Nabokov’s house of cards collapses

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

Literary novels are driven by emotion not action, so their plot lines do not necessarily need depth or breadth. But a novel that is based on this premise and then fails to deliver breadth and depth through emotion is a poor show indeed.

Such is King, Queen, Knave. Nabokov’s novel is certainly fun. But the characters are surprisingly shallow, which is a huge disappointment. Nabokov could have told his readers much more about marriage or the impact of moving to the city; instead, he’s too busy mocking his characters. Dreyer is the best – we care the least about him even though he’s the most virtuous one (despite his infidelity, he just wants to indulge fancies and whims; the others want to murder).

There is some good talk of class division – again, a good basis for literary fiction with little action. Central to the novel is this provocative dynamic that could have been explored more. But Nabokov can’t focus on it; he’s too busy setting up his next humorous set piece (at least each comedy moment delivers in spades).

I can’t situate this novel in Nabokov’s career because I haven’t read anything else of his. But I wonder why he didn’t delve further. Take Martha, who is a bored socialite and housewife who finds something exciting (not love: Nabokov is far too moving to make it love) in Franz. She is disgusted by her husband Dreyer, but this emotion comes from boredom. We never understand why: what is it about her past, her character, the sheer weight of years with Dreyer?

Maybe with Martha we should let Nabokov off. But not with Franz, the staple Nabokov outsider (so I’m told). Poor Franz is the butt of too many jokes, the Other, the objectified provincial – so it’s tricky to get close to him, to experience his turns in life. We’re looking in at these people – and that’s this novel’s fundamental problem.

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