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Book Review: King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

King, Queen, Knave (Amazon) is a Vladimir Nabokov novel, originally written in Russian (Korol’, dama, valet), and later translated (and modified quite some bit) in English by Nabokov himself, with help from his son.

The story is a love-triangle set in Berlin. Franz, a village bumpkin, goes to Berlin to work in the department-store of his rich eccentric uncle Dreyer. He has an affair with Martha – Dreyer’s wife (his aunt). They begin plotting the murder of their rich uncle – the only obstacle in the way of them being together. But things don’t quite go as planned…

Per se, the plot of the story is not brilliant or unique. However, where Nabokov excels (as he has done in all his books I have read so far) is in the treatment of the plot and the progress and development of the characters. The characters, and the plot are banal yet interesting, horrible yet charming.

Franz is a relatively simple provincial person in more ways than one. He is slightly built, and is not very intelligent. Neither has he grand aims and ambitions. But is also is an ungrateful wretch, who cannot stand up for himself. Uncle Dreyer is eccentrically smart, athletic and successful. But he is emotionally limited, quick to judge, unfaithful, and an egoist. Martha is the beautiful, cold wife of a rich man, bored by the dull monotony of life. But she refuses to stop living by the rules which cause the boredom. Her seduction of Franz illustrates this perfectly – for example. She is faintly repulsed by the fact that she feels any sort of attraction for this non-descript nephew of hers, and yet, she knows she must seduce him, out of the sense of a social duty to do so.

The conflict is not only external and between the characters, but also within them, as they change through the course of the book. Nabokov takes each of the characters on their own journeys throughout the novel, as seen through not only their own eyes, but also those of the other characters. And it is precisely this journey that makes the book a lovely read.

The writing style is typical Nabokov. In a word, descriptive. To me, it is reminiscent of Nikolay Gogol. However, it is not bland as Gogol sometimes can be. The prose is lyrical, wordplay clever, the metaphors and similes, quite brilliantly precise. Nabokov has a brilliant mind, and it shows. He knows exactly how to paint a picture he wants you to see, and immerse you in it to the point where even the most obvious of twists can take you by surprise. Transitions from feelings to tangible objects and vice-versa are effortless and natural. The opening sequence of the train leaving the platform is one of the loveliest examples of this.

The huge black clock hand is still at rest but is on the point of making its once-a-minute gesture; that resilient jolt will set a whole world in motion. The clock face will slowly turn away, full of despair, contempt, and boredom, as one by one the iron pillars will start walking past, bearing away the vault of the station like bland atlantes; the platform will begin to move past, carrying off on an unknown journey cigarette butts, used tickets, flecks of sunlight and spittle; a luggage handcart will glide by, its wheels motionless; it will be followed by a news stall hung with seductive magazine covers—photographs of naked, pearl-gray beauties; and people, people, people on the moving platforms, themselves moving their feet, yet standing still, striding forward, yet retreating as in an agonizing dream full of incredible effort, nausea, a cottony weakness in one’s calves, will surge back, almost falling supine.

I like to compare it with deep-sea diving. To see the beautiful corals, you have to be willing to immerse yourself in the sea. You will have to get used to the sea, so you can be comfortable. But the effort is worth it, for once you dive in, the diverse beauty of the multitudinous coral reefs in the sea will wow you.

This is, of course, usual for most of Nabokov’s novels. So, if you have recently read Nabokov, if you don’t like his (or in general, a too descriptive) writing style; you might find this book frivolous, or even boring. If you go looking for a complicated story, you might be disappointed. But for me, this was precisely what I enjoyed – the plot did not take away from the genius of Nabokov’s writing.

In summary, the book is a demonstration of his prowess in engaging the reader, in that there’s plenty to admire, plenty to keep the reader interested and engrossed. The plot takes a backstage to the form and style of writing, but KQK is one of those books where you do not mind the destination because you enjoy the journey so much.

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