lines of the novel, "Cincinnatus made his way in that
direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him"
(E223/R218), carry suggestions of motion toward some redemptive state
that may, as we have noted, be likened to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Simultaneously, certain details in the novel's close, even though it does
not suggest any downward motion on the part of the protagonist,
somewhat evoke the Descent of Christ into Limbo. According to
Christian tradition, the "beings akin to him" who first meet Christ there
are Adam and Eve, Moses, King David, the Prophets, John the Baptist
and other Biblical figures. In paintings devoted to this subject, Satan and
other Forces of Evil are commonly depicted as small cowardly figures.81
Such is the demonic figure, smallish and fearful, on the bottom left, and
another on the bottom right, pressed to the ground by the gate which
Jesus casts down, in Fra Angelico's The Descent into Limbo (Florence,
San Marco). As Cincinnatus moves away, the novel's satanic characters
are correspondingly reduced: "the tiny executioner like a larva"
(E223/R217), and "Roman, who was now many times smaller and who
was at the same time Rodrig" (E222-23/R217).
In Christian tradition, it is customary to oppose Antichrist to Christ,
earth to heaven, hell to paradise, flesh to spirit, and in general, 'bottom'
to 'top.' Subsequently, we turn now to the characters surrounding the
protagonist, M'sieur Pierre and Co., that can be linked to Evil Forces.
(Since its early history, Christianity has commonly viewed the Antichrist
I See Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1973), 18n. 9.
Cf. Ludmila Foster, "Nabokov's Gnostic Turpitude: The Surrealistic Vision of Reality
in Prig/asenie па кагпin Mnemozina. Studia Litteraria Russica in Honorem Vsevolod
Setchkarev, ed. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham (Munich: Fink, 1974), 121.
81 See Adolphe Napoleon Didron, Christian Iconography; or, the History of Christian Ait
in the Middle Ages, 2 vols. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886), 2:319.

1()0 Delicate Markers
as the son of the Devil or at times the Devil himself.82 Therefore I shai
use "Antichrist" and "Devil" interchangeably.)
We start with M'sieur Pierre's name. In Chapter 2 we noted that
graphically his Cyrillic initials, П. П., and Cincinnatus's, Ц. ц
constitute an almost perfect directional opposition. This opposition is
distinctly evident in the illumination scene, when the light bulbs are
arranged in "a grandiose monogram" (E189/R187). In addition, M'sieur
Pierre's name and patronymic—Петр Петрович—contain an anagram
of the Russian word черт, that is "the Devil." To the fiendish nature of
M'sieur Pierre his French-sounding name also alludes, since, as Nabokov
himself sarcastically remarked in his monograph on Gogol, the Devil or
"the 'Chort' is for good Russians a shrimpy foreigner, a shivering puny
green-blooded imp with thin German, Polish, French legs."83
The French-sounding name is also perhaps designed, as I suggested
earlier, to call to the reader's mind the terror of the French Revolution,
which can be seen as the precursor of the totalitarian regimes in Soviet
Russia and Nazi Germany, the refracted models of the novel's dystopia.
(Nabokov's vision of the French Revolution as the epitome of terror is
evidenced in his early poem "In What Paradise They Have First Mur-
mured" [«В каком раю впервые прозвучали», 1923]: «И снова в
Термидоре одурелом, / пока в тюрьме душа тобой цвела, / а дверь
мою тюремщик метил мелом» ["And again in the stupefied Thermidor,
/ While the soul was blossoming with you, / And the jailer was marking
my door with a chalk"]84). This assumption is supported by a curious
allusion: before being taken to the place of execution, as his last wish
Cincinnatus asks for "a three-minute intermission" (E209/R204), and that
is precisely what Louis XVI did before he was taken to the guillotine.85
i See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press, 1981), 31 and 116n. 25.
I See Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 6. On the Russian tradition of portraying the Devil as a
foreigner, see F. I. Riazanovskii, Демонология в древне-русской литературе
(Moscow, 1915), 51.
** For the original, see Nabokov, Стихи, 78.
* For a discussion of this episode in the life of Louis XVI, see Saul K. Padover, The Life
Щ of Louis AT/(New York. Taplinger Publishing Company, 1963), 331-

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

Nabokov hints at this historical episode in his earlier works, "An Affair
of Honor" («Подлец», 1929) and Glory}6 This historical episode
evidently fascinated Nabokov in the years to come. Some thirty years
after writing the novel, in a 1965 interview with Robert Hughes, Nabokov
mentions among the "scenes one would like to have filmed" the
"beheading of Louis the Sixteenth, the drums drowning his speech on the
scaffold."87 Earlier, the peculiar connection between a victim and his
executioner had been the subject of Nabokov's play The Grand-dad
(Дедушка, 1923), set in the time of the French Revolution and its
While linking Cincinnatus to the executed French king, Nabokov may
be suggesting an affinity between his executioner, M'sieur Pierre, and
Maximilien Robespierre (note the phonetic resemblance), an advocate of
bloody terror and executions. Another allusion to the French Revolution
is perhaps given through the deputy city director's reminder that
following the execution, "there will be given with sensational success the
new comic opera Socrates Must Decreasd' (E220/R215). The opera's
name evokes Jacques-Louis David's famous painting Death of Socrates
(1787), completed some years before the execution of Louis XVI
(1793).89 (In the novel, chronological order for the execution and the
86 See Nabokov, The Stories, 213 and Возвращение Чорба, 125; Glory, 62 and Подвиг,
87 Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 60-61. Nabokov could have read about this episode in Ivan
Sakharov's Казнь королей (Moscow: Znanie-Sila, 1918), 73. Invitation to a Beheading
contains some details that parallel those in Sakharov's book. Thus, Cincinnatus's
unsteady walk near the start of the novel, when "he had to be supported" (El 1/R25) and
at the end, when he "had suddenly lost the capacity of walking [and] was supported by
M'sieur Pierre and a soldier with the face of a borzoi" (E212-13/R207), is reminiscent
of Mary Stuart's walk to the execution: "she was unable to walk firmly due to the
weakness in her feet and was supported by two servants." Cincinnatus's refusing to eat
prison dinners (see, for example, E15/R29) echoes Charles I's similar refusal on the eve
of his execution, when "dinner was prepared for him, but he did not want to eat." See
Sakharov, Казнь королей, 30 and 53.
" See Nabokov, The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, 286-307; and Nabokov,
Пьесы, 69-80.
89 David was "a member of the Convention, a Regicide, an intimate of Robespierre,"

1()0 Delicate Markers
"work of art" is the reverse.) That Socrates's tragic death has been turned
into a comic opera, shows the complete disregard for human life and
disdain of moral principles in the world of the novel. Nabokov also
perhaps pokes fun at the theatricality bordering on the comic in David's
Nabokov hints at the bloody terror of the French Revolution already
early in the novel. We may recall that Cincinnatus's arrest, imprisonment
and condemnation to death by beheading were preceded by the episode
which describes as "at some open meeting in the city park there was a
sudden wave of alarm and someone said in a loud voice: 'Citizens, there
is among us a .' Here followed a strange, almost forgotten word"
(E31-32/R44). This omitted "strange, almost forgotten word" is a
"traitor," and the phrase in the single quotation marks is reminiscent of
the accusatory formula regularly used at the Convention: "Citizens, there
is a traitor among us," which commonly resulted in condemnation to
death by guillotine (cf. the discussion of this episode earlier in this
The diabolical nature of M'sieur Pierre is further suggested by his
sometimes wearing a striped uniform. At his first appearance in the
fortress, he is "all in stripes" (E59/R68), and before his first arrival in
Cincinnatus's cell, Rodion unrolls "a caramel-striped runner on the
threshold" to welcome this "striped little prisoner" (E81/R86-87). (Cin-
cinnatus, the genuine prisoner, never wears a striped uniform.) M'sieur
Pierre's stripes evoke the Russian expression, шут полосатый, literally
a "striped jester," which once again suggests the executioner's fiendish
whom he depicted in his famous drawing, Oath of the Tennis Court (1791). See Antoine
Schnapper, David, trans. Helga Harrison (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection,
1982), 7 aod 110.
For an altogether different interpretation of this episode, linking it to Plato's dialogue
Phaedo, see Dieter E. Zimmer's comment in his translation of the novel into German:
Vladimir Nabokov, Einladung zur Enthauptung (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt,
1990), 266-67
1 Cf. "^Citizens, I am much afraid" and 'this traitor is in our midst" in Jean Matrat,
jgwfwpirnr nans Alan Kendall with Felix Brenner (New York: Charles Scribner's
Seat, 197$), 179.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

nature, being a euphemism for the Devil.92 And this "striped jester" seems
to control (albeit merely ostensibly, as is evident at the novel's close) the
"whole terrible, striped world" (E91/R96) around Cincinnatus. By means
0f these and other details, Nabokov, very much in the vein of Christian
tradition, creates in M'sieur Pierre a debased, ridiculous image of Satan.93
Nabokov of course was well aware of this tradition. Thus, the narrator of
his story 'Tyrants Destroyed" («Истребление тиранов», 1938) remarks
that "in olden times, the common people would make up stories about the
Devil, dressing up their superstitious fear in buffoonish humor."
Furthermore, the mocking of this traditional connection between the
demonic and the ludicrous can be found in The Gift, "it was in the very
buffoonery of his [Chernyshevskii's—G. S.] journalistic devices that they
[the official circles—G. S.] detected a fiendish infiltration of harmful
Christian tradition also presents Satan as capable of assuming
different appearances and of playing many roles—an ability for which he
has been dubbed the Infernal Proteus.95 To befriend his victim, the satanic
M'sieur Pierre appears as Cincinnatus's look-alike, small and with fair
hair. Unlike the "light as a leaf' (E13/R27), almost incorporeal Cin-
cinnatus, however, M'sieur Pierre, a "little fat man" with "plump hands"
(E59/R68), epitomizes flesh. (Satan is sometimes called the King of
Flesh.) Numerous details nevertheless betray the sham in his appearance.
Thus he is thirty years old, he says, merely because he "guessed right"
(E82/R88) and wants to match Cincinnatus's age, but in one of the
photographs, as Rodrig points out, he "looks older" (E84/R90). "The
whiteness of his wonderful, even teeth" (E59/R68) is in fact that of "a
n See Dal', Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка, 3:264.
91 On the Devil as a ridiculous figure, the target of parody and satire, see Arturo Graf, The
Story of the Devil (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 230-50; and Jeffrey Burton Russell,
The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1988), 150-56.
94 See Nabokov, The Stories, 446 and Весна в Фиальте, 185; The Gift, 243 and Дар, 259.
" For the illustration, see Satan (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1952), pi. 12. On Satan's
ability to constantly change his shape, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The
Devil in the Modem World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 159.

1()0 Delicate Markers
hinged denture" (El 16/R119), and his fair hair turns out to be a clownish
"little yellow wig" (E159/R158).
M'sieur Pierre pretends to be a prisoner incarcerated for planning
Cincinnatus's escape from the fortress, but later turns out to be his
executioner. He is also a jack-of-all-trades: a photographer, an agrono-
mist, a bird trainer, a card conjurer, a circus actor, and a puppeteer, to
name just a few of his "areas of expertise." He constantly changes his
outfit and, accordingly, his behavior: now he wears the striped uniform
and behaves like a prisoner; now he is dressed in Oriental garb, "a
brocade skullcap," and casually lying down on Cincinnatus's cot,
"lighting a Jong meerschaum pipe with a carved houri," and propping
"himself up on an elbow in a cloud of luxurious smoke" (E150/R150),
talks about life's sensual pleasures; now he is "dressed up in a Russian
shirt embroidered with cocks" («нарядился в косоворотку с
петушками») (E166/R165), and, addressed in the Russian fashion with
first name and patronymic, drinks tea from a samovar.96
96 When lying on the cot and propping himself on his elbow, the Antichrist-like M'sieur
Pierre imitates Cincinnatus's Christ-like pose (see the discussion earlier in this Chapter).
Although in the English translation Nabokov renders the carved configuration on the
pipe as "houri," which simply means "a nymph of the Mohameddan Paradise," or in
broader sense, "a voluptuously beautiful woman," in the original Russian he used a
much more suggestive пэри (a "peri"), that is "a beautiful but malevolent female
demon." See J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, сотр., The Oxford English Dictionary,
2nd ed., 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 7:435 and 11: 548.
In the latter quotation Nabokov resorts to wordplay which only the Russian reader can
appreciate: the most common diminutive for Petr is Petia, and петя or петушок—in
fairy tales usually doubled as петя-петушок—is a nickname for петух», a "cock" or
"rooster." Curiously, during her last visit with Cincinnatus, shortly after having sexual
intercourse with his antipode and executioner, M'sieur Pierre, Marthe calls her husband
"my cockerel" (or in Russian петушок мой; E199/R195). A distant relative of M'sieur
Pierre, this false Cincinnatus, is Jack Cockerell, who compulsively impersonates Pnin.
Cf. Charles Nicol, "Pnin's History," in Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Phyllis
A. Roth (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984), 105. Both M'sieur Pierre and Jack Cockerell
are related, of course, through the Russian Petrushka, the French Polichinelle, or the
English Punch—the popular figures of European puppet theater; indeed, on one occa-
sion, M'sieur Pierre brings this 'relative' of his and his namesake—another wordplay,
яке Petrusha or Petrushka are also common diminutives for Petr—to Cincinnatus's cell
mA properly addresses the toy as тезка, (a "namesake"), rendered as "chum" in the
BggUsh translation" (E137/R138-39). Cf. Barabtarlo, "Within and Without
Cecnmatus't Cell: Reference Gauges in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading," 395n.

Christian Tradition and Iconography
gut these are merely appearances. Beyond this, there are various
ndications that M'sieur Pierre's very nature is intrinsically satanic.
Christian tradition attributes to the Devil such characteristics as tempta-
tion, deceit and lying, mockery and torment. M'sieur Pierre's behavior
clearly corresponds to them.
Well aware what Cincinnatus is deprived of in his captivity, M'sieur
Pierre tries, with his famous speech about "the pleasures of life"
(E151/R151), to tempt him, to kindle lust and gluttony.97 This speech may
be viewed as a parody of the third temptation of Christ by the Devil:
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth
him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down
and worship me. (Matt. 4, 8-9)
Similarly, at the end of his speech M'sieur Pierre remarks: "You offer
him kingdoms, and he sulks. And I ask so little—one word, a nod"
(E154/R154).98 The temptation is foreshadowed two chapters earlier in
Cincinnatus's posture: "For some time he sat on the edge of the cot, his
hands compressed between his knees, all hunched over"
(E124—25/R127). This is reminiscent of Christ's pose in Ivan Kramskoi's
famous painting Christ in the Wilderness, also known as The Temptation
of Christ (Moscow, Tret'iakov Gallery.)
M'sieur Pierre's deceitfiilness is manifest in his chess game with
Cincinnatus. Upon realizing that his opponent is getting the upper hand,
Nabokov recurrently employs this trope when a character, mimicking his victim, turns
into his quasi-double. Thus Goriainov in The Gift "who was well known for the fact that
being able to imitate beautifully. . . a certain unfortunate, cranky journalist with a poor
reputation, he had grown so accustomed to this image (which thus had its revenge on him)
that not only did he also pull down the corners of his mouth when imitating other of his
acquaintances, but even began to look like it himself in normal conversation"; and
Cockerell in Pnin "had acquired an unmistakable resemblance to the man [Pnin—G. S]
he had now been mimicking for almost ten years." See, respectively, The Gift, 207 and
Дар. 219; Pnin, 187.
97 For a detailed discussion of this side of the Devil's acitivities, see Graf, The Story of
Devil, and specifically the chapter 4, "The Devil as Tempter," 61-78.
* Cf. Foster, "Nabokov's Gnostic Turpitude," 120.

Delicate Markers
"as though accidentally, he knocked over several men, and, unable t0
restrain himself, with a groan, he mixed up the remainder." But after
wards he nonetheless suggests: "Let's start some other game, you don't
know how to play chess." Then, when playing "goose," he continues his
fraudulent machinations: "M'sieur Pierre would grow purple, stamp his
feet, fume, crawl under the table after the dice and emerge holding them
in his palm and swearing that that was exactly the way they had been
lying on the floor" (E146/R146).99
M'sieur Pierre attempts to gain Cincinnatus's confidence with the
mendacious story that he has been imprisoned because of his intention to
arrange for Cincinnatus's escape. Telling this preposterous lie seasoned
with truth, ominous in its ambiguity ("One way or another, but I ended
up here because of you. And I'll tell you more: we shall mount the
scaffold together too" [E111/R114]), M'sieur Pierre asserts: "I never
lie... Perhaps there are times when one ought to lie—that is another
matter—and perhaps such scrupulous veracity is foolish and in the end
does no good—that may all be so. But the fact remains, I never lie"
(El 10/R114). This statement, of course itself a blatant lie, should come
as no surprise to us, if we recall that according to Christian tradition the
w Behemoth, a member of Woland's entourage, behaves similarly in a chess game with
his Master:
Clicking its right hind paw, it dropped the knight and crawled under the bed
to retrieve it Again he [Woland—G. S.] leaned over to the edge of the bed
and shouted, "How long is this farce under the bed going to continue? Come
out of there, accursed Gans!"
"1 can't find the knight," replied the cat in an affected and muffled voice from
under the bed. "He galloped off somewhere, and a frog's turned up instead."
See Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, 216-17; for the original, see Собрание
сочинений, 8:254-56.
It seems that Gogol's Nozdrev, who attempts to cheat Chichikov in the game of
checkers, is the antecedent of both Nabokov's M'sieur Pierre and Bulgakov's
Behemoth. M'sieur Pierre's poor performance with dice can be also traced to Gogol s
earlier tale "The Lost Letter" («Пропавшая грамота», 1831), in which a witch loses her
card game to the Grandad, as well as to Edouard d'Anglemont's legend "La partie de
46s" (1833), in which Satan loses his game to the abbot. See Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls,
ed George Gibian (New York: Norton, 1985), 86-87; and his The Complete Tales, 1:
86: Maximilian Rudwin, The Devi! in Legend and Literature (Chicago: The Open Court
Publishing Company, 1931), 143n. 20.

Christian Tradition and Iconography 111
pevil constantly lies, and therefore a lie, the norm of his behavior, is
transformed for him, as it were, into the truth: "When he speaketh a lie,
ue speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it" (John 8,44).
M'sieur Pierre's resemblance to the Antichrist is further suggested in his
recalling his Devil-like father, "who never lied either" (E186/R183-
84)—a statement clearly indicating the opposite, since M'sieur Pierre
emerges from the novel as a patent liar.
Further, M'sieur Pierre takes special pleasure in mocking and
tormenting Cincinnatus. Thus, upon learning that Cincinnatus is
dreaming of escaping from the prison, M'sieur Pierre, with the assistance
of Rodrig, digs the tunnel to Cincinnatus's cell that Cincinnatus imagines
is being dug by his actual liberators. M'sieur Pierre also eggs on Emmie
to arouse in Cincinnatus false hopes of liberation by her drawings in the
prison library catalogue, to promise his escape from the prison, and to
play the guide when he does finally get out through the tunnel, bringing
him back instead to Rodrig's apartment. That M'sieur Pierre master-
minded this sadistic ploy is apparent from his response when Cincinnatus
appears there: while Rodrig is astounded ("when he saw Cincinnatus the
director gaped, and something drooled from one comer of his mouth"),
M'sieur Pierre is not at all surprised: "M'sieur Pierre, who was stirring
his tea, demurely lowered his eyes" (E166/R165). Also, earlier in this
chapter, forcing Cincinnatus to crawl back through the tunnel, "M'sieur
Pierre yelled something after him about tea" (E163/R163), and indeed
Cincinnatus, led by Emmie, appears at Rodrig's apartment right in time
for the tea party.100
M'sieur Pierre's diabolic essence also comes to expression in a
horrible stench—another traditional attribute of the Devil.101 This stench
can be viewed both literally and figuratively as the corrupt milieu in
which Cincinnatus feels suffocated:
00 For this particular connection, see Barabtarlo, "Within and Without Cincinnatus's Cell:
Reference Gauges in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading" 393-94. On the Devil as
a trickster, see Graf, The Story of the Devil, and specifically its chapter 5, "The Frauds,
Tricks, and Chicaneries of the Devil," 79-95.
101 Ш, .
M S|eur Pierre's smell perhaps can be traced to his namesake, Petrushka, Chichikov's
servant in Dead Souls. See Dolinin, «Цветная спираль Набокова», 461.

1()0 Delicate Markers
"Why do you smell like that?" asked Cincinnatus with a sigh. M'sieur
Pierre's plump face twisted into a forced smile.
"It runs in the family," he explained with dignity. "Feet sweat a little. I've
tried alums, but nothing works....
"I can't breathe," said Cincinnatus. (E146/R146-47)
M'sieur Pierre speaks "with dignity" of this horrendous smell running in
the family because this is his palpable impresa, a manifestation of his
satanic nature.102 It draws attention again in the tunnel-crawling episode:
"'With your permission I'll change,' spoke M'sieur Pierre and pulled off
his dusty sweater... exuding his characteristic stench" (E160/R160).
Finally, we may note yet another Devil-associated characteristic, not
part of Christian tradition, but derived from Gogol, specifically from his
portrayal of Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls. As Nabokov
remarks in his monograph on this writer, пошлость or poshlust, as he
ingeniously rendered it, "which Chichikov personifies is one of the main
attributes of the Devil.'"03 Following Gogol, Nabokov portrays M'sieur
Pierre as the King of poshlust, with his silly anecdotes and jokes—such
as the story about the old woman which he tells twice (E84 and
183-84/R90—91 and 181);104 his quip "all aboard" in response to Rodrig's
remark that "the board is excellent" (E86/R92); his characterization of
love as "the most beautiful and healthful of all known physical exercises"
(E151/R150) and of art as "some piquant torso" (E152/R152).
Now let us turn to the cohort of M'sieur Pierre's accomplices, the
102 The Russian expressions нечистый дух ("unclean spirit") and нечистая сила ("unclean
force") are synonymous with the Devil. See Dal', Толковый словарь живого велико-
русского языка, 1:438-39 and 2: 543. These expressions are of course a reflection of
Christian tradition that associates the Devil with stench. See Jeffrey Burton Russell,
Lucifer: The Devi! in the Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press,
1984), 68-69 and 90.
103 Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 73.
104 With this joke, M'sieur Pierre clearly intends to torment Cincinnatus. By telling about
"this little old lady" (E183/R181) who fears death as her "head shakes" (E184/R181),
not realizing that this is the symptom of her aging, M'sieur Pierre wants to remind the
young Cincinnatus of his impending death and to cause his head to shake in the fear of
death. I am grateful to Cynthia DiPrima, a student in my 1992 Nabokov seminar, for
this observation.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
Rodrig-Roman-Rodion triune. Christian tradition opposes the so-called
trinity of Evil to the Holy Trinity.105 If M'sieur Pierre can be likened to
the Devil, this trio is his suite of demons, who turn into one another (see
g43-44 and 222-23/R54-55 and 217) like "werewolves" and also vanish
and reappear like "specters" (E40/R51). Rodrig demonstrates this spectral
ability when "he calmly vanished, dissolving into the air. A minute later,
however, the door opened once again..., and, dressed as always in a frock
coat, his chest out, in came the same person" (E15/R28).106
The demonic essence of the lawyer, Roman, is marked by the black
cat jumping on his shoulder during the family visit episode.197 It is also
suggested there when he is described as "unsuccessfully attempting to
wrap in it [a vast sheet of wrapping paper—G. S.] a bowl containing a
pale-orange little fish in clouded water" (E105-6/R110). In Russian, the
phrase "little fish in clouded water"—рыбка в мутной воде—evokes the
idiom ловить рыбку в мутной воде, meaning "to take advantage of
unclear circumstances, of someone's hardships,"108 thereby allegorically
implying the Devil's intent to capture Cincinnatus's soul by taking
advantage of his plight and fear. Roman's unsuccessful attempt to wrap
the bowl foreshadows the Devil's defeat at the end of the novel.
The demonism of Rodion is indicated by a curious allusion in chapter
2, when
having assumed the imitation-jaunty pose of operatic rakes in the tavern scene,...
Rodion was singing in his bass-baritone, rolling his eyes, brandishing the empty
mug. Marthe used to sing that same dashing song once. Tears gushed from the
eyes of Cincinnatus. On a climactic note Rodion sent the mug crashing against
the floor and slid off the table. His song went on in chorus, even though he was
alone. (E29-30/R42)
I See Graf, The Story of the Devil, 29.
и This is an ability also of Korov'ev in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, he first appears
in the novel now as an apparition, now in the flesh. See Bulgakov, Master and
Margarita, 4 and 36, and Собрание сочинений, 8: 18 and 54.
107 On the Devil in the guise of a black cat, see, for example, Fedor Buslaev, «Бес», in his
Мои досуги, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1886), 2: 17-18.
ьее V. I. Chernyshev et al., eds., Словарь современного русского литературного
языка, 19 vols. (Moscow and Leningrad: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1950-65), 6. col.

1()0 Delicate Markers
The mention of tavern, bass-baritone, and chorus evoke the famous scene
in Auerbach's cellar from Goethe's Faust.m That scene culminates in
Mephistopheles's "Flea" song, in which the king caringly treats the flea
as his kin, very much as M'sieur Pierre and his retinue, and particularly
Rodion, treat the spider.110 The phrase "operatic rakes" also calls to mind
Gounod's eponymous opera, based on Goethe's drama. Gounod's opera
contains a similar kermesse ("village fair") scene in which Mephistophe-
les, accompanied by a chorus, sings the aria "And Satan conducts the
ball!" ("Et Satan conduit le bal!").m This association further underscores
the satanic nature of Cincinnatus's entourage. The notion of Satan's
'conducting the ball' is ironic, in view of the novel's close, when the
whole infernal town disintegrates, and M'sieur Pierre and his fiendish
crew, reduced both in size and in number, think only of their own res-
"Marthe used to sing that same dashing song once" (E29/R42),
perhaps in a comparable low register, for later on it is noted that she
speaks "in a low chesty voice" (E196/R192) and "in a drawling, low-
pitched voice" (E197/R193). Marthe's connection with the infernal world
is suggested not only by this mention of her singing the same song as
109 Nabokov did not hold high regard for Goethe's tragedy, once commenting that "it takes
a super-Russian to admit that there is a dreadful streak of poshlust running through
Goethe's Faust." See Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 64.
110 This song grew in popularity in Russia after it was set to music by Mussorgskii (1879)
and became part of Shaliapin's singing repertoire.
'" Buhks links this scene to Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (La damnation de Faust,
1846); see her «Эшафот в хрустальном дворце: О романе Вл. Набокова Пригла-
шение на казнь-, 836.
р Curiously, the 'la-bas' motif, so prominent in the novel, is present in Gounod's opera
as well. It appears in the episode in which Mephistopheles insists that in return for his
service Faust will sign the pact with him:
Mephistopheles. Ici, je suis a ton service,
Mais lk-bas tu seras au mien.
Faust La-bas!
Mephistopheles. La-bas (1,2:26-28).
For the libretto, see L 'Avant-Scene. Opera 2 (March-April 1976), 18.

gedy and Gounod's eponymous opera, upon learning from Mephis-
topheles about her husband's death, quickly forgets her grief, taking up
wjfh the fiendish bearer of bad tidings, whom she finds charming and
tries to persuade to stay, thinking to have him as her prospective new
spouse.113 In Invitation to a Beheading Marthe is of course far more
carefree and indiscriminate in her libidinous pursuits than her German
and French namesakes: she, though married, accepts the attentions of
almost any man, including M'sieur Pierre."4 Their encounter occurs
during her last visit to Cincinnatus. She obtains permission to spend
"oodles of time" (E201/R197) with her husband by agreeing to yield to
the amorous demands first of Rodrig and then of M'sieur Pierre himself,
that deflated Mephistopheles.115 Her consent can by no means be viewed
Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

H on but also by her name. Thus, her namesake in both Goethe's
1 Z"1 ,»-»/-»/1 ' о ОПЛП\/ГПЛ11е ЛПОГО 1 тлп lanm in/v А-АГП
1 Nabokov may have been familiar with The Book of Generations (Степенная книга),
a mid-sixteenth-century Russian literary monument, which contains a section "On the
Ruinous Contrivances of the Evil-minded Woman Marfa" («О погибельном ухищре-
нии злоумныя жены Марфы»), into whom "entered the perfidious Devil that hates
mankind from time immemorial." See Полное собрание русских летописей 21, pt.
114 After her sexual encounter with M'sieur Pierre, the angry Marthe remarks, "'Shouldn't
try if you can't manage it'" (E199/R195), thereby indicating that the executioner is
erotically impotent. That agrees with Christian tradition, which frequently so portrays
the Devil. Cf. Dante, Inferno XXXIV: 43, where the right head of the three-faced Devil
is described as tra bianca e gialla ("between white and yellow"), an expression sug-
gestive of impotence. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans, and comment.
John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1:422-23 and 430; also
see Antonio Lanci, "giallo," Enciclopedia Dantesca, 5 vols. + 1 vol. app. (Rome:
Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970-78), 3: 150.
"s Unlike the real Mephistopheles who succeeded in his luring of Faust, M'sieur Pierre
fails in his temptation of Cincinnatus. Curiously, Nabokov mentions the poodle from
Goethe's Faust'm his review of Aleksandr Saltykov's poetry in which he speaks of "one
poem standing, however, by itself (January, 1917) about a black poodle (Goethean),
motionlessly sitting on the bridge in the snow flakes." See Vladimir Nabokov, Rev. of
Aleksandr Saltykov's Оды и гимны in Руль, October 1, 1924,5.
Perhaps to signal a parody, the poodle, into which Goethe's Mephistopheles turns, is
transformed in Nabokov's novel into '4he bulldog head of his [M'sieur Pierre's—G. S.]
cane" (E215/R209). Unlike the poodle, the bulldog is an aggressive breed with strong
jaws capable of tearing its victim into pieces. Nabokov perhaps chose the bulldog as
"юге fitting for the cane of the executioner, who constantly torments his victim before

120 Delicate Markers
as a significant sacrifice, since she was constantly unfaithful to
Cincinnatus in the past. She herself refers to her 'feat' in this episode as
"a little concession—the usual story" (E195/R191). Marthe's lust and
promiscuity implicitly affirm her satanic association, for these have
commonly been considered devilish vices by Christian tradition. It is not
surprising therefore that the children she has, and not by Cincinnatus, are
engendered by the Devil, as it were: "The boy was lame and evil-
tempered, the girl dull, obese and nearly blind" (E31/R44) as well as
"red-haired" (E100/R105).i16
Other links also subtly point to Marthe's belonging to the demonic
world. Thus the associative series that emerges in Cincinnatus's half-
sleep: "Marthe, the executioner's block, her velvet" (E66/R75), in
company with later references: "Marthe... the tight bodice of her black
velvet dress" (E195/R191) and "upon black velvet, lay a broad, shiny ax"
(E163/R162). The from-half-sleep series is followed by "how will it turn
out... which will it be? A beheading or a tryst?" (E66-67/R75). Besides
its literal meaning—that is, what awaits Cincinnatus, an execution or
Marthe's visit—this may postpriori be figuratively interpreted: Marthe's
"tryst" becomes a moral execution for Cincinnatus, because she insists on
his renouncing himself and repenting. The conversation so torments
Cincinnatus that he asks her to leave.
murdering him. The bulldog head on M'sieur Pierre's cane harks back to his unsuccess-
ful chair-lifting with his teeth: the "teeth" which turned out to be a hinged denture, held
to the chair "with a bulldog grip" [in Russian, «мертвой хваткой», that is literally "with
a mortal grip"] and left "deep imprints of bulldog teeth on the top edge of its straight
back" (El 16 and 118/R119 and 120).
A detail as though combining the elements from Goethe's Faust and Nabokov's
Invitation to a Beheading is found in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, where Woland
is described as carrying "a walking stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle's head."
See Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, 6 and Полное собрание сочинений, 8: 20.
Chnstian tradition commonly portrayed the Devil as lame, cross-eyed or blind in one
eye. and red-haired; it frequently, especially in the Middle Ages, regarded "all
deformed and misshapen children as the offspring of the Devil." See, respectively,
Russell, Lucifer, 68-69; his The Prince of Darkness, 114; and Graf, The Story of the
Devil, 117. This tradition is manifest in literature: the diabolical Richard III ffl
Shakespeare's eponymous play is hunchbacked and lame, Asmodeus in Guevara s
novel The Lame Devi! is lame, Azazello in Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita is
red-haired and one-eyed.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography

The satanic nature of these various characters is also implied through
associations with the spider. As we saw earlier, the moth or butterfly,
which according to Christian tradition is a symbol of Christ's resurrec-
tion, becomes, as it were, Cincinnatus's totem. By contrast, almost all
other main characters are connected with the spider, which in Christian
tradition is a symbol of the Devil.117 (In Chapter 2,1 have demonstrated
the connection between the spider and the swastika—that repeatedly
alluded to 'coat of arms' of the infernal world around Cincinnatus.)
Thus, Rodion is constantly feeding and talking to the animal: "The
spider. |. settled on the finger which Rodion offered to the furry beastie,
chatting with it as with a canary" (E66/R74). Toward the end of the novel,
Roman, the other member of M'sieur Pierre's devilish team, "to while
away the time... picked up the spider" (E210/R205) which Rodrig has
swept down and which like everything in the world surrounding Cincin-
natus turns out to be not a living creature but a fake. Noticing Roman
playing with the spider, "M'sieur Pierre cast a sidelong cold glance at the
toy and Roman, raising his eyebrows, hastily pocketed it" (ibid). M'sieur
Pierre's disapproving glance suggests that the headsman values the
toy—that devilish totem.
Earlier on, the spider is identified as part of M'sieur Pierre's
performing "family": "Concealing his labored respiration, he [M'sieur
Pierre—G. S.] wiped his hands long and carefully with a red handker-
chief, while the spider, as the youngest member of the circus family,
performed a simple trick above his web" (E115/R118). (The red
handkerchief suggests blood—a hint at M'sieur Pierre's profession.) The
almost familial connection of the satanic M'sieur Pierre with the spider
is in agreement with Christian tradition, which views this creature as a
demonic symbol: the Devil attempts to trap humans as the spider its
prey."8. The spider-like, demonic nature of M'sieur Pierre is also evident
1 See Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 25. It is noteworthy that in Lolita
Humbert likens himself to a spider spreading his web to catch Lolita: "I am like one of
those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens. Sitting in the middle of a luminous
web and giving little jerks to this or that strand. My web is spread all over the house as
I listen from my chair where I sit like a wily wizard. Is Lo in her room? Gently I tug on
the silk. She is not." See The Annotated Lolita, 49.
See Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 25.

1()0 Delicate Markers
when, having forced his future victim to visit his cell, he "as if enmeshi
him in something, kept walking around Cincinnatus" (E160/R160) 8
Finally, Marthe is repeatedly and persistently compared to the spider
"the velvet spider, somehow resemblimg Marthe" (E32/R44); "the well-
nourished black beastie had found points of support for a first-rate web
with the same resourcefulness as Marthe displayed when she would find
in what seemed the most unsuitable corner, a place and a method for
hanging out laundry to dry" (El 19/R121). And both the spider and
Marthe have "round hazel eyes" (E62 and 119/R71 and 122).119 Marthe's
resembling a spider and her constantly wearing mourning black, as if
assuming widow status even before her husband's death, evokes the black
widow, a spider whose females kill the males after they have fulfilled
their engendering function.120 (Ironically, Marthe, who casts her vote for
Cincinnatus's execution [E64/R73], has not been impregnated by Cincin-
natus, even though he is officially considered her children's father.)
Marthe is also likened to another creature—the ape: thinking about
her, Cincinnatus dubs her ears "simian" (E142/R143). According to
Physiognomonica (6 [812a]) attributed to Aristotle, small ears like those
of an ape indicate a rapacious and deceitful disposition, and this is
certainly true of the insatiably lascivious and constantly adulterous
Marthe. This negative perception of the ape continued in Christian times,
when this animal was perceived as a symbol of lustfulness and vanity. We
may recall that when the lustful Marthe comes to see Cincinnatus,
accompanied by her family and by the next-in-line 'admirer,' she holds
a mirror—in this case, the symbol of vanity par excellence. Furthermore,
Christian tradition viewed the 'human-like' ape as a figure diaboli,
especially since the Devil was known as the simia Dei.m
1,9 Cf. Smart, The Dimensions of Parody, 62.
We may recall that in Leo Tolstoi's novel Anna Karenin (1877), Levin compares
"fallen women" to this animal. See Leo Tolstoy, The Works [Tolstoy Centenary
Edition), 21 vols., trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (London: Humphrey Milford,
1928-37), 9:46; and L. N. Tolstoi, Полное собрание сочинений, 90 vols. (Moscow
and Leningrad. Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1928-58), 18: 45.
Ш I am grateful to Elizabeth Minard for this observation.
ш On the mirror as symbol of vamtas in Christian art, see G. F. Hartlaub, Zauber des
Sjpifgels (Munich: Piper, 1951), esp. 149-57, and Heinrich Schwarz, "The Mirror in

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
A woodpecker also was customarily known as a symbol of the Devil
and the novel employs this imagery too.122 It occurs for the first time in
the episode of Emmie's playing with the ball:
It was a rhythmic, quick, blunt sound, and Cincinnatus, all his nerves a-flutter,
heard in it an invitation. He walked on, very attentive, very ethereal and lucid-
he turned he knew not how many comers. The noise ceased, but then seemed to
have flown nearer, like an invisible woodpecker. Tap, tap, tap. (E75/R82)
The meaning of this simile is not yet clear, but already here one can
discern a certain element of deceptiveness. The narrator's remark that
when Cincinnatus came across Emmie, she "looked at him slyly and
shyly" (ibid) enhances this impression. In the next episode, making
himself comfortable in his cell, M'sieur Pierre, "the likable shorty... was
standing on a chair and tacking the calendar to the wall: tap, tap, like a
woodpecker" (E77-78/R85). These two 'woodpecker' references, which
appear in the same chapter, help to establish quite early in the novel an
associative link between M'sieur Pierre and Emmie. And, finally, towards
the end of the novel, 'woodpecker' imagery recurs in the description of
the scaffold-building:
They walked a long time. It was very dark and foggy.
A blunt knock-knock-knock [in Russian, the sound is rendered as ток-ток-
-TOK, precisely as in the two preceding episodes—G. S.] came from somewhere
off to the left as they were descending Steep Avenue. Knock-knock-knock.
Art," The Art Quarterly 15 (1952): 97-118, esp. 106-9. On perception of the ape in
antiquity, see William Coffman McDermott, The Ape in Antiquity (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1938). On perception of the ape in Christian times,
particularly as figura diaboli\ see H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance (London: The Warburg Institute, 1952), especially, 13-27. On the
Devil as the simia Dei' see Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature, 120-29.
|2 Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 27. This attitude to the woodpecker was
reflected in numerous Physiologues known since early Christianity. For example, the
oldest, thirteenth-century Russian Physiologue reads: "The woodpecker is a motley
bird, it lives in mountains, sits on cedars and knocks [them] with its beak. And where
it finds soft wood, there it builds a nest. Likewise, the Devil is struggling with people.
And when he finds weakness and contempt for prayer in someone, he enters him and
is lodged there. If, on the other hand, he finds strength in the other, he avoids him." See
L. A. Dmitriev and D. S. Likhachev, сотр., Памятники литературы Древней Руси.
XIII век (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literature, 1981), 478 and 613-14.

1()0 Delicate Markers
"The scoundrels," muttered M'sieur Pierre. "Didn't they swear it was all
done?" (E190-91/R188)
M'sieur Pierre's remark here makes his satanic role in Cincinnatus's fate
utterly obvious.
Like the spider and woodpecker, the labyrinth has negative meaning
in Christian tradition: it connotes the vicissitudes of human existence
with its erroneous expectations, fallacious voyages, and dead ends its
many departures from the straight spiritual path to God. This idea is
graphically demonstrated in this Russian folk picture (lubok) (Fig. 15).123
(In the preceding chapter, I noted the labyrinth's connection to the
swastika.) Cincinnatus's roaming in the labyrinth of the fortress's
corridors intermittently continues as long as he cooperates with this
world of "specters, werewolves, parodies" (E40/R51).124 This Cincin-
natus's remark is later fully confirmed. Elsewhere, we see the accompli-
ces of M'sieur Pierre turning into one another and observe the parodical
nature of the world surrounding Cincinnatus. And Cincinnatus's dubbing
them "specters" is reinforced at the very end of the novel when M'sieur
Pierre is carried away as a larva; after all, larva in Latin means a "ghost"
or a "specter." Towards the novel's close Cincinnatus realizes that
"eveiything has duped me as it fell into place, everything. This is the dead
end of this life, and I should not have sought salvation within its con-
fines" (E205/R200). It is upon this realization that he finds peace within
himself, learns not to cooperate with his tormentors, and finds the way
out of this spiritual maze to the "beings akin to him" (E223/R218).
Besides the above Devil-related characters, the prison guards too,
each "wearing a doglike mask" (E13/R27), evoke diabolic associations
since the Devil and his accomplices frequently appear in the shape of a
dog.125 In fact, we can say that the whole city, traversed by "decrepit,
Ц It is very likely that Nabokov was familiar with this lubok from his childhood, since,
as I mentioned earlier, the Rovinskii study was available to him in his father's library.
See Систематический каталог библиотеки Владимира Дмитриевича Набокова,
Ц In feet, the whole fortress can be seen as labyrinthine; cf. Alexandrov, Nabokov's
OAerworld, 85.
,a In the Russian medieval hagiography The Life ofTheodosius of the Caves (Житие

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
, eaCjfui horses, which have long since ceased to marvel at the sights of
hell" (E74/R81), is infernal. It engenders "little children who were lame,
hunchbacked or crosseyed" (E30/R42)—defects traditionally considered
demonic, as noted above.126 Its hellish character is also reflected in its
symbol, the statue of Captain Somnus: according to Ancient Romans,
Somnus, their deity of sleep (Hypnos of the Greeks), was an inhabitant
of the Underworld (see 191n. 25). (Many years later, Nabokov, who had
suffered from insomnia, has metaphorically connected sleep, execution
Феодосия Печерского, 1080s), the Devil appears to the saint in the guise of a black
dog. See Памятники литературы Древней Руси. Начало русской литературы.
XI-начало XII века, сотр. and ed. L. A. Dmitriev and D. S. Likhachev (Moscow:
Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1978), 347. Such portrayal of the Devil is reflected in the
visual arts as well. For example, the Apocalypse miniatures frequently depicted Gog and
Magog, the Satanic beings believed to be the kings of Canocephales, with dog heads.
See Buslaev, Свод изображений из лицевых Апокалипсисов, 235. We may recall
that in Goethe's Faust Mephistopheles assumes the shape of a black poodle; see I:
1147-1324. For a general detailed discussion on the subject, see Barbara Allen Woods,
The Devil in Dog Form: A Partial Type-Index ofDevi! Legends (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1959).
We also find the dog and doghead imagery symbolizing the Devil in Russian
twentieth-century literature. Thus, in Khodasevich's poem that begins with the line
"From a Berlin Street" («С берлинской улицы», 1923) and that is included in the cycle
characteristically entitled European Л^А/(Европейская ночь, 1927), the fifth quatrain
reads: «Нечеловечий дух, / Нечеловечья речь,—/И песьи головы / Поверх сутулых
плеч» ("Inhuman spirit, / Inhuman speech,—/ And dog heads / Over stooping
shoulders"). See Vladislav Khodasevich, Собрание сочинений (Ann Arbor: Ardis,
1983-), 1: 149.
Hie guards' wearing dog masks and the warden Rodion's frequently using a broom
evoke oprichnina. Cf. Davydov, "Teksty-matreski" Vladimira Nabokova, 113. Oprich-
лА/were Ivan IV's personal body guard, the forerunner of the secret police; they carried
a replica of a dog's head and a broom which symbolized their gnawing the Tsar's ene-
mies and sweeping treason away from the land. For a detailed discussion of this, see
Hugh F. Graham, "Oprichnina," The Modem Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet
History 26: 48-56. It is noteworthy that in Glory, there is a mention, most likely
autobiographical, of Martin taking a Russian exam which included a question on "Ivan
the Terrible's Gangmen" [«об опричниках» in the Russian original]. See Glory, 115 and
Подвиг, 134. In nineteenth-centuiy Russian literature, which figures prominently in
Nabokov's novel, this epoch provides the setting for Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoi's
novel Prince Serebrianyi (Князь Серебряный, 1862).
Cf. 116n. 116.

Delicate Markers
Figure IS
The Spiritual Labyrinth
and death through the imagery reminiscent of the novel's main collision
by describing Somnus as a "black-masked headsman binding me to the
block... while the familiar ax is coming out of its great velvet-lined
double-base case."127) This infernal city, the headquarters of the Devil, so
Ц Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 109. See Berdjis, Imagery in Vladimir Nabokov's Last
Russian Novel, 1SS and 355.

Christian Tradition and Jen,
na tonography
t0 speak, is the fortress with its yellow walls.'28 When M'sieur Pierre
moves in, he affixes to his cell wall with that satanic tap-tap "the wall
calendar with the water color of the fortress at sunset" (E161/R160); a
detail symbolizing, as it were, the falling darkness. (The Devil is tradi-
tionally known as the Prince of Darkness.)
The end of this city is foreshadowed in the description of the
abandoned fortress "which already stood quite poorly, the perspective
was disorganized, something had come loose and dangled" (E215/R210).
In the course of Cincinnatus's trip to the place of execution, we learn
about the destruction of the two other symbols of the city. Thus, "beyond
the public garden the corpulent white statue had been split in two—by a
thunderbolt, said the papers" (E216/R211), and "all that remained of the
statue of Captain Somnus was the legs up to the hips, surrounded by
roses—it too must have been struck by lightning" (E218/R212). By the
time Cincinnatus leaves the place of execution the destruction has already
pervaded the whole city:
Little was left of the square. The platform had long since collapsed in a cloud of
reddish dust... The fallen trees lay flat and reliefless, while those that were still
standing, also two-dimensional, with a lateral shading of the trunk to suggest
roundness, barely held on with their branches to the ripping mesh of the sky.
Everything was coming apart. Everything was falling. (E223/R217-18)
This near-universal destruction calls to mind the End of the World
followed by the Last Judgment. The mixed detachment maintaining order
in the city during Cincinnatus's execution includes firemen; this alludes
to the Gospels, according to which Jesus will say to the Devil and his
followers on Doomsday: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting
fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25,41).129 These and
similar statements in the New Testament resulted in the traditional belief
that inhabitants of hell will burn in fiery Gehenna. The apocalyptic
18 As noted in Chapter 2, yellow is considered infernal in Christian tradition. See
Frederick Portal, Des couleurs symboliques(Paris: Treuttel and Wiirtz, 1857), 248;
Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, 153. This explains why the color of the
walls in Cincinnatus's cell is referred to as "the implacable yellowishness"
[ Cf. Edward Langton, Essentials ofDemonology(New York: AMS Press, 1881; rept
London: The Epworth Press, 1949), 170.

1()0 Delicate Markers
ending of the novel also evokes the destruction of Nineveh and Babylon
and the fires of Troy and Rome. In Russian literature, it brings to mind
such eschatologically oriented works as Dostoevski's The Possessed
Belyi's Petersburg; and Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, to name only
a few."0
In closing, it should be noted that Christian associations, which
strongly pervade Invitation to a Beheading,, enhance the tragism of the
protagonist's situation in the hostile world around him and underscore his
being a poet. Furthermore, they enable to interpret the novel's close as
the resurrection of its hero, thereby offering the readers, especially those
of the 1930s, bemazed by the "communazist" ideology, the familiar
ethical example of high order.
Щ for a detailed discussion of these motifs in their connection with Bulgakov's Master
tad Margarita, see В. M Gasparov, «Из наблюдений над мотивной структурой
ромам М. Л. Булгакова «Мастер и Маргарита», Slavicж Hicrosolymitana 3 (1978):

r0 the important role that subtexts play in Nabokov's oeuvre, his
ce of the пот de plume Sirin first of all attests, as it evokes a broad
y of cultural reminiscences. The significance that Nabokov attached
t0 Sirin is evident from his insistently encoding authorial presence
through it. These tokens of authorial presence can be viewed as "heavenly
signs" which Nabokov, as creator of this poetic universe, sends ostensibly
to his characters, but in fact to his "good readers," whom he expects to
detect and interpret them upon rereading. As we have seen, Nabokov
chose this pen name largely because of its multi-faceted siren-associa-
tions, which relate directly to Nabokov's notion of a writer as a story-
teller, teacher, and enchanter. Also influencing his choice was the fatidic
date symbolism connected with his own life at the time.
Nabokov's predilection for the visual, evident in Invitation to a
Beheading most particularly in alphabetic iconicism and chromesthesia,
can be viewed in the broader context of the century-long cultural
tradition, from the Golden to Silver Ages, with its emphasis on the
synthesis of sister arts, specifically literature and painting. With regard to
Nabokov's native Russian culture, particularly its literature, the names of
Nikolai Gogol and Andrei Belyi immediately come to mind as the
respective representative figures of these two periods. Gogol, we may
recall, used alphabetic iconicism in such works as "The Tale of How Ivan
Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" («Повесть о том, как
поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем», 1834) and
"Diary of a Madman" («Записки сумасшедшего», 1835). And Belyi
employed this device in his article "The Magic of Words" («Магия слов»,
1909) and in the Preface to a poem The First Encounter (Первое
свидание, 1921).68 Although not endowed with chromesthesia, both
Gogol and Belyi displayed an acute sensitivity to color in their writings.69
68 See, respectively, Shapiro, «Николай Гоголь и гордый гоголь: писатель и его имя»,
158-59п. 45; and Johnson, "Belyj and Nabokov: A Comparative Overview," 391.
» For a discussion of Gogol's predilection for color in his verbal art, see Andrei Belyi,
Мастерство Гоголя, Moscow-Leningrad: OGIZ, 1934; rept. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982).
For a recent discussion of Belyi's own proclivity to color, see E. V. Zavadskaia, «Ut

130 Delicate Markers
And all three writers undoubtedly enhanced their great sense of the visual
through their study and amateur practice of art, especially landscape
The immemorial affinity between poehy and prophecy, as well as the
long-established convention of an artist associating himself with the
beheaded evangelical prophet, may in part explain Nabokov's casting
"the poet" Cincinnatus in the role of John the Baptist. Furthermore, the
prevalence of Christian tradition and iconography in Invitation to a
Beheading suggests that the work may be included in the categoty of the
so-called mythological novel, not unlike Belyi's Petersburg, Joyce's
Ulysses and Bulgakov's Master and Margarita™ As a world perception,
mythologism, with its deep-laid focus on contemporaneous historical
upheavals, is especially characteristic of the twentieth-century "crisis of
consciousness." The pathos of this cataclysmic epoch, drawing now to its
close, lies in reevaluating the traditional ethical values through the stream
of historical transformation.71 These reevaluations frequently occur
against the backdrop of well-known mythological motifs, Christian in the
case of Invitation to a Beheading. At a time when in the two largest
European countries, one of his birth and the other of his residence, people
were oppressed by totalitarianism, Nabokov's prophetic novel demon-
strated how the resolve of its Christ-like protagonist to preserve his
unique human image even at the cost of life leads to the destruction of the
infernal world around him. Considered along these lines, Cincinnatus's
exploit, then, is designed to serve as a high moral example and to show
the path of liberation and salvation to humanity—the readership—outside
the fictional boundaries of the novel.
The abundance of Russian literary allusions in Invitation to a Be-
piciura poesis Андрея Белого», in Андрей Белый. Проблемы творчества, сотр.
Stanislav Lesnevskii and Aleksandr Mikhailov (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1988),
70 For the parallels between Invitation to a Beheading and Joyce's Ulysses regarding the
motif of farcical execution, see Barabtarlo, "Within and Without Cincinnatus's Cell:
Reference Gauges in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading," 391.
1 l or a detailed discussion of mythologism, see E. M. Meletinskii, Поэтика мифа
(Moscow: Nauka, 1976); and lu. M. Lotman and Z. G. Mints, «Литература и мифо-
логия», Труды по знаковым системам 13 (1981): 35-55.

. ^ suggests that together with The Gift, also written "on the slope"
№ jjokov's "Russian years," the novel serves as a distinctive survey
d 8 farewell tribute to the nineteenth-centuiy culture of his native land,
the example of Baudelairean echoings illustrates, the presence of
"this mythical Nineteenth Century" goes beyond Russia's cultural bound-
aries.) Unlike the "realistically"-set The Gift; however, with its overt
references, the dystopian Invitation to a Beheading presents allusions
rather inconspicuously, even surreptitiously. Since these allusions are
associated with Cincinnatus, their relative covertness contributes to the
atmosphere of impermeability which surrounds his unique, zealously
guarded inner world.
The profusion of these "delicate markers" in the novel and Nabokov's
insistence on their importance throughout his oeuvre seem at first glance
to be inconsistent with his annoyance at critics for "scurrying in search
of more or less celebrated names for the purpose of passionate compari-
son" (E6). However, when we consider that such "scurrying" and "com-
parison" usually involve a search for influence, imitativeness, borrowing,
we may understand Nabokov's exasperation. As our discussion of
subtexts in the novel demonstrates, the emphasis should be rather on the
creative dialogue, at times polemical, which Nabokov conducts with his
predecessors. As we have seen with regard to the canceled versions of
Pushkin and especially Gogol, Nabokov was not devoid of competitive
spirit: as their true heir, he attempts to "outperform" his literary ancestors
by utilizing their discarded texts.72 Following Belyi, specifically his
Petersburg, a novel which Nabokov held in very high esteem, he resorts
to a subtext not only to enhance the understanding of his own work, but
also as a commentary on the work alluded to.
A uniquely Nabokovian device that deserves our special attention is
his use of the subtext as a bait. The main purpose of this, it seems, is to
teach the reader not to resort to cliche thinking but to strive for a deeper
understanding of things under the veneer of the familiar or obvious.
Nabokov further conveys this notion in the example of the novel's
73 Cf. Nabokov's remark in his lectures on Dostoevskii: "If you hate a book, you still may
derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things or
what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does." Lectures on Russian
Literature; 105.

Delicate Markers
protagonist, who attains salvation when he refuses not only to abide b
the rules of the world around him but also to live within the self-imp^
constraints of modeling his life on those of literary characters. The bait
subtext is but one example of the game which Nabokov, homo luden*
plays with his reader. An experienced and gifted pedagogue, Nabokov
mixes play with instruction, offering his "good readers" in this novel as
indeed in his entire oeuvre, a lesson in individuality and spiritual
Finally, the plurality of subtexts in Invitation to a Beheading un-
raveled in this study points to complex interartistic and cross-cultural ties
in Nabokov's oeuvre, which are especially apparent in his "American
years." Thanks not to a small degree to his versatile upbringing and life
circumstances, Nabokov, a cultural liaison of sorts, was ahead of his
times as he fostered these centrifugal ties, whose importance in recent
years has become more and more evident.