Saturday, October 29, 2011

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

King, Queen, Knave was originally published in 1928, when Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian emigre living in Germany. It was not translated into English until the 1960s, when Nabokov and his son Dmitri translated it together as a father-son team.

Because the Nabokovs made it clear that they altered the novel to a significant degree, I'm not sure how much of what I read really dated to the 1920s. I assumed the English version was faithful in the small details to the original, and I enjoyed the little everyday details of life in what would retroactively be called Weimar Germany.

The plot, in broad strokes, is as follows. A country boy comes to Berlin, to work in his uncle's department store. The nephew and the uncle's wife really hit it off, to the point that they begin a steamy love affair, which the uncle remains cheerfully oblivious to.

Queen and Knave conspire to murder the King, despite both being quite inexperienced at planning and carrying out a crime of this magnitude. Psychological tension and fatal complications ensue.

The plot, as the author readily admits, is not terribly innovative. It's the prose (even if the reader is never quite sure if any given snippet of English prose came from the elder or younger Nabokov) and the macabre atmosphere that make the novel worth reading.

I never trained myself to intelligently discuss prose the way a literature professor might, so I feel somewhat hobbled when talking about modern literary writers like Nabokov.

To me, King Queen, Knave provides a look at life in 1920s Germany. It lets me play at deducing what was the same in the original 1928 Russian-language edition, and what was changed in the 1960s. But it's been two months since I actually read the thing (while traveling in southern Turkey in late August), so I can't quite recall the prose enough to discuss it at any length.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for being such a prune, but I think it's meant to be 'ensue' no 'ensure' :p

Oxana Smirnova said...

I'm sure the translation into English was correct, but I'm not sure Nabokov was happy while re-reading the text in 60s, 30 years after it was written. So I guess it was difficult not to edit the first text's version. It was his second novel, he wrote it rather fast. He was in a hurry and there were some reasons to write it as fast as he could. After Mashen'ka (or Mary, his 1st novel) was published all the critics started to name Nabokov «the emigre writer» and Nabokov wanted to show that he is not, that Russia is not the only one theme he could write about. So he started the very german King, Queen, Knave with no Russia at all.

Brendan said...


You are correct, thanks!