Among the various texts that Nabokov consulted when writing Invitation to a Beheading was his father's Prison Pastimes (Tiuremnye dosugi, 1908), which Nabokov senior wrote after spending three months in St. Petersburg Kresty prison for having been a signatory to the Vyborg Manifesto, a document that the Tsarist government found inflammatory. Prison Pastimes was itself evidently influenced by Silvio Pellico's My Prisons (Le mie prigioni), a French translation of which (Mes prisons) is listed in the catalogue of V. D. Nabokov's voluminous library. Moreover, Nabokov himself had apparently read the French translation of Pellico's memoir in his youth, and his life-long fascination with Pushkin and Gogol, both of whom were attentive readers of Pellico, brought the works of this Italian writer into the orbit of his own literary interests. In this essay, I argue that, in all likelihood, Nabokov made use of Pellico's memoir when composing his own “prison novel,” Invitation to a Beheading. I support this supposition by identifying both a considerable number of significant parallels between My Prisons and Invitation to a Beheading and certain polemics on the part of Nabokov with his Italian predecessor. Whereas Pellico expresses a belief in the general goodness of humanity and advocates forgiveness of his oppressors, Nabokov demonstrates that in the “Communazist” era and its aftermath only an unrelenting and firm resistance to oppressors, not their absolution, will bring down tyrannies and lead to triumph over totalitarianism—an important ethical lesson for our civilization today.
Gavriel Shapiro; Nabokov and Pellico: Invitation to a Beheading and My Prisons. Comparative Literature 1 January 2010; 62 (1): 55–67. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-2009-032
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