Laughter in the Dark is a early novel by Vladimir Nabokov that contains some of the ideas and themes that he was to return to in the later Lolita.
First, a quick plot summary: Albinus is a prosperous middle-aged art critic living in 1920’s Berlin, who in a classic mid-life crisis takes a mistress, the amoral 17-year-old Margot. Margot is interested only in Albinus’s money, and quickly engineers a split between Albinus and his wife. Margot wants to be in the movies, and Albinus indulges this and her every other fantasy, even though she is clearly a dreadful actress. The first of a series of crises then begins to afflict Albinus. His young daughter dies from pneumonia. He unknowingly reintroduces Margot to one of her former lovers, Axel Rex, with whom she almost immediately resumes an ‘intimate’ relationship. A holiday to the south of France accompanied by Rex, who has persuaded Albinus he is gay and therefore not a threat, goes as badly as you might expect, setting them all up for a tragic (if also comic) finale.
This is a relatively slight novel. While it contains echoes of Lolita, it has none of that novel’s power and compelling characters. This was to me a previously unknown Nabokov, which is always cause for some excitement – I think he is one of the colossus of twentieth century literature – but there is little in Laughter in the Dark to detain the reader for long. The characters do not linger in the memory – they are all either vile and amoral – Margot and Axel in particular are two-dimensional villains without a shadow of nuance – or weak and uninteresting. Even Albinus’s brother in law Paul, who shows a bit of gumption when he finds out he is being defrauded by Margot and Axel, travelling to their holiday retreat and confronting them, is ultimately unable to intervene and prevent tragedy occurring. It’s not really a tragedy however – we don’t care enough about the characters to be upset when they meet their fate – but it’s not that comic either. The scenes where Axel taunts the blinded Albinus are cruel and unsettling, and probably come closest to tragi-comedy.
I keep however coming back to those echoes between this novel and Lolita. The latter is dominated by Humbert Humbert’s lust for his step-daughter, his consuming obsession with her youthful body. Light of my loins, etc. Lolita is portrayed as being indifferent to or even a bit bored by this obsession – she is aware of Humbert’s feelings and is able to manipulate him by using them, but she doesn’t reciprocate them. Or at least that is what the narrator in Lolita, Humbert, tells the reader. In fact it is clear that this is not the case, and that Lolita is repulsed by her abuser (see my review for a lot more on this). Humbert prefers his choice of narrative because it both explains her lack of affection for him and justifies his abuse. So there are two narratives – what Humbert is telling us is happening, and what the author reveals is going on behind Humbert’s self-justification. He is honest about his lust, but dishonest in his portrait of Lolita’s response. He pretend to be harsh in himself – she never really loved me – to disguise the fact he was abusing her all the time.
The relationship between Albinus and Margot is a pale imitation of this later ‘relationship’. Margot casually reciprocates Albinus’s lust. “She on her part was always ready to respond to his lovemaking; it only refreshed her” (note the “only”).
Here she is described after a day on the beach, putting on a show for Albinus:
“In the cool room with the red-tiled floor…Margot, snake-like, shuffled off her black skin, (her swimsuit) and, with nothing on but high-heeled slippers, clicked up and down the room, eating a sibilant peach; and stripes of sunshine crossed and recrossed her body”. (chapter 14).
I can’t think of another writer who would have described the act of eating a peach, in itself obviously sexual, as “sibilant”. Margot uses sex with Albinus as a way of getting what she wants – she tells him not to lay a hand on her until he has spoken to his wife about a divorce. Lolita, several years younger, is unable to exercise this form of power, even though Humbert consistently tries to portray her as behaving that way. So the equivalence between Margot and Lolita that some readers might be tempted to make is utterly wrong, even if both men see them in the same way. Albinus and Humbert are both dirty old men tempted by much younger women, but only one is a step-parent and child-abuser. Laughter in the Dark is at the same time a simpler and less troubling novel than its successor, but doesn’t ever escape from its shadow.