The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
David Brody follows the trail of interwoven fiction, fact and art in Nabokov, Bruegel, Disney, Eve Sussman, Lech Majewski, and others.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel Laughter in the Dark begins with an art collector daydreaming about financing an animated film that would bring an old master painting to life, a Dutch genre scene of skaters and taverns. The collector Albinus has arrived at this “beautiful idea,” as he calls it, while frequenting the cinemas of Berlin (ill-fatedly, as we’ll see). At the movies Albinus discerns how the popular American cartoon shorts of the day, sequential paintings in effect, furnish a coarse prototype for his moving Dutch landscape—with the difference that Albinus’s film would be ambitiously refined, “movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture.” No ordinary cartoon, Albinus’s animation would map the technique of Mickey Mouse onto the most venerable traditions of art.
Nabokov was a Berliner like his creation Albinus when he began writing a first serialized version of the novel in Russian for the amusement of fellow exiles displaced by the Bolsheviks. Berlin was a capital of cinema, and there Nabokov had become, again like Albinus, a frequent moviegoer. In 1931, the year Nabokov began publishing his serial, a Disney cartoon called The China Plate was released internationally. This black-and-white, non-Mickey graphic narrative takes the form of a looping tableau vivant—in striking correlation to Albinus’s plans for the Dutch landscape. Nabokov might well have seen it; perhaps he made a mental note of this 7-minute romp before settling in for the feature—say, the Greta Garbo vehicle of the same year, Mata Hari. (As we’ll see, Garbo seems to have left her stamp on Laughter in the Dark no less than Disney.) In The China Plate, a pastoral glaze painting adorning the dish of the title brings forth antic Fu Manchu figures (casually racist; intended as charming) who soon come to chase one another, finally coming to rest again as part of the porcelain decoration more or less where they started. Just so, in the quaint winter landscape that Albinus imagines, the figures would arise from their painted stasis to drink, flirt, and skate awhile. As the film concludes, they would slowly arrive back at their eternal poses, “ending it all,” according to Albinus’s daydream, “with the first picture.”
The tableau vivant had been a popular theatrical spectacle in the 1890s, in part for the way history painting and mythological idylls veneered a just-plausible decorum over exposed flesh. Like other vaudeville skits, the tableau made the transition to moving images, and the staged re-enactment of celebrated paintings (most now forgotten) was a frequent subject of the earliest hand-cranked Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes. As cinema developed its narrative capacities, however, the tableau fell into disuse, even while developments in special effects suggested how it might be brought closer to a state of perfection. Perhaps inevitably it has lately been making a comeback. Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation (89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004), Peter Greenaway (Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway, 2010), and Lech Majewski (The Mill & the Cross, 2011) have all made recent attempts at bringing old master paintings to life. Making use of state-of-the-art video and various methods of computer modeling and image processing, these artists have begun to tap a vast accumulation of cinematic potential in revivifying the tableau.
But before we are launched headlong into an era of elegant, whispering Velázquezes, edifying 3-D Leonardos, and metafictional Bruegel collages (pocket descriptions of the three works just mentioned; we’ll take a closer look later), it may be worth pausing for a moment to revisit the cinematized painting presciently imagined in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. The tale happens to be distinctly cautionary, not to say ominous. Maybe painting and cinema shouldn’t mix, the book seems to imply; maybe those who attempt it deserve artistic retribution—at least those with facile aspirations, like the spineless dilettante Albinus. Among his many failings, including the death from neglect of his young daughter, his original sin appears to be that he dabbles genteelly with the ontology of painting.
So let us proceed by explaining that Laughter’s animated painting proposal is mentioned again but once, briefly, and appears to be a stray tangent. Is it, though? The novel concludes with Albinus’s murder by his teenage mistress, a one-time film usherette with movie star delusions; Albinus had first been stricken as this fille fatale showed him to his seat at the cinema. In the murder scene, the disposition of Albinus’s corpse and of each object in the room is narrated with cool, forensic precision, as if by a private eye in a film noir—the kind of film, perhaps, that is structured as a long flashback during which we forget all about the cryptic prologue, finally arriving with perfect inevitability at the crime we’d been shown at outset:
Door—wide open. Table—thrust away from it. Carpet—bulging up at the table foot in a frozen wave. Chair—lying close by dead body of man in a purplish brown suit and felt slippers. Automatic pistol not visible. It is under him. Cabinet where the miniatures had been—empty. On the other (small) table, on which ages ago a porcelain ballet-dancer stood (later transferred to another room) lies a woman’s glove, black outside, white inside. By the striped sofa stands a smart little trunk, with a colored label still adhering to it: “Rouginard, Hotel Brittania.”
The door leading from the hall to the landing is wide open, too.
Given the trouble Nabokov takes to insinuate the snake-eats-its-tail topology of the beautiful idea into the reader’s awareness, shouldn’t we suspect that the scene above enacts some sort of tableau vivant—or rather, tableau mort? Obviously, it does not mimic the Dutch landscape. Some other picture—hidden in plain view, perhaps—must furnish the malign template that Nabokov consults in hitting his marks. (But note how the gun and other items are cleverly put out of view, as if to allow for anachronism or genre bending.)
Not that the Dutch landscape is entirely above suspicion. Consider that Albinus’s daydream about the animation had conjured “people on the quaint skates they used then, sliding about in the old fashioned curves suggested by the picture,” whereas later Albinus brings his brazen young mistress to a hockey match along with his new cartoonist friend. He has to leave Margot and Rex alone together since, awkwardly, Albinus’s estranged wife and daughter are seated nearby. In his cowardice, he seals his fate, for Rex and Margot are former lovers, reunited by chance; finally able to talk openly, they agree to renew their affair behind his back. Meanwhile, the curves of the skaters from the canal are incised in the present by the racing athletes below who shear the ice “with an excruciating impact.”
And excruciatingly, it is during this same hockey game that Irma, Albinus’s young daughter, catches a deadly chill. Her father is too estranged by now to visit her sickbed without undue awkwardness (more cowardice), but just before she dies she dreams of playing on the ice with him. In Irma’s dream, Albinus laughed, slipped and fell on his bottom,” an image that links Albinus to the losing goalkeeper at the game, a Swede who had lain “prone on the ice” after giving up the losing goal, and whose stick had “spun round and round as it slid away on the ice like a lost oar”––a weapon as wayward as Albinus’s gun, which will be pried from him by Margot.
And later, a climactic car crash, which results in Albinus going blind, is caused by the sudden appearance of two bike riders around a curve—sly relatives of the “couple of riders” on a “wet road in the mist” (horsemen returning to the tavern) of Albinus’s original daydream. So the Dutch landscape has undoubtedly set things in motion, providing templates, by proxy, for a prone, disarmed man and for the instruments of Albinus’s blinding. Implicitly, the frozen canal even supplies the icy chill that claims his daughter.
But what about the ransacked interior with which the novel ends? Those surprisingly few Nabokov scholars who have reckoned with the broad hints of Albinus’s animation idea refer us, correctly as far as it goes, to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blue Cloak as this surrogate final tableau. (One or two also grasp the implications of the hockey game, while no one, to my knowledge, has written about the crucial isometry of the “couple of riders.”) The Blue Cloak, which hangs conveniently in Berlin, is Dutch genre in a less mannerly mode. Also known as The Netherlandish Proverbs, it comprises a hundred or so literal enactments of proverbs concerning futility and stupidity laid out in a Boschian landscape of hellish fascination. At the painting’s center, a buxom young beauty in a red dress hangs a hooded blue cloak on her befuddled older husband, whilst casting an amorous glance at the pig driver. In the idiom of Bruegel’s time, to hang a blue cloak on someone was to cuckold him; just what Margot has been doing to Albinus with his best friend, Rex.
Now: Axel Rex is a demonic artist, a caricaturist and animator, the very man Albinus consults at the novel’s outset about his moving painting idea. And before the reader gets his or her bearings, Rex has agreed to take on the project, with the distinctly fishy proviso that none other than Bruegel’s The Netherlandish Proverbs be substituted for Albinus’s scene of skaters and taverns.
Thus is The Blue Cloak gravely and undeniably implicated in Albinus’s fate. Yet template-wise it locks into the death scene only at second hand: by way of the carpet, described above as “bulging up at the table foot in a frozen wave,” which in turn recalls the “blue, blue wave” of two paragraphs before; Albinus, though pitiably blind, had internally seen this blue wave after being shot by his feckless girlfriend (while smelling her perfume, L’heure bleue). “What bliss there is in blueness,” he thinks as he expires. Frozen wave points to blue, blue wave, which points to The Blue Cloak, as if draped over the wretched Albinus all along. And perhaps a case could be made for the Bruegel also supplying, along its left edge, a man on the ground in a purplish brown suit wearing felt slippers close by a stool (though he is not prone; and his proverb, about indecisiveness, seems tangential.) Even so, we get no carefully laid out interior with striped sofa and carpet, no black and white glove, no smart little trunk.
Additional old master paintings are to be found in the text, some in Albinus’s collection, but due diligence reveals none of the missing death scene details among the Lottos and Ruysdaels, the Baugins and Linards. Ah, but other sorts of templates may lurk in the shadows of Nabokov’s exquisitely wicked parable. Movies, after all, are entangled everywhere in the plot, and if the novel’s title seems at first to be a chilly pronouncement on our brief flicker of existence, we soon realize that “laughter in the dark” also describes, with no contradiction whatsoever, a typical evening at the cinema. (A cruel refinement is discerned later, when Rex and Margot shamelessly carry on their affair at the Swiss villa where Albinus, now blind, recuperates from his accident. Albinus is in the dark, while the barely stifled laughter of Rex, whom Albinus believes to be far off in America, is the sound that torments him.)
The movies are also implicated in Laughter’s sustained, brusque style, which can read like a script, as with the noirish mise-en-scène of the corpse on the carpet. But punchy literary effect may not have been Nabokov’s only consideration. As he was writing, the Weimar Berlin of the novel’s setting was becoming Nazified, and Nabokov needed money to extract his endangered family. (Above all, his wife, Vera, was of Jewish descent.) The first Russian version of the novel, appearing as noted in serial form in 1931, was subsequently translated into English as Camera Obscura. Nabokov found this British translation so irksome that he substantially rewrote it into his own English as Laughter in the Dark (much refining the animation idea in the process). Meanwhile, the sale of the option on the parodically filmic Camera Obscura did, in fact, help finance the Nabokovs’ eventual escape (via Paris) to America in 1940, where the rewritten Laughter, preceding him, was Nabokov’s first publication and likely intended as a calling card on Hollywood. (27 years later the story finally made it onto celluloid, and with an uncanny twist that—patience, dear reader—will have the final word of these speculations.)
Going forward, Nabokov would write in American English and control the translation of his earlier Russian works. The corner turned from Camera to Laughter was thus a crucial pivot in Nabokov’s life and career; and the job was done in the margins, literally, of his hardback of the British translation. This intensely penciled manuscript resides at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and can be seen to contain, in an open space of white just before the chapter in which Albinus loses his vision on a mountain hairpin turn, a remarkable diagram of the crash. If Albinus’s fate hinged on this camera-ready sketch, with its converging arrows for speeding car and cyclists, so in a sense did Nabokov’s, who was at his own turning point when he devised it.
So let us reconsider the death scene on the carpet in light of Nabokov’s emphatically cinematic cast of mind. What if its underlying template is a moving, rather than a painted picture? Careful readers of Laughter will already have had their suspicions aroused when Albinus first falls under the spell of Margot at the cinema. “He had come in at the end of the film [whereupon he is seated by the alluring usherette]:
a girl was receding among tumbled furniture before a masked man with a gun. There was no interest whatever in watching happenings which he could not understand since he had not yet seen their beginning.
But he is seeing the beginning–of the novel that contains him–and thus its end according to the logic of his own daydream, complete with tumbled furniture and a masked man who prefigures the blind man Albinus will become. If that is not enough, Albinus visits again, hoping for another glimpse of the girl who will seal his fate. This time “a car was spinning down a smooth road with hairpin turns between cliff and abyss”—a preview, it will prove, of his accident with the cyclists.
The sheer ubiquity of such movie scenes is part of Nabokov’s pulp effect—Albinus might have intruded on any melodrama of the day. Still, the reader must only put two and two together to pinpoint the star of the fateful film; for in a replay of the pick-up from Margot’s perspective, just before she notices the shy Albinus lingering by the exit, the usherette “stood in the darkness leaning against the wall and watched Greta Garbo.”
Laughter was published in 1938 and the precognitive scenes in the cinema were among the modifications Nabokov made to Camera Obscura, which had already cast Margot as a Garbo wannabe. We would be well justified, then, in searching the Garbo filmography for the sort of “happenings” that Albinus had “no interest whatever in watching.” And sure enough, silents such as Flesh and the Devil (1926) and The Kiss (1929), and talkies such as Grand Hotel (1932), Camille (1936), and especially Mata Hari (1931) prove to contain details that come very much into play: smoking guns aplenty, car crashes, blind convalescents—and even, as in Laughter’s final scene, dead men on carpets, trunks, striped sofas, and black and white gloves. True to Nabokov’s subtle method, however, there seems to be no open-and-shut case, no single scene with an item-for-item correspondence that would diagram the final tableau. But interested readers may want to pay particular attention to the Garbo vehicle Anna Karenina(1935), a Selznick extravaganza, since Anna, like Albinus, has abandoned her spouse and child for a tragic affair. Indeed, Nabokov names a film actress in Laughter, absurdly, Dorianna Karenina; when asked if she’s heard of Tolstoy, she replies “Doll’s toy? No I’m afraid not.” Thus brazenly interjected, the Russian master is later cunningly placed at the death scene, just before the forensic final paragraph, when the wounded Albinus falls “like a big, soft doll, to one side.” Doll’s toy? Albinus has turned out to be just that.
To sum up, Laughter begins as a speculation about a new, more perfectible form of tableau vivant, and the alert reader will be expecting some sort of tableau when the novel itself comes to rest. It ends, however, not on a single template but on a shifting moiré of diverse, overlapping images from painting, film (both features and cartoons), and fiction—and perhaps philosophy too, as we’ll shortly see. In the process, high culture is amalgamated with middlebrow melodrama and blunt vulgarity. And why not? Don’t Tolstoy and Bruegel, no less than Selznick and Disney, stoop to entertain? To titillate, seduce, and shock? Isn’t it precisely this ruthless brutality of art that the collector and daydreamer Albinus has failed to reckon with?
My brief analysis can convey only the broad outlines of the ideas put in play in Laughter, not its filigree of subsidiary threads. Nor am I pretending to any expertise about Nabokov’s oeuvre, where many of these threads lead. One can safely say, however, that later masterworks such as Lolita, Ada and Pale Fire continue to explore possible wormholes between painting, cinema, and fiction, between high art and low, in search of intriguing complications.
With such complications fresh in our minds, let us now take a quick tour through the contemporary revivals of the tableau vivant mentioned at the outset. Of the three, Lech Majewski’s gorgeously costumed and painstaking The Mill and the Cross seems to cut closest—perhaps to its peril—to Albinus’s daydream. The film fleshes out, not The Blue Cloak but another Bruegel crowd scene, The Way to Calvary. Majewski stages live action scenes as part of a compelling digital collage, with actors gravely pantomiming incidents extracted from the painting, a teeming composition that depicts the Passion as a minor incident amid the domestic labors and diversions of Bruegel’s day. We watch as woodchoppers, for instance, dress the timbers of what we only later learn to be Jesus’s cross; in a gruesome parallel martyrdom, Hapsburg justice is meted out to an innocent peasant who gets broken on the wheel, hoisted, and fed to the crows. Since Bruegel has embedded himself and his collector among the figures, Majewski credibly enfolds conversations between them regarding the painting into its flow of depicted incidents, just as he ingeniously folds three-dimensional sets and digital volumes into vestiges of the painted landscape. Alas, Majewski is dour and plodding where the painting is pulsatingly vivid. His woodchoppers handle their tools numbly; his street musicians bleat; his dancers bounce around like Teletubbies on Quaaludes. Majewski, it seems, is plain blind to Bruegel’s supreme dynamics of movement, his intricate clodhopper ballet. Nor does Majewski’s sluggish cinematography begin to penetrate the deep, wheeling space of Bruegel’s vast panorama. Worst of all, Bruegel’s daringly agnostic and politicized version of the sacred—made for private collection, but lethal to both artist and collector were the painting to come before the occupying Spaniards, with their Inquisition—turns drearily sanctimonious in Majewski’s hands, a perversion of everything the painting stands for. All in all, it is tempting to identify the dogged Majewski not with Bruegel, who challenges conventional religiosity, but with the collector who commissions his work: as played by the hapless Michael York he is a perfect Albinus.
Peter Greenaway wants to remake painting as spectacle. Using 3-D computer modeling and surfacing, Greenaway projects a full-sized digital version of Leonardo’s Last Supper as the centerpiece of a sensational light show. (As installed in New York at the Park Avenue Armory, Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway also included a digital recreation of Paolo Veronese’s immense Wedding at Cana.) Portentous music and dramatic sweeps of virtual spotlights that reveal the “real” volume of Jesus and his disciples can’t mask the fact that Greenaway has little of interest to say about Leonardo’s mysterious fresco—far less, actually, than The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown, who at least makes a case for hidden Masonic imagery. Instead Greenaway gives us, over and over, expensively engineered money shots of melting, chipping paint (wallowing in the tragedy of Leonardo’s failed experiments with fresco technique) and ominous, swiveling shadows cast from digitally solidified versions of the figures, with particular emphasis on showing off the hard work of the modeling team in dark areas under the table. But we already knew that Leonardo’s choreography of space was superhuman—that is, self-consistently 3-D. Far from bringing the painting to life, Greenaway’s strenuously Barnumesque shadow play gives the impression of dusty figures in a wax museum. Greenaway, who has long been seen as a pioneer of painterly cinema, here shows himself to have, about actual paintings, the insight of a tourist.
Before discussing Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar, my third and final example, and the most successful contemporary restaging of an old master painting I know of, let’s return briefly to Nabokov’s thinking along similar lines. In an interview published in 1973, Nabokov was asked how a reader should experience the end of one of his novels. His answer shows that Laughter’s tableau vivant idea from 40 years before had, at the very least, tapped a deep root in Nabokov’s conception of novelistic structure.
I think what I would welcome at the close of a book of mine is a sensation of its world receding in the distance and stopping somewhere there, suspended afar like a picture in a picture: The Artist’s Studio by Van Bock.
The hypothetical Flemish master “Van Bock” is, of course, a scrambled, slightly cracked reflection of the artist (à la Vivian Darkbloom, Adam Von Librakov, Baron Klim Avidov, and other ringers from Nabokov’s fiction), and calls to mind the actual Jan Van Eyck, who famously reflected his own self-image, analogously, in The Arnolfini Portrait. That painting was accessioned to the Spanish royal collection during the brutal occupation chronicled by Bruegel, where a century later it seems to have caught the eye of the curator, one Diego Velázquez. So it was that Van Eyck’s cunning game of mirrors served as seminal antecedent to an even more sophisticated, more Nabokovian “picture in a picture”: Velázquez’s Las Meninas. In this peerless portrait of portraiture itself, the painter/author, his brush poised, sizes us up as if we were the royal couple reflected dimly in the mirror behind him whom he is in the process of painting onto the very canvas we are looking at. To wonder at this Möbius-strip topology is indeed to become “suspended.”
Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar grasps that Las Meninas, which in so many ways prefigures camera tricks and photographic mood, implies cinematic tricks and mood as well. Shooting elegantly costumed actors with high-definition video, she sets the inner circle of the Spanish court as recorded by Velázquez into literal circles of fluid, whispering movement. Time, too, is made to circle, by way of a single, continuous 12-minute camera shot which loops around the Twilight Zone moment in which king, queen, artist, infanta, dwarf, dog, and company converge on Velázquez’s eternal tableau, and whence the sitters disengage again into seeming forward motion, the Steadicam shot gliding from grouping to grouping until figures and camera end where they started, in a state of hovering readiness. Apart from hints of behind-the-scenes pecking order, there is no narrative imposed, and Sussman’s smart, self-contained refusal to explicate makes hers by far the most satisfying of the three vivified old master paintings.
Satisfying, but only up to a point, since Sussman’s success begs the question: Why stop there? Why not a painted moving painting, as in Albinus’s beautiful daydream? And here is where the ontology of painting comes up against cinematic assumptions so fundamental as to be invisible. For, to imagine Las Meninas expanded in time and space, “movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture” can only be to misunderstand the way paintings are made, and what, consequently, they are about.
In another interview Nabokov cited the popular French philosopher Henri Bergson as an enthusiasm of his, and at the heart of Bergson’s metaphysics are repeated admonitions about misunderstanding time by picturing it’s successive states, in one typical formulation, “like the images placed side by side along the cinematographic film, prior to its unrolling.” (The Bergson passages used here, republished in Creative Mind, were written before 1923.) Cinema was new when Bergson began thinking about duration, memory, and vital forces. Language spatializes time, a convenience that leads to inherent misconceptions, but film’s apparatus had now planted a new image indelibly in the mind: the “path” of the future is one thing, but the future as a reel of film waiting to unspool would be that much more preordained, fated; it would be contrary to the true nature of time—to the endlessly creative elaboration surrounding us. Time is this elaboration, says Bergson, and there is “no elaboration without searching, no searching without groping.” Accordingly, even a studio full of supremely skilled Velázquez clones directed by an alpha Velázquez could not devise a smoothly gliding animation of Las Meninas, because searching and groping are crystallized forever in the painting’s diamond-dense gestalt. Like a diamond, a gestalt cannot be sliced and flipbooked into liquid illusions of time and space. Velázquez, in other words, has already stilled time and flattened space with his every searching, groping, shimmering, unrepeatable brushstroke.
The old master painting unspooling into cinema is thus no mere daydream but an artistic pipedream—a deep-seated delusion which misconstrues not only painting but, in Bergson’s schema, the very fabric of existence. Albinus has indulged in just such a delusion. Is it a coincidence that, as if in retribution, his free will gets trapped in Bergson’s (via Garbo’s) unrolling cinematographic reel of fate?
Moreover, Laughter in the Dark may also have had in its sights Bergson’s namesake 1900 treatise on humor, Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of Comic, which identifies vanity—and Albinus is nothing if not vain—as “the one failing that is essentially laughable.”
Does the reader remember Nabokov’s parting message from the tableau of Albinus’s death scene: the luggage label declaring “Rouginard, Hotel Brittania?” This conspicuous, even taunting clue has to my knowledge never been deciphered. The hotel where Albinus first suspects the casual treachery of his mistress and friend, and from which he speeds in a fury, leading to his accident on the hairpin—the hotel whose address now attaches to Margot’s packed luggage as if she had been planning to meet Rex there again when the blind Albinus arrives at his old flat, gun in hand—I submit that this fictional resort, the Hotel Britannia, has the same initials as a famous French metaphysician. The R of Rouginard might even refer us to Rire, the original French title of Bergson’s work on laughter. If I am right, the real murderer’s monogrammed cufflinks were left in plain sight at the scene of the crime.
Whether or not Bergson’s writings on the subjects of time and laughter were in Nabokov’s mind, Albinus’s story contains within it a meditation on mediocrity, a warning, which the advance of technology makes ever more pertinent. Contemporary filmmakers who dabble with Albinus’s beautiful idea (or something like it) may be getting in over their heads. One hopes they avoid Albinus-style destruction; they may not be so lucky when it comes to Albinus-style ridicule.
I conclude with a postscript, one final tableau:
Nabokov agreed in an interview that there are “some affinities” between Lolita’s amoral, brilliant playwright, Claire Quilty and Laughter’s amoral, brilliant artist and animator, Axel Rex, created some 20 years before. In any case, “Rex” recurs in Lolita as a jukebox apparition. It happens that while Stanley Kubrick was negotiating the fee with Nabokov for turning that book into a film, an option on Laughter was also on the table, no doubt as sexually provocative backup. The somewhat less estimable Roger Vadim almost filmed it. Eventually, in 1967, Tony Richardson succeeded, the setting transferred to swinging London. One might have hoped for more from the director of Tom Jones and The Loved One but the film is tepid and obvious—never mind a complete neglect of the book’s cinematic self-awareness, the film scarcely elicits any, well, laughter in the dark, failing to exploit the black sexual comedy that Nabokov (even aside from the animation idea) sets in motion. Notwithstanding, it was effectively banned in the U.S. by being given an X rating (all but undistributable at the time) and has virtually disappeared. Yet it remains memorable for one reason: Richardson’s Laughter in the Dark stars, as Margot the usherette, Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard’s prime muse and an actress whose glamorous pop-Tolstoyan name seems foreordained by Nabokov’s fictional Dorianna Karenina—a case of life uncannily imitating art. Which is to say, a perfect tableau vivant.
First of all, let me express my gratitude to the Nabokov estate, administered by the Andrew Wylie Agency, and to the Berg Collection at the NYPL for allowing me to reproduce Nabokov’s sketch of the accident scene in Camera Obscura. My thanks also to the filmmakers Lech Majewski, Peter Greenaway, and Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation for allowing the reproduction of stills from their works.
Of the Nabokov critics I found most informative, Dabney Stuart, in his excellent essay “Laughter in the Dark: Dimensions of Parody” (in Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes, 1970), clearly diagrams how the events foreshadowed by the Garbo film have been “set in motion” by the animation idea, while making an explicit connection between the Dutch landscape, with its skaters, and the Berlin hockey arena. Kevin J. McKenna generously let me read a manuscript (since published in Proverbium, Vol. 24) that deals at length with the impact of Bruegel’s The Netherlandish Proverbs on the beautiful idea as it plays out in Laughter. Professor McKenna points out that besides the proverb of the blue cloak, another one—love is blind—shadows the events of the novel. Brian Boyd’s chronology in Vladimir Nabokov: Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951 (1996) provided me with data about what was written where, and when, and in what language. I have simplified the sequence of events without, I hope, altering the relevant facts.
Alfred Appel, Jr.’s devotion to Nabokov as editor, annotator, and critic was essential to my research. His interview with Nabokov in Strong Opinions (1973) elicited the Van Bock quote. As for Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, it stayed in Spain until becoming a spoil of the Napoleonic wars. It now hangs at the National Gallery, London.
Appel, in his resourceful book Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (1974), suggests that the Disney short The Skeleton Dance was Nabokov’s inspiration for the beautiful idea, which led me, ultimately, to The China Plate, another Silly Symphony. If in fact he saw the latter film, Nabokov—the zealous lepidopterist—would surely have enjoyed the sequence in which a courting Chinese couple chase a butterfly. Could this have prompted him to name the cinema in which Albinus meets Margot the Argus? Besides suggesting the many-eyed monster of the audience, “Argus” is encountered in the nomenclature of a number of butterfly species.
Both Skeleton Dance and The China Plate were animated by Ub Iwerks (often credited with the creation of Mickey Mouse). In Laughter we are told that the idea of the animating landscape is not quite Albinus’s own; he had derived it from a phrase in a book by his novelist friend, Udo Conrad—whose first name is suspiciously reminiscent of the animator’s. (The last name, of course, brings to mind the author of Lord Jim, whose fiction Nabokov scorned as juvenile.) In any event, Udo, like Ub, has his pencil unwittingly on the drawing board of Albinus’s fate, for it will be thanks to the inadvertent candor of the author of “Memoirs of a Forgetful Man” (the title’s humor appears to be unintended by the pompous Conrad) that Albinus is finally enlightened about the lurid and very public carryings on of the cuckholding duo, Margot and Rex.
As the truth dawns on Albinus, late in the novel, “he had the obscure sensation of everything’s being suddenly turned the other way round, so that he had to read it all backward if he wanted to understand”—a passage that confirms the inversion in the the novel’s structure hinted at earlier by the beautiful idea and the “happenings” in the Garbo film. Garbo, while we’re on the subject, played Anna Karenina twice. Besides the Selznick film, she starred in a silent adaptation called Love (1927). If Nabokov saw it, this fierce partisan of Tolstoy’s tragedy would have been amused at the happy ending. Nabokov (who insisted the novel should properly be titled Anna Karenin) put Tolstoy in play again in Ada—in mirror image. His 1969 novel begins: “All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.”
For a robust discussion of Nabokov as anagrammatist see D. Barton Johnson’s Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (1985). Dabney Stuart supplies additional examples of names in Nabokov’s fiction that are scrambled self-portraits. As for the text on the luggage label, a hidden message by anagram would hardly be surprising, but I was unable to hit a bull’s-eye. “Rouginard” does suggest the French for red, the color of rage and shame in French as in English. Adding “Hotel Britannia” can give you “A blind heart, a touring trio”—Albinus, Margot, and Rex on the Riviera? —or “O, Art in a Breughel tradition,” and no doubt other near misses. My contention that the initials H.B. are significant is perhaps bolstered by Nabokov’s description of his alphabetic synesthesia in Speak Memory (1966): every letter of Nabokov’s several languages was made vividly particular by coupled sensations of color as exact as “brassy with an olive sheen” (English u) or “vulcanized rubber” (the French hard g).
Nabokov mentions his abiding interest in Henri Bergson (alongside Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin) in a 1964 Playboy interview collected in Strong Opinions. (His strong opinion about Joseph Conrad is here as well.) Bergson’s study of laughter describes the successful caricaturist as “diabolical.” Axel Rex is a diabolical caricaturist, and he improvises a curious syllogism about a masked burglar (reminiscent of the masked man in the Garbo film) to explain his artistic credo of “super-humor,” a kind of joke upon a joke. If Rex’s syllogism is Nabokov’s trump of Bergson’s attempt to apply logic to the devilish anarchy of the joke, should we call it super-duper-humor?
One more comment about Rex, artist, animator, caraciturist—and forger: In looking for an alternate template, we might raise an eyebrow at Rex’s recognition of some of his shady handiwork in Albinus’s art collection.
In describing the narration of the final scene I imagined it as a voice-over in a film noir—”the kind of film, perhaps, that is structured as a long flashback during which we forget all about the cryptic prologue, finally arriving with perfect inevitability at the crime we’d been shown at outset.” Kubrick’s version of Lolita (unlike the novel) is structured exactly this way: the film opens with the denouement in which Humbert vengefully shoots Quilty during a game of ping-pong. The ping-pong game was Kubrick’s “macabre” addition, according to Nabokov’s foreword to his unused screenplay, published as Lolita: a Screenplay (1973), but Nabokov had already grafted Humbert’s arrival at Quilty’s lair onto the beginning of his treatment. Kubrick, a wunderkind of noir, had batted ideas back and forth with Nabokov, and surely collaborated on this crucial structural detail. The knowledge that the two had also been discussing a film of Laughter (see pages 308-9 of Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977) is tantalizing; the beautiful idea may well have been on their minds.
David Brody is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.