Year of first publication: 1935-36
Genre: novel, dystopic novel
Cincinnatus C. is the citizen of a fictitious country. He is spending his last days in prison prior to his execution. His charge is something called "gnostical torpitude", a crime no one is willing to talk about. Cincinnatus feels that he is different from everyone else and that people don't feel at ease in his presence. He is, quoting Nabokov, "impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another". The novel is set in a fictional world which is frightfully similar to the real world we live in and this is the real horror of the story.
Cincinnatus is not allowed to learn the day of his execution and this causes him sorrow, because it does not let him think properly or lay out his written thouhgts with a clear intent. Nonetheless, when he learns the hour of his execution he is equally frought with anxiety.
Nabokov wrote this novel in Russian while he was in exile in Berlin. It was first published in a magazine for Russian expatriates and translated into English by his son Dmitri in the 1950s. I think you can feel that the book was written in an era of totalitarisms (Stalinism in Russia, fascism in Italy and, of course, the rise of Adolf Hitler's party in Germany), despite the fact that Nabokov considers his works as completely detached from any moral or social message. The book has been defined "kafkaesque" by many, but Nabokov said more than once that at the time he didn't speak German and was completely ignorant of Kafka's work. There is to be sure an affinity between "Invitation to a Beheading" and, let's say, "The Trial". You really do not know what Cincinnatus has done and you start doubting if he has ever committed a crime or whether he is just being executed for the way he is.
Somehow I couldn't relate to this book as much as I did with Nabokov's masterpiece, "Lolita". I was absent-minded while I read it which is never a good sign. Picking up the book on the train or after a tiring day at my computer, I had the impression that I wasn't quite understading half of what Nabokov intended to say. Certainly "Invitation to a Beheading" is very different from "Lolita": a lot less "aesthetic blessings", a lot less making fun of other people (psychiatrists, bourgeoisie etc) and a lot less making readers' eyebrows raise. In other words, a lot less Nabokov. Ok, so I'll give "Russian Nabokov" another chance to enthrall me with "The Gift", ok?
A last random thought: I have the impression that Nabokov is so not read in Italy, am I wrong?