Cinematic Techniques in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark
Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark takes the movies for its style as well as its subject matter. In recounting the farcical tragedy of director Albinus and starlet Margot, Nabokov imports a wide variety of techniques and imagery from the cinema into the novel. But Nabokov's "cinematic" style is not analagous to that of a screenplay: the polished prose is always tinged with the novelist's trademark irony. Gavriel Moses notes that
Nabokov's most consistent reaction to popular films in their public context is his awareness that the film image... is overwhelming in its insistent claim to presence and, as a consequence, to truth. But in formula films perceived uncritically or absorbed inertly, film tends to displace... what is really important in life and to impose its own schematic simplifications upon life's teaming and idiosyncratic details. (62)
Virtually all the characters in Laughter in the Dark take their understandings of life from the film industry. Their ideas and impressions, therefore, tend to be rather banal, predictable, and superficial. Nabokov's people never surprise the reader, never think unusual thoughts, never reveal unexpected depths. In contrast to the complex psyches found in Tolstoy and Chekhov, for instance, Albinus, Rex, and Margot are cartoons, with speech balloons floating above their heads. Indeed, even their thought processes resemble the interior monologues of characters in Hollywood films. So, for example, when Nabokov transcribes Albinus's silent thoughts, he employs a standard voice-over template:
Albinus, his queer emotions riding him, thought: "What the devil do I care for this fellow Rex, this idiotic conversation, this chocolate cream...? I'm going mad and nobody knows it. And I can't stop, it's hopeless trying, and tomorrow I'll go there again and sit like a fool in that darkness... Incredible." (13)
Albinus's thinking consists of "talking to himself," forming complete, grammatically correct sentences in his mind. This is an artistic convention: in real life, people rarely ever think this way. But the convention conveys information in a brisk, economical manner, so the reader accepts it without protest. Nonetheless, Nabokov uses this "voice-over" technique to reveal what characters are thinking more often than most novelists do (and more often than he himself does in his other books). As a point of comparison, here is a snippet of Norman Bates' final voice-over monologue in Hitchcock's Psycho, as quoted in Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: "They're probably watching me now... Well, let them. As if I could do anything but just sit and stare... I hope they are watching me! They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say..." (323). Norman's thoughts are expressed the same way as Albinus's: both men talk to themselves. Whereas a novelist steeped in literary tradition,...