Dysfunctional Relationships in Nabokov’s Novels (Invitation to a Beheading, Lolita, Pnin)

Dysfunctional Relationship

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most renowned Russian writers in history, whose novels regularly appear in distinguished lists of best novels such as Time‘s 100 Best Novels and The New York Times’ 100 Best Novels. Yet, in spite of Nabokov’s creative mastery in composing unique plots and singular characters, there are still some striking parallels and resemblances in his different works. One such recurring likeness is the dysfunctional marriage of the protagonist with his wife – a type of relationship that bears several parallel similarities in a few of his novels.

This essay will examine and compare the acute affinities of the protagonist’s marital relationship in three of Nabokov’s works: Invitation to a Beheading (1935), Lolita (1955) and Pnin (1957).

It is perhaps important to first point out that, according to all accounts, Nabokov himself had a long, solid and stable marriage with his wife, Véra. The couple first met in Berlin in 1923 and were married in 1925, matrimony that lasted until the day he died in 1977; they had one child, Dmitri, born in 1934. During their entire relationship, the Nabokovs also had a very tight professional relationship as Véra was his secretary, typist and critic; and after his death, she continued to perpetuate her husband’s legacy until she died in 1991 (Amis, 1993). Nabokov dedicated all his books to Véra, which is very unusual and to which she remarked in an interview that they “had a very unusual relationship,” adding that “[h]is humour was delightful. He was delightful” (Amis, 1993).

Another evidence of the Nabokovs’ happy marriage can be found in Letters to Véra (2014), a volume that documents the letters Nabokov sent Véra throughout the years and portrays Nabokov “as possibly the most happily married writer of the 20th century” (Thomson, 2014). It is, therefore, safe to conclude that Nabokov did not draw the inspiration for the wretched marriages in his novels from his own personal perdurable experience with Véra.

The Ominous Beginnings of the Protagonists’ Relationships

In all three novels, the protagonists’ dysfunctional marriages already begin with ominous signs, which can indicate the subsequent degeneration of the relationships.

Among the three novels, the burgeoning relationship in Invitation to a Beheading between Cincinnatus with his future wife, Marthe, is the one that commences most favorably; yet, a close reading reveals that even this one is tinged with some dark colors. When Cincinnatus nostalgically reflects on how he first met Marthe in a toy workshop where they both worked, he evokes the view of the “Tamara Gardens” where the couple began their “rapturous wanderings” (27). While at first glance it might appear as a pleasant description, it also contains a few unsettling details that mar the positive portrayal: for instance, the willows are personified with the melancholy verb “weep”; a solipsistic depiction of a swan that “floats arm in arm with its reflection”; the peculiar offhand mentioning of “some grotto”; and “three jokers” who spoils the pastoral prospect of an “idyllic bench” by leaving there “three neat little heaps” (27-28). These few small yet discordant details that taint the picturesque scenery thus foreshadow the distorted relationship between Cincinnatus and Marthe in their marriage.

While there are clear indications of love and attraction between Cincinnatus and Marthe, the relationship of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert with his first wife, Valeria, is completely founded on cold self-interest without any emotions. Humbert intimates that after several trysts with streetwalkers, for his “own safety, [he] decided to marry,” which may help him at least keep his “degrading and dangerous desires … under pacific control” (24); he then explains that he chose Valeria simply because of “the imitation she gave of a little girl” (25). It is hence clear immediately from the inception of Humbert’s relationship with Valeria that it is based solely on his self-serving egocentric needs and nothing more, which obviously does not bode well for any real chance for the couple.

In Pnin, there are glaring signals that this is Pnin’s ex-wife, Liza, who is already uncommitted at the very beginning of their relationship. Liza reads the “tremendous love letter” that Pnin sends her “with tears of self pity,” which suggests that she thinks of herself alone; she is in a very susceptible and unstable state as she recovers “from a pharmacopoeial attempt at suicide”; and it takes five of her “intimate friends” to convince her to consort with Pnin, which is a strong hint of her initial disinclination (45). If so, in all three novels, there are early clues that presage the woeful continuity of their marriages right from the outset of the protagonists’ relationship with their future wives.

Infidelities in Nabokov’s Novels

marriage infidelity

Another similar aspect of the marriages in the novels is the egregious infidelities of the protagonists’ wives and the resultant humiliation of the protagonists.

Marthe in Invitation to a Beheading is perhaps the most unabashedly promiscuous one – the narrator describes that she begins “deceiving [Cincinnatus] during the very first year of their marriage; anywhere and with anybody” (31). Not only that, but Marthe also flaunts her sexual indiscretions flagrantly to Cincinnatus directly; Cincinnatus recalls that every time she cheated, she “would have a certain sated half-smile on her face,” and thereafter, she shamelessly admitted to him, “’Little Marthe did it again today’” (31). Due to her extramarital affairs, Marthe twice “became pregnant, and not by [Cincinnatus],” and to add more to Cincinnatus’s abjection, Marthe’s boy and girl ultimately “ended up in his kindergarten” (31).

In comparison with Marthe, Valeria’s adultery in Lolita might not be as profligate, but unlike Marthe, it nevertheless leads her to leave Humbert humiliatingly. Humbert recounts that during their travel preparations to America – or at least what he thought it was – Valeria abruptly confessed to him, “There is another man in my life”; thereupon, they entered “a taxi which had been invitingly creeping along the curb for some time,” where Humbert discovered that her lover was none other than the taxi driver (27). Then Humbert details a grotesquely embarrassing scene in which the lover introduced himself and delineated his plans “with his child-wife Valeria” at a cafè; afterward, “he drove the Humberts to their residence”; and thereupon, during Valeria’s packing, he was “hovering around all the time” until he and Valeria departed while leaving behind Humbert in “the quivering apartment” (28-29).

In Pnin, Pnin suffers an even greater humiliation from Liza, which combines a pregnancy with another man as in Invitation to a Beheading, and additionally, he is abandoned by her after a demeaning face-to-face meeting with her lover and future husband as in Lolita. Via a mere telephone call, Liza leaves Pnin for Dr. Eric Wind, “who understood her ‘organic ego,’” adding that she “would never see [him] again,” only to return to him a little over a year later, seven months pregnant (46-47). The reunited couple sails to America, and during a game of chess on the ship, a stranger approaches Pnin and confesses that he is his wife’s lover, Dr. Eric Wind, that the two were just scamming Pnin and that “it had all been Liza’s idea”; when the ship arrives at Ellis Island, “Timofey and Liza parted” (48-50). In the three novels, then, the wives do not only cheat on the protagonists, but they also humiliate them terribly in incredibly awkward scenes.

The Differences

While the novels share a clear pattern of similar awry relationships between them, each one also has its own unique distinctions, which ascribe particular attributes to the characters and the narratives.

In Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus and Marthe remain married in spite of her infidelities and although he awaits his execution in jail. Even after Cincinnatus recalls catching Marthe with a lover, he reaffirms that he loves her “[i]nescapably, fatally, incurably … As long as the oaks stand in those gardens, [he] will” (64).

In Lolita, it is revealed throughout Humbert’s narration that he was actually quite cruel to Valeria and maltreated her. When Charlotte tells Humbert that she intends on sending Lolita to a boarding school, Humbert discloses that with Valeria, he “would have known how to handle the situation,” and then he elaborates that he could change Valeria’s mind “by merely twisting fat Valechka’s brittle wrist”; Humbert later divulges that he abused Valeria verbally as well, suggesting that he could easily persuade her by viciously saying, “Look here, you fat fool, c’est moi qui dècide what is good for Dolores Humbert” (83).

In Pnin, Pnin agrees to meet Liza again years after she already left him twice, conned him, and married another man with whom she had a child; yet, despite all, he still naively believes that it is “a flood of happiness … that [is] to burst open” (52). It is important to note that these incomparable differences in the three novels do not break the model of a dysfunctional relationship and merely illuminate the contrasts in the characterization of the protagonists and their wives.

In Conclusion

To conclude, Nabokov features in several of his novels – Invitation to a BeheadingLolita and Pnin – an analogous paradigm of a dysfunctional romantic relationship of the protagonist. Already while describing the relationships’ inception, Nabokov leaves portentous hints about the eventual treacherous nature of the marriages in which they will evolve. As the relationships develop, the protagonists’ wives are involved in extramarital affairs that become overtly unconcealed to the protagonists, who are gravely humiliated in a series of embarrassing events.

It is not clear what inspirational source Nabokov had for this type of model, but it is quite certain that his own personal marriage was not the origin. Whatever it may be, the result in all three novels is brilliantly entertaining, even if awkward at times (or perhaps because of it).

Amis, Martin. “Visiting Mrs Nabokov” in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: and Other Excursions, 113-120. Harmony Books, 1993.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. New York: Vintage International, 1959.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Letters to Véra, Olga Voronina & Brian Boyd (eds.). Penguin Group, 2014.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. New York: Vintage International, 1989.