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Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading or the Artifice of Mortality

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Invitation was one of Nabokov's favorite novels, written “in one fortnight of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration.” Although it reads like an attack on dictatorial rule, Nabokov denied it political relevance, aiming at totalitarianism of a higher order: the constraints of mortality that he seeks, as the epigraph indicates, to refute: “Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels.”

The novel rebels against the certainty that life is movement toward death operating in conjunction with the uncertainty of when death will come. Its hero is condemned to execution, but denied “compensation for a death sentence”—the “knowledge of the exact hour when one is to die.” His nearing end is manifested metaphorically, but it is in the construction of the world of Invitation that Nabokov—whom one reviewer called “almost as much a theorizer of fiction as a practitioner”—develops narrative strategies that engage the reader in his challenge to mortality. This article considers his strategies.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton University, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 229 East Pyne, Princeton, NJ 08544;, Email:


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