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I think it is reasonable to accept that this novel will have to endure repeated allusions to Kafka's early 20th century literature, particulaly the plight of Joseph K. But if we take Nabokov at his word (see the forward), then this work was written (in two weeks) in ignorance of any knowledge of Kafka and, as such, any comparisons are purely coincidental. That being said it is spooky that this novel (excluding the word play) has a very Kafkaesque feel. For instance the central character is condemened to death for offences that are never revealed, the date of the beheading is not known, the prison officals are bizarre as are the official rituals, family members pop up now and then, cause a stir and disappear for a chapter ot two, the list goes on. Like Ada and Adour I found this novel immersed me in a surreal dreamscape made up of ambiguous characters and supernatural events, with no real sense of chronology or, dare I say it, meaning. For me, however, the meditative power of the narrative (Nabokov praised his son's translation from the original Russian) and the interest I had for the fate of the hero compelled me to ride the moments I found hard work. Perhaps this work is principally a dream punctuated by moments of reflection from the character's "reality", such as, the arrogantly, unfaithful wife?
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on 29 October 2003
This book is stunning. It was the last book that Nabokov wrote in Russian and it explores a lot of the themes that he goes back to in later novels like Bend Sinister and Pale Fire. If I had to, I would pick those two novels above this one, but this one is certainly worth reading. I consider it one of the finest works of literature. It is funny, tragic, moving, puzzling, but ultimately very rewarding.
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on 22 August 2005
Set in the prison-fortress of an unnamed state, INVITATION TO A BEHEADING is a surreal tale chronicling the last days of Cincinnatus C., a man condemned and sentenced to death for... well, what exactly? Apart from the phrase "Gnostical Turpitude" and subtle accusations of being "opaque", his crime is never properly revealed, although throughout the story we learn (courtesy of Cincinnatus's fragmented scribblings) that he is in some way different or special.
At one point he recalls levitating out of a window. In a different memory he overhears group of people whispering "He is one of them, he is a..." - The chatter isn't finished and we never learn what Cincinnatus C. is or what he has done.

Whatever the true nature of his crime is, at the story's start Cincinnatus is found guilty and transported to a yellow-walled cell in a vast prison (in which he is the sole captive). For 20 days he is tormented in peculiar ways by his perversely mundane keepers. As time passes, Cincinnatus increasingly believes his jailers are not who they appear to be.

This short novel will probably flummox those who want a straightforward narrative, yet I think its dislocated symbolism and pathos will appeal most to the reader who (for whatever reason) feels marginalized by the status quo of what is normal and what is culturally expected. Cincinnatus C. is agitated and numbed by a yearning for escape and honesty, while the interferers around him are full of themselves with empty boasts, smug ambition and false concern.

Written in a fluid prose style and marked by smoke-&-mirrors imagery, INVITATION TO A BEHEADING is an absurdist classic: a strange snapshot of an outsider's dissolving life.
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on 4 February 2002
Nabokov wrote this book in two weeks. As a result the book is fast paced, as is the reading. I couldnt stop reading it until I was finished.
The author denies having read Kafka before writing this book. The fact is that the "strangeness" of the story is akin to Kafkas works. A man that finds himself in a starnge situation (in this case, convicted to death) without any aparent reason, surrounded by stranger characters. As for the end of the book, without giving it away, all I can say is that it is Amazingly puzling... Great book from a great author!
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on 30 December 2006
Nabokov himself considered this one of his more important works. It is rich in symbolism and imagery, it is penetrating about the interaction between the individual and society and it conveys a vivid picture of a baffling world in which the banal are capable of extreme cruelty - for someone who managed to escape both the rigours of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany by the skin of his teeth, Nabokov understood the totalitarian state and its modus operandi incredibly clearly.
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on 4 February 2009
To understand Nabokov's Invitation we must at first do away with two comparisons. By the same author; Lolita is a blue streak tour-de-force of baby boomer America, narrated by a poetic and childish synaesthesiac that is an incredible book in its own right but occupies a completely different world to Invitation. Second are the comparisons to Kafka and The Trial, Nabokov claiming to not have read at the time of writing Invitaion, though assuming a kindred spirit with the author in his introduction. The suffocating atmosphere is similar, yet it is probably a bad idea to try and liken the setting of Invitation to any totalitarian regime existing in the real world or the imagination. Orwell is also lampooned by Nabokov in his introduction; Nabokov famous for admonishing attempts of critics to allegorise fiction, even more so those attempts of authors. That said, Invitation is famous for elicting thousands of interpretations, and no one can claim the authoritative explanation, yet taking away the claims above does move one closer to unlocking the puzzles the book creates.

The entire scope of Invitation lies within the small prison world of Cincinatus and the small cast of characters around him. This claustrophobic world relentlessly forces us to live in Cincinatus' cell, with next to no sense of release. The small breaks from Cincinatus' prison world consist of imaginary wanderings round the small town were C lives that inevitably lead back to his cell, as well as the absurd and perhaps even manipulated break-outs. These fragments of memory are the only parts of the story that exist outside of the fortress. It is reasonable to assume that Nabokov intended to create a story that only exists within it's own pages, a small universe that lives within it's own bizarre rules and is sentenced to its own death by C himself.

Cincinatus differs quite drastically from Kafka's heroes such as Gregor Samsa, in that his absurd nature also consists of great power, terrifying, confounding and constantly offending all who visit him. He is not confined by either the prison cell, his own beheading or even his own nature, whilst Samsa's sense of self becomes increasingly squashed by his impending insect-ness and the detachment to his family. Samsa enduces feelings of sympathy within the reader, whereas Cincinatus becomes more alien to us and his captors.

The rest of Invitation's characters are equally absurd. From the prison guard to the mysterious man who occupies the other cell, every single character partakes in bizarre circular behaviour than confounds the reader and Cincinatus himself. Monsieur Pierre's jokes instill exaggerated fits of laughter in the guards, and the prison guard takes Cincinatus for a waltz. The only character who seems close to representing an aspect of normality is the library clerk, who decides to ignore most of what anyone says, Cincinatus included. His surroundings fall apart like a bad set, in that effortless manner in which one's teeth fall out of their mouths in dreams. His visitors enter his cell with ridiculous props and forced lines. Eventually his entire world is ripped into two before ascending to another world (although his salvation itself is not fulfilled as the story ends before he even gets there.)

The book may force the reader to many different reactions. The bizarre world within a book that Nabokov creates may leave you in a cold sweat, as if awoken from a nightmare, relieved to realise you are inhabit a world that makes sense. Or perhaps you may have attached yourself to Cincinatus, the man who plays at existing in the world of humans, yet being careful not to place himself at the wrong angle lest someone becomes aware of his inhuman nature. A man who inhabits neither a real world, a real body, who certainly does not possess a real soul. If you are of the second persuasion then my prayers are with you!
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on 1 September 1999
I first read this book in the 1960's and was puzzled but liked it. In 1989 I realised that it was a strange prophecy of the Fall of Communism. The victim, Cincinnatus, condemned to death for the crime of being an individual, is the prisoner of a State that is vicious but withered, its ideology regressed to senile infantilism. The individual is still to be crushed and destroyed, but one gradually realises the power and terror of the State has become eaten out at the core. The ruling ideology has no more strength. On the scaffold, about to be beheaded, he comes to his senses, stands up, refuses his role, and the whole idiotic apparatus crumbles to dust. A symbolic forcasting of what happened in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and East Berlin in 1989-90. Nabakov's best, in my opinion, written with all his strange mastery of prose. Nabakov said he had read no Kafka when he read it, but it is reminiscent of a more positive version of Kafka's "Trial". A great, unforgettable book. It is strange that the Fall of Communism has produced so little literature, but this is the story of it, written more than 50 years before it happened.
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on 1 November 2015
A great book and another one of Nabokov's best works. Dark, yet witty and with good character development this is a must read for fans of the author. Nice presentation and arrived quickly. Pleased.
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on 4 August 2002
Nabokovs writing is exquisite. His words roll off the page like skies on a never-ending slope, encouraging and inticing readers not to put a book down.
This novel concerntrates on the depressions of a convicted criminal sentenced to death by decapitation for reasons not disclosed and takes place from the time he is sentenced to 3 weeks later when the penalty is (or isn't?) carried out. You get a real feel for Cincinnatus' helplesness when nobody will answer him a simple and straight question and when all the characters about him are just flippant and overbearingly unconcerned with the situation he is in. Some of the blunt dialogue made me laugh out loud. The author delves deep into the soul of the main character through his writing his final memoir and his desperate thoughts out loud.
This book is quick to read and flows like rapids and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a first Nabakov read. Perfection.
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Nabokov surreal romp is the story of Cincinnatus C., somewhere out there in the faceless depths of Middle Europe, who has just been sentenced to a beheading for the crime of "Gnostic turpitude," which must be the legal equivalent of a "Universal Fudge Factor"; a mental construction to give you the "right answer." And the right answer in this case is that Cincinnatus does not fit into society, at least properly, and Nabokov does not dwell on the reason, only that he must leave it for his "crime." Nabokov's style is Fellini meets Kafka.

Almost the entire novel is set in Cincinnatus' jail cell, as he awaits execution. Yes, he is allowed to leave the cell from time to time, and the reader must ponder if the departures are imaginary trips or aspects of Nabokov's surrealism. The director of the jail, Rodion, is often solicitous of his only inmate, and plays psychological games both for his own edification as well as to have Cincinnatus develop complicity in his own fate. Cincinnatus wife, Marthe, has had a long habit of playing him for the cuckold, as she consummates numerous affairs, some quite openly. Cincinnatus' mother, whom he has met only one time before, also pays him a visit... or, as Nabokov injects the possibility, was she just someone sent from "central casting" to play the role? There is also Cincinnatus' lawyer, of the missing cufflinks. Nabokov does manage to establish dramatic tension between the utter pettiness of the other characters' daily concerns (like life writ large?) and the fate of Cincinnatus, who desires to know the date of the execution, and that information is knowingly withheld (again, a parallel with life for all of us.)

No question, Nabokov is a great writer, and the reader experiences his droll wit, for example: "You are very kind," said an additional Cincinnatus, having cleared his throat. "Mercy," exclaimed the director, unmindful of the tactlessness of that word. Or how about rich, evocative metaphors: "...ne dolzhno bilo bi bit - only on the bark of the Russian language could such a fungus bunch of verbs have sprouted."

There is much else in this rather short novel to enjoy, including Cincinnatus reading a 3000 page novel, "Quercus," on an oak tree, that he will never be able to finish. The director's young daughter, Emmie, has to be a precursor of Lolita. In one scene I was reminded of General Jack Ripper, in Doctor Strangelove (Collectors Edition) [DVD] [1963]. There are visits from "M'sieur Pierre, the prison's second inmate, but to discuss further would give the game away. And the reader is invited to his own reflections when Nabokov describes the last things that I dying man will think about.

Despite what at least one other reviewer says, I do believe that this book is highly derivative of Franz Kafka. And it is not up to Nabokov's best writing either, like Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) or even his own autobiography Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Everyman's Library Classics) For me, far too many of the scenes were too "cute," without broader social or literary purpose. In other words, perhaps the novel was half again too long. Thus, in parts I found it enjoyable, and even informative, but only up to 3-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on July 30, 2010)
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