Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave was our Brown Baggers choice for September. It features, not surprisingly, three main characters – head of household Dreyer, bitter wife Martha, and impressionable youth Franz. Readers agreed that not a single one of these characters was sympathetic. They are extremely superficial and had a significant lack of moral bearing. Both Dreyer and Martha engage in affairs (Martha’s being with Franz), perhaps because it’s expected of them – one of the many accepted activities in their social class. Martha and Franz spend much of the book plotting Dreyer’s murder. Dreyer has a myopic, some considered jovial, view of the world that doesn’t lead him to heavily involve himself in the life of others, including his wife. Manipulation and greed were par for the course, and readers suggested the drive to murder and cheat might be a result of the characters’ staid lives and a need for more excitement. While the mystery of would they or won’t they kept the pages turning, most readers were just glad to reach an ending and didn’t have strong feelings as to what became of these characters, especially as the ending was not entirely fair to some of the characters.
Aside from the characters, Nabokov’s writing, especially his description and language, were praised. Readers were also entranced by his ability to paint a fever dream of surreality, notably when Franz experiences Berlin without his glasses, and later when he starts to come unhinged from the pressure to commit murder from Martha. Nabokov also employs seamless transitions between one character’s story line and actions and another which was impressive. The author relied heavily on metaphor – including a whole automannequin (robot) sequence that emphasized the robotic nature and actions of the main characters, especially Franz doing whatever Martha told him, and also served to symbolize the growing Nazi following in Germany at that time. Another metaphor was the repeated mentions of the film King, Queen, Knave which readers took as a metaphor for the dramatic and theatrical lives the characters were leading.
Those who had read Nabokov’s other works, like Lolita, and other noted Russian authors, found this book to be less intense and introspective than those. The internal lives and extended internal dialog of characters was not found here.
Author who inspired Nabokov – H.G. Wells
A few of the authors inspired by Nabokov – Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Banville
Paris Review interview with Nabokov (1967)
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – This former Brown Baggers choice about an older woman-teen boy affair came to mind when reading the Martha-Franz relationship.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – This former Brown Baggers choice about a death and the subsequent cover up matched the intrigue of this book.
The next Brown Baggers meeting will be October 20. We’ll be reading Gray Mountain by John Grisham.