What's the next Nabokov book for my book group?
May 14, 2010 12:51 PM   Subscribe

What's the next Nabokov book for my book group? Not Pnin, Lolita, or Ada.

My Pretentious Books Group (the books tend to be pretentious, not the members) is lining up our slate for the next year, and we want something by Nabokov. The group read Pnin and liked it. I think most of us have read Lolita enough times that another go-round isn't necessary. I dearly love Ada, but I fear it's too long. Under 500 pages seems to work best for us. Pale Fire is a possibility, but I fear it may be too knotty. The only other one I've read is Speak, Memory.

What does the hive mind recommend, and why? We want enough meat for a 90 minute discussion, but that's pretty much a given with Nabokov, I expect.
posted by Jasper Fnorde to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Bend Sinister is underrated and extraordinary, a very interesting and fertile novel. My favorite of his, actually. Amazon says it's 272 pages, so there you are.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed Laughter in the Dark. Amazon says it is just over 300 pages.
posted by chiefthe at 12:56 PM on May 14, 2010

Invitation to a Beheading. Is beautiful, surreal and unsettling. It's one of those books that sticks with you long after you read it. I loved it. 240 pages.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 1:01 PM on May 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

His Lectures on Don Quixote are fascinating. Maybe combine it with a reading of Don Quixote itself? It's one of those books that everyone knows everything about (or thinks he does), but has never actually read.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2010

I love Bend Sinister, but find it profoundly sad. I really like Despair for it's wildly unreliable narrator. Invitation to a Beheading is Kafkaesque in it's absurdity.

I vote for Despair.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 1:06 PM on May 14, 2010

I was going to recommend Bend Sinister as well. I would also suggest Despair.
posted by milarepa at 1:08 PM on May 14, 2010

Seconding Invitation to a Beheading...I've read it many, many times and each time I find something new.
posted by Zoyashka at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire may be knotty, but it's super readable. And besides, knotty is what you want, isn't it?
posted by tigrefacile at 1:30 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thirding Invitation to a Beheading. Absurd, and the perfect balance between darkly hilarious and thinky.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2010

Came here to vote for Invitation to a Beheading and Despair, but I also enjoyed King, Queen, Knave and The Defense. Shame that Ada is too long, it's my personal favorite.

Pale Fire is rather tangled on an initial read but I think it would work rather well in the context of a Book Club. It really helps to have several copies of the book handy when reading it and I still feel that it should have only been published in three slim volumes for ease of reference.
posted by ktrey at 1:38 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire ++. My all time number one.
posted by dzot at 1:40 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm nthing Pale Fire. It's really fantastic, from a form follows content perspective. It definitely requires double bookmarks though. It would be great conversational fodder for a book club.

I love this book and I'm going to go home and read it again.
posted by chatongriffes at 1:46 PM on May 14, 2010

These are all great suggestions (I love his entire oeuvre and revisit it often, plus I read most of the crit and secondary stuff), but I have to second Pale Fire. Along with Lolita and Ada, I believe it is among his greatest literary achievements: a unique and wonderful read as well as a delightful and entertaining literary puzzle.

There's also Pnin -- delightful, and arguably his most poignant work.
posted by trip and a half at 1:46 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire is my favorite book in the world, and it really is readable. And discussable! It can lead to a nice controversy about who the real author is, of the poem and the commentary.
posted by Clambone at 1:53 PM on May 14, 2010

(Oops -- read the entire question, trip!)
posted by trip and a half at 1:54 PM on May 14, 2010

I just read Pale Fire with a book club of my own, and it worked out well. The poem is short enough to read aloud with the group, and there's plenty in the notes to sustain discussion. We read just each canto of the poem closely for one week, then read the same canto aloud the next week and discussed the notes.
posted by ecmendenhall at 1:54 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire for sure.
posted by aquafortis at 1:57 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire is a hilarious romp, and would work really well in a group setting. It's a sociable book—full of levels and voices. You'd have fun with it. And as a trip and a half points out, it has its own puzzles, not least of which is the little authorship problem that Nabokov devised for it, in a hat-tip to Shakespearean scholarship.

My second-favourite Nabokov novel is Transparent Things; however, while short, it's not really book-club material. (Bleak; depressing.)
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:58 PM on May 14, 2010

Nthing everybody who says that Pale Fire is excellent and fun (and in my view the only other Nabokov novel on the same plane as Lolita; Ada is miles and miles above them all).

But I also share the confusion about whether you want a "knotty" book or not. Pale Fire is not at all like Pnin. It is much more like Ada. So if your reason for (alas!) vetoing Ada was purely length, then you should pick Pale Fire. But if you want a book more like Pnin, then you should go with Bend Sinister, Invitation to a Beheading, etc.
posted by willbaude at 2:03 PM on May 14, 2010

I'm all about the Pale Fire, and really, a book club is the ideal setting for it: the possibilities it has for generating discussion are manifold.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:18 PM on May 14, 2010

I would recommend The Defense (250 pages) or The Gift (a little over 400 pages); Pale Fire is a little cutesy for my taste.
posted by languagehat at 2:41 PM on May 14, 2010

It's off the path, but I'm really surprised nobody mentioned the Original of Laura, his unfinished work that was recently released on Knopf in a fantastic hardcover edition, with die-perforated cards. Might work if your group feels like they've done everything.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:51 PM on May 14, 2010

If there's anyone in the group who speaks Russian or if you know anyone who is an expert on Nabokov, his Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland is really impressive, especially given all the cultural satire Lewis used. Even if you can't read it, if your group is really interested in Nabokov, it may be worth it to find a professor or graduate student of Russian literature to talk about this particular translation.
posted by zizzle at 3:37 PM on May 14, 2010

Nthing Invitation to a Beheading. It's an exceptional book...
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 3:56 PM on May 14, 2010

Pale Fire

"My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?"

Or so asks a character in a novel. It's VN's most masterful effort.
posted by Haruspex at 4:13 PM on May 14, 2010

Just stopping by to say that I really liked Pale Fire too.
posted by pullayup at 4:36 PM on May 14, 2010

Absolutely Pale Fire. Yes, it's "tangled" and "knotty". It's also hilarious and sad, like all of Nabokov's best.
posted by chrchr at 6:55 PM on May 14, 2010

Wow, what a wonderful club!

Well, if your club members are interested in the true spirit of White Russian Immigration then Speak Memory is fantastic. There are very interesting connections between this book and Ivan Bunin "Life of Arseniev", btw.

And seconding the languagehat, The Defence. The Defence is my personal favorite. It seems to be not very popular among Westerners, so it should perfectly fit the bill of "pretentious books" :)
posted by ivanka at 7:18 PM on May 14, 2010

Invitation to a Beheading, from which this name derives.
posted by cincinnatus c at 3:40 AM on May 15, 2010

Pale Fire is a hilarious romp

Nthing that. And Charles Kinbote is the patron saint of pretentiousness.
posted by mediareport at 6:16 AM on May 15, 2010

> Well, if your club members are interested in the true spirit of White Russian Immigration then Speak Memory is fantastic.

Speak, Memory
is fantastic regardless of whether you're interested in Russian emigrés (and Nabokov would have hated the idea of being lumped in with the "White Russian" crew, which was largely reactionary and stupidly nostalgic for an evil system). I didn't recommend it because the poster said he'd read it, but yes, it would be a great group read. Just don't expect an autobiography, because it's not. It's gorgeous writing based on snippets of memories with light doses of fictionalization.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even if Pale Fire is pretty knotty, there's also a lot of literature about it if you're interested in arguing the many theories about the novel. Have you been over to the Library of Zembla? I read the book a few months ago for my AP Literature class (I wanted a challenge for my paper and got one) and it would have really helped to have a book club to talk to. In the absence of people I read a lot of papers.
posted by mmmleaf at 9:46 AM on May 15, 2010

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