Laughter in the Dark
“Once upon a time there lived in berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”
So begins one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most overlooked novels, Laughter in the Dark, which tells its story both in two sentences and in over two hundred pages. It is not Nabakov’s best work, but it is nonetheless a deceptively simple character drama.
On the surface, the women of this book appear to fit simple, fixed roles—the young flirtatious mistress and the wronged wife. Their paths follow predictable routes: the mistress wishes to use her older lover for her own advantage, manipulates him away from her family and after bleeding away as much of his money as she can (with the help of a younger lover) she discards him, while the wife collapses in on herself after discovering her husband’s affair before eventually taking him back when his need is dire.
But the two women characters are in fact excellently drawn. The magical thing about the novel is its use of inevitability, its conscious fulfillment of everything the reader knows is and will happen. Thus, all the characters fit into simple boxes, but none of them are simple. The youthful mistress has depths and dreams of her own, has a power to control others clashing with an inability to control herself which makes her a masterful villainess. Part of accepting that women are equal to men is accepting that they can reach the same depths as a man, in their own ways. Perhaps if she had not been born into the tight system she was caught in, into a world where the only way to advance in her life was wither to marry or take lovers, she would have turned out differently. Or perhaps not.
The wife of Albinus is also deceptively simple. She has an aura of timelessness, of aloofness. She will ask a question in a conversation which has been answered long before, and her husband will ignore her because he knows she will remember soon. She seems somehow ethereal and all-knowing, anticipating people’s actions well before they do. She falls apart at her husband’s betrayal because she must, because that is the story being told, but as bent as she always seems she never breaks. Her otherworldliness, and her influence on the rest of the novel as every character carefully situates themselves in relation to her, makes her my personal favorite character.
This novel uses the tropes and rules of the predictable story it tells to lay out a tale that is somehow both new and familiar, and if one does not mind being depressed for a day or two I highly recommend it.