Would we still have heard Nabokov’s ‘Laughter in the Dark’ without ‘Lolita’?

December 25th, 2011 § 0 comments

Reading habits are formed by repeated acts of disposal. Read a book you don’t particularly enjoy and the writer will probably be discarded from your reading list. As you read more books, more authors get a figurative black mark next to their name. The survivors are what we refer to as our favourite writers.

Even these favourites may lose their place on the reading list as the years go by. Either our tastes change or we simply finish reading all their books or at least all the best ones.

Looking back over more than 30 years of serious reading, there is only one author from those very early years whose books I still read. There are, of course, others I still regard as favourites, but I’ve read and reread their works about as much as I’m ever going to. When it comes to Nabokov, though, there are still some of his books I have not read and others that I haven’t reread enough.

Over the last few days, I have read one of his early works, Laughter in the Dark, that had somehow escaped the lassoo of my attention before. I wouldn’t rate this book among his best, but there’s enough of the old magic in there to make the reading a pleasure. The prose is not as dense as in his later work, but what does shine through is the incredible way he has to set up what appears to be an irrelevant tangent, only to deliver a killer blow at its conclusion.  The opening chapter of this book is a shining example.

I’m tempted so say you cannot make this stuff up, but, of course, Nabokov does.

The story of Laughter in the Dark is of a well to do and respectable man who falls madly in love with a gold-digging cinema usherette. He loses his wife, child, health and wealth. This much is revealed in the opening paragraph, and then Nabokov goes back and relates all of this in captivating detail. The final few chapters are sickly horrific in a way only matched by the ending of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

As is often the case with Nabokov, the hero and events are slightly distasteful. What keeps us reading is not so much an emotional connection with these characters as the recognition of their foibles and the everyday details of life. In many Nabokov books, the sparkling prose is a joy in itself, but in this one the prose is less spectacular.

I read this book and wondered what would’ve happened if some unknown had written Laughter in the Dark today. Would it even be published? If so, would it get any attention?

In fact, if Vladimir Nobokov had written every single book he had written, but not Lolita, what would his literary standing be today? Did he need that sensational book to be noticed by the world at large, who could then explore his glittering oeuvre with interest?

I’m reasonably confident that, without the success of Lolita, copies of Laughter in the Dark may not have survived in print to this day. I’m glad it did. Thank you, lo-lee-ta.

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