Laughter in the Dark (originally; ‘Camera Obscura’) is a very early novel by Nabokov (1932) and I think somewhat of a precursor to his later masterwork Lolita. The book establishes Nabokov’s interest in the theme of inapt infatuation and the ostensibly inevitable self-destruction that follows. I’ve read that later in his life the writer came to despise this work, but I believe that it offers an excellent window on the mind of a genius in the making, as well as a simultaneously dark and comic reading experience.
Albert Albinus (fans of Lolita will recognise the para-rhyming, double-name technique) is an aging art critic of mediocre talent who becomes besotted with the sexually precocious Margot; a sixteen-year-old wannabe actress. Margot feigns love for Albinus and takes everything he offers her while actually engaging in an illicit relationship with a man named Rex. Margot’s affair with Rex is arrestingly obvious, but the naïve Albinus fails to recognise what’s going on right under his nose.
As an ironic literary punishment for this metaphoric blindness, Albinus loses his sight in an horrific car accident and turns to Margot for care. The convergence of Albinus’ emotional blindness and actual loss of vision results in a brilliantly bathetic narrative for this protagonist. Albinus becomes consumed with his own romantic and intellectual short-comings as he is thrown into a black world of fear, paranoia and noises in the darkness.
Laughter in the Dark, then, is a story of imprudent obsession, misplaced self-opinion and unavoidable tragedy. I ploughed through it; the novel storms towards its heart-rending denouement with the inevitability of a train speeding down its only route to its only destination. Nabokov’s prose is beautiful and shocking, with frequently hilarious parenthetic digressions used to comment on the characters and their decisions.
Although I found the novel’s ending, as Albinus realises that his true blindness is towards himself, to be flawed in its slapdash form, cliched message and suddenness, the gloomy charm of this early work shouldn’t be overlooked. Lovers of Lolita may find this a tame, un-poetic work by comparison, and it is true that Lolita explores very similar themes with much greater poetry and success. But, for Nabokov nerds like me, this is an interesting stylistic and thematic precursor to Nabokov’s masterwork of literature and a relatively strong example of the ‘tragedy of self-destruction’ genre… if such a thing can be said to exist.