Film, Literature

Laughter in the Dark: A Cinematic Novel

Few will deny Vladimir Nabokov a place among the greats of twentieth century literature. Many casual readers, though, will struggle to mention more than one of his novels. That one, of course, is Lolita (1955), a tale of a man’s obsession with a young girl. It is a story that has inspired many other authors, composers and artists, spawned two film adaptations (by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 and Adrian Lyne in 1997) and introduced the term Lolita, to describe a sexually precocious young girl, in the English lexicon. Pressed for more examples of Nabokov’s work, some may mention Pale Fire (1962) or Ada (1967) and there usually the list ends. However, he has written many more outstanding novels, both in English and Russian.

Many years before the publication of Lolita, Nabokov wrote another novel about a man and his destructive obsession for a younger girl, 1938’s Laughter in the Dark (for more on the similarities between the two novels, see “The Lolita Connection” at the bottom of the article). The book is his own translation of his Russian novel Kamera Obskura (1932). An earlier English translation was made, but Nabokov was not happy with both the translator’s work and with his original story. He took the opportunity to rewrite parts as he adapted it into English.

In Laughter in the Dark, the protagonist is Albert Albinus, a wealthy and respected art critic. He is happily married to Elisabeth and they have an eight year old daughter called Irma. Despite his good fortunes and loving family, Albinus meets and becomes obsessed with a young woman by the name of Margot. She uses his money and connections to achieve her dream of starring in a movie. When she is reunited with an old lover, Axel Rex,a man even more manipulative than she is, the two resume their affair in secret. When Albinus is blinded in a car accident, Margot and Rex scheme to rid themselves of him and rob him of his money.

Cinematic Elements

There are many references to cinema in the novel. The title, of course, can be interpreted as the audience of a movie theatre reacting to an amusing scene, be it comical or ridiculous. The original Russian title has a meaning related to film as well. A camera obscura is an old optical device, much like a prototypical movie projector. Both titles confirm to us that we are the audience to the story that is unfolding, and that we can anonymously, in the dark, enjoy the twists, ironies, and cruelties that are being displayed.

The novel opens with the following lines:

“Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

In these first words, Nabokov boldly spoils the story to the reader and at the same time reminds us of the fact that so often the story is the same: one of love, regret and ruin. Only broad strokes are given, and, as Nabokov himself writes at the end of the very next paragraph, “detail is always welcome”. Indeed, we still long to know what happens and why. The first paragraph acts like a teaser. Hearing the words in your head (“Once upon a time…”), it is easy to imagine a movie trailer, giving you a few snippets of the story and enticing you to come see the film.

The way some of the characters are described makes them seem to come straight out of the movies. Margot in particular, a petite young woman with “a pale, sulky painfully beautiful face” and “black lovelocks on her temples” reminds us of some silent movie stars, in particular Louise Brooks. Like Brooks, Margot is a sexually liberated woman who posed nude and had a weakness for domineering men. Nabokov likely had the popular actress in mind when he conceived of Margot. But where Brooks was quick to achieve success, Margot’s attempts to break into the movie industry failed.

Louise Brooks

When Albinus first meets her, Margot is working as an usherette at a movie theatre, which was as close as she’s gotten to achieving her dream. Even though he knows nothing about her, Albinus becomes obsessed with Margot. His attraction seems purely physical as all his appreciation of her is expressed in descriptions of the way she looks, moves, and acts. The way he gazes at her, such as when he watches “her shoulder-blades move, and the sallow skin between them ripple and smooth out again”, reminds us of the way a camera can linger on an actress’s face or skin, soaking her in.

In Albinus, a wealthy art critic with connections, a man who fawns over her every move, Margot sees another possibility to achieve her dream of stardom. She convinces Albinus to finance a film in which she’ll play the second female lead. But even then she is not happy. The filmmaking process is a disappointment to her, and when the finished product is screened she recoils in horror at her own image, at the “ghastly creature” she sees on the screen, “awkward and ugly”, moving with “stiff, clumsy, angular gestures”. While Albinus is of course enamoured by her performance, others are not so positive. At one point, the audience laughs at a particularly bad scene, embarrassing Margot to her core. It is another example of the “laughter in the dark”, and for once directed at Margot and not Albinus. At her request, Albinus promises to destroy the film, even though it is a huge financial loss for him.

Though she was a failure as an actress and even as a model, Margot spends her time acting and posing for Albinus, playing him for the fool he is. Often she can be found in poses that seem to come straight out of a movie. One time, Albinus finds her like this:

“Margot was lying in a kimono on a dreadful chintz-covered sofa, her arms crossed behind her head. On her stomach an open book was poised, cover upward.”

She is not even reading the book. It is as if she had been waiting for his arrival, which it turns out she was (“you’re quick,’ she said”). She is continually playing a role intended to ensnare and manipulate Albinus, and in this act she is very successful.

Before he meets Margot, Albinus himself has an early wish to make coloured drawings come alive in animation, creating short scenes around famous paintings. This quest first leads him to the artist Axel Rex, who is willing to help Albinus for a substantial fee, even if no one else is interested in the idea. Nabokov’s description of Rex is that of a psychopath, unburdened with feelings of guilt or remorse, interested only in satisfying his own needs and desires. He enjoys his own superiority and the suffering of others. As a child, he even tortured small animals. He lies and deceives when he feels like it, as “his itch to make fools of his fellow men amounted almost to genius”. Nevertheless, Albinus comes to regard Rex as a good friend. He appreciates in him his true artistry, where he himself is no more than an art critic, someone who can only admire the work of greater men.

It is Albinus’ inability to see through the deception of both Margot and Rex that causes his downfall. If only he had been a better critic, a better judge of character, and not been blind to the truth, he might not have lost everything.

Film Adaptations

Often in the book, the point of view (POV) changes, sometimes even in the middle of a chapter, giving us a momentary glimpse into the thoughts of a secondary character, such as Albinus’ brother-in-law Paul, the family doctor, and even the postman. This is common in film, but rarely seen in books. It gives the impression that some of the passages in the novel were intended for a film. For instance, in the scene of the car crash, Nabokov cuts back and forth from one POV to the other, as if he were editing a film. The effect is that we can see the danger coming around the corner, enhancing the suspense.

In a scene near the end, when Rex is alone in the cottage with blind Albinus, Nabokov gives us this description:

“At this moment Albinus and Rex were seated opposite one another in the little drawing-room into which the sunlight was streaming through the glass door leading to the terrace. Rex sat on a folding stool. He was stark naked. As a result of his daily sunbaths his lean but robust body with, on his breast, black hair the shape of a spread eagle, was tanned a deep brown. Between his full red lips he held a long stalk of grass and, with his hairy legs crossed and his chin cupped in his hand (rather in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker), he was staring at Albinus who, in return, seemed to be gazing at him quite intently.”

This passage reads as if it came straight out of a screenplay, and a clear and striking image is presented. The novel has more such passages and its concise story makes it a prime specimen to be adapted into a film. It should be no surprise then that it was.

The film Laughter in the Dark was directed by Tony Richardson (who also made film adaptations of Tom Jones and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and released in 1969. The story was updated to the present time and names were Anglicized. Albinus became Sir Edward More, his wife Pamela and his daughter Amelia. The name Margot was kept, but Rex became the French Herve Tourace. Unfortunately, the film was not a success. The reviews were mixed, Variety calling Richardson’s direction “rang[ing] from brilliantly evocative to confusing” while The New York Times, while praising the performances, said that “it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate his meek acceptance of her systematic conniving and her destruction of his life and fortune”. Currently, the movie is out of circulation.

Nicol Williamson as Edward and Anna Karina as Margot

There have been reports of a new film adaptation, claiming Bille August (The House of the Spirits, Smilla’s Sense of Snow) as the director. Shooting was slated to start in late 2012, but no further information can be found. It is likely that the production was abandoned or still stuck in development hell. This is a shame, because if any of Nabokov’s novels deserves another attempt at a successful film adaptation, it is Laughter in the Dark.


The Lolita Connection

LolitaSomething Nabokov could hardly deny is the connections between Laughter in the Dark and Lolita. Both stories revolve around an older man who falls in love with a younger girl and, even though he does everything to please her, he is betrayed by her for another lover. Margot and Lolita share a capricious nature and a tendency to play with the feelings of the men who love them; Albert Albinus and Humbert Humbert are both scholars with an admiration for true artists; and Axel Rex and Clare Quilty are such artists, but are also cruel and deceitful. There are other similarities, such as the need to keep the relationship secret from another woman (Albinus’ wife; Lolita’s mother), the impact of the affair on the protagonist’s social status, the retreat (vacation or road-trip), and the protagonist’s bad driving that gets him in trouble. Granted, some resemblances are superficial and also found in the works of other writers, but when you also look at some other works of Nabokov, it becomes clear these story elements were something he touched upon more often.

In The Enchanter, written in 1936 but not published until 1986, the protagonist is a middle-aged man who lusts after adolescent girls. He marries one girl’s mother to get closer to her (much like Humbert marrying Lolita’s mother Charlotte). In 1928’s King, Queen, Knave, a young man meets a couple and falls in love with the wife. They scheme to kill the husband while away on a vacation, but the wife dies of pneumonia. The name of the couple, Dreyer, is referenced in Laughter in the Dark, when Albinus receives a dinner invitation from them. And as far back in 1926, in A Nursery Tale, Nabokov touched upon the subject of hebephilia (the sexual attraction to pubescent girls) when the main character includes a young girl on his list of desired women.