The Death Masque of Socrates: Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading

Porter, James
September 2010
International Journal of the Classical Tradition;Sep2010, Vol. 17 Issue 3, p389
Academic Journal
To all appearances, Vladimir Nabokov is as unlikely a student of classical literature as one might imagine. A fierce modernist, possessed of even less knowledge of Greek and Latin than Shakespeare, and steeped in a profound hatred for Plato, how could he possibly have written a virtual roman a clef based on a consistent set of intertextual allusions to a classical author in any of his works of fiction? But this is precisely what we have in Invitation to a Beheading, one of Nabokov’s earliest novels (first published in Russian in 1935-6 and later translated into English in 1959). Invitation’s protagonist Cincinnatus finds himself in prison awaiting his execution. His crime: “gnoseological turpitude,” evidently a crime against reality itself. From the beginning, his identity slowly stands revealed in all its spelaean clarity, while he just as slowly detaches himself from the metaphysical distortions of the fictional universe that would shape his world. The novel is many things. But it is above all a reflection on the philosophical constraints of fiction itself, and a vivid object lesson in the uses of classical reception in literature.


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