6 July 2021

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Did you know that Nabokov is one of the top three authors whose books are stolen from a bookstore at the Toronto Eaton Centre?  Their online catalogue showed two titles in stock but there was a gap where 'Nabokov' should have been.  When I asked one of the assistants if the books could be somewhere other than in regular fiction, he offered his theory about their missing status.  He added that theft had risen by 20% since the pandemic, and was extremely sympathetic to the hardship of people out of work saying "there is a lot of need, at the moment".   Once that sad reality had been thought about for awhile I realized I never asked the store clerk who the other two authors are who frequently go missing. 

So how did Nabokov cross my path, you might wonder.  Laughter in the Dark was chosen by Jason Watkins to feature on A Good Read which is one of my favourite BBC podcasts and hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  The other guest on the programme was Yasmeen Alibhai-Brown, who thanked Watkins as she had previously sworn off Nabokov down to her distaste for Lolita (she might have used the word 'hate').  After a few minutes of commentary I thought this novel, first published as Kamera Obscura in 1933, would be a good place to start if I wanted to explore the writing of this controversial author.

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.

Albert Albinus is an art critic who has lately been occupied by the notion of turning the art of great masters into moving film clips.  Inheriting a sizeable fortune from his father, Albinus lives in a spacious but reserved flat in Berlin with his wife Elisabeth and their eight year-old daughter Irma.  Elisabeth's brother Paul is a frequent guest but his relationship with Albinus isn't an especially remarkable one.

As a young man, Albinus was happy enough but charisma seemed to elude him.  A deficiency he yearns to overcome despite being successful in every other aspect of his life.  A series of dark thoughts runs through his mind, abhorrently involving the death of his wife while she gave birth to their daughter.  With Elisabeth out of the way, Albinus would be free to pursue a young woman and have his wicked way with her - in the marital home, no less.  I know, I know....why should we care about such a callous man after an admission like that?  But I was compelled to learn more.   

Escaping the rut his life has become, Albinus visits the cinema and sees a beautiful young woman working as an attendant.  Margot Peters is a mere seventeen years-old, but has buckets of street smarts having grown up with a shell-shocked father and an abusive mother.  Her older brother Otto and his leering friends can be added to a list of reasons why Margot endeavors to leave home as soon as possible.  With aspirations of becoming a film star, the teen grabs an opportunity to become a life model as a first step to achieve her goal.  Soon afterwards she meets an elderly woman of goodly proportions with a genteel manner by the name of Frau Levandovsky, who really isn't a nice woman at all....

   'You can't do without a boy friend.' declared that lady complacently as she drank her coffee.  'You are much too lively a lass not to need a companion, and this modest young fellow is looking for a pure soul in this wicked city.'

Fast forward to the magnetic pull Albinus feels when he sees Margot working at the cinema after several return visits.  He suggests they get to know one another but Margot plays coy to build anticipation.  She is frighteningly calculated when it comes to getting what she wants.  As is so often the case, Albinus wants to keep both wife and mistress but Margot will not rest until everything that belongs to Albinus, becomes hers.  At the exact moment of her choosing,  Margot sends a letter to Albinus's flat that leaves no doubt as to the nature of their relationship, knowing that Elisabeth will read it. 

From this point on I couldn't put the book down.  The tone of this aptly named story spirals towards an ever darker place when Margot's former lover joins forces with her; it is now two against one in a dangerous game of winner take all.  The arrival of an acquaintance named Udo, while in the South of France, tip the scales in Albinus's favour when he unwittingly reveals the extent of Margot's deceit.  Nothing could have made me put the book down while reading the last few pages.  Laughter in the Dark has made me wonder why I don't read more noir?  It was fabulous.   

There are early whispers of a new film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy.  Fingers crossed!

Pauline Waiting by Sir Herbert James Gunn


  1. Oh now I want to read this one. I hadn't read Nabokov in ages, after overdosing on him in grad school, but I recently read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which is also excellent. Oh for more reading time!

    1. There's never enough time for reading but take heart...some of my favourite elderly library customers read a book a day. Doesn't that sound wonderful?!
      I'm envious of your grad school experience, Scott. You may have missed this title back then but how lovely to have it to look forward to now. It's SO good!

  2. I always browse your favourite list because I try to find a book that is available for me to pick up from either Amazon or Netgalley. Today I got really lucky with a Ruth Adam in kindle form! at a very reasonable price.

    1. That's wonderful, Mystica! Another avenue to try might be your local library's digital resources, if that's available. My library has just expanded their digital borrowing by merging with other cities in Ontario. It's very exciting!