“Of all my novels this bright brute is the gayest”.
After finishing this novel, I have come to the conclusion that Nabakov’s sense of humour is on a different plane altogether.
The story of King, Queen, Knave is of a queen who, enamoured by a knave, betrays her king and pays the price herself.
On a less dramatic note, it is the story of Dreyer, Martha and Franz set against the backdrop of Berlin. From the first glimpse of the characters in a second class train compartment to the last scene, the author generates no sympathy for any one of them. And it is very seldom that one comes across a book which has no characters to root for.
Martha is a beautiful and intelligent woman who, bored and disgusted by her rich, physically unattractive and self-centered husband, Dreyer, ends up having an affair with a younger man. Her lover, Franz, is the nephew (son of a distant cousin) of Dreyer who has come to Berlin to work in his uncle’s store. He is immediately taken in by his aunt’s charms and falls passionately in love with her. Dreyer, busy with his work and taking a ‘Dreyer’ view of the world at all times, remains completely oblivious to the affair. Franz, to him, is a simple, uncouth country lad - an interesting addition to his household.
Little does he know of the interesting role he plays in his wife's life. Martha goes to the small and dingy accommodations of Franz every other evening while Dreyer is busy at work devising and investing in some new scheme to make money. As these visits increase, Martha finds herself falling so passionately in love with Franz that she can’t stand the thought of living with her husband. After fervid love making she makes elaborate plans of the future with Franz which seem unattainable because of one man. She loathes Dreyer's every move, his every word, his manner, his demeanour; in short, his entire being. Her only hope for a happy life is with Franz and that too, as a widow, a rich one at that.
Martha is a selfish woman who uses her physical beauty to trap Franz into complete obedience. He is a mere puppet in her hands and her hold is such that he is willing to carry out the murder of his uncle for her happiness. There are moments in the book where he does appear wary of the murder plan but one look, one touch and Franz is putty in Martha’s hands. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’
The one character I did root for was Tom, Dreyer's ignored Alsatian. The auto mannequins were an interesting distraction, an invention in which Dreyer was investing for his store (and which, sort of, save his life), and were symbolic of the three principal characters of the book. Their fate, revealed to the reader a little before the end, reflects that of Martha, Dreyer and Franz. The ending of the book does take the reader by surprise making the book an entertaining read.
Nabakov’s son prepared a literal translation of the book in 1966, to which Nabakov made some significant changes, forty years after the debut of the original work. The beauty of the language and the subtlety in the text does leave one spell bound, which comes as no surprise.
A film adaptation, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski and starring Gina Lollobrigida, David Niven and John Moulder-Brown, was released in 1972 (Source: Wikipedia) and I have yet to get my hands on it.
In some very remote ways, this book is similar to Emile Zola’s Thérése Raquin. Both have themes of adultery, murder and guilt. Zola’s book is dark and horrifying; whereas Nabakov’s narrative is simple and ironic. And both husbands, Camille (Thérése Raquin) and Dreyer can't swim!
Note to reader: learn swimming.
Photograph: Google Images