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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) GAVRIEL SHAPIRO (fthaca) The Salome Motif in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading Students of Invitation to a Beheading have long noted that the novel contains references to well-known Christian motifs, from the New Testament and later Christian iconography.1 In this article, I shall consider ways in which the destiny of Cincinnatus, its protagonist-prisoner, can be likened to the life of John the Baptist. At the same time, such characters as Emmie, Rodrig / Rodion, and the Devil-like M'sieur Pierre can be linked, respectively , to Salome, Herod, and the executioner. The tragic end for Cincinnatus, similar to that of John the Baptist, the evangelical prophet, is already signaled by the novel's title, with "Beheading."2 Although the original Russian title reads Priglashenie na 1. It was perhaps Julian Moynahan who first noted this motif in Invitation to a Beheading. The American scholar has commented on the novel's close: "here these mysterious vocalists rather suggest the celestial choir gathered to greet the saved soul as it enters the Everlasting through the gates of death" (15). For a detailed discussion of the subject, see Shapiro, "Khristianskie motivy." For more recent mention of Christian motifs in the novel, see Tammi, Pol'skaia, Bunks. For a discussion of the Devil theme in Nabokov's œuvre, with particular mention of Invitation to a Beheading, see Irena and Omry Ronen. For a somewhat different, Gnostic, interpretation, see Davydov and Alexandrov. 2. John the Baptist is considered by Christian tradition as the first among the saints of the New Testament. In the fine arts, especially of Renaissance, there are innumerable depictions of this prophet, saint, and foreranner of Christ, including that of his beheading. Nabokov's immense erudition regarding the iconography of saints, particularly John the Baptist, is attested to by H. Peter Kahn, a painter and Cornell Professor of Fine Arts who was commissioned to make stained glass windows in the chapel of St. John's Episcopalian Church in downtown Ithaca, New York. Kahn recalls that Nabokov "recited fifty-five sainted Johns, in that sort of order in which he loved to categorize. He told about the 102 Nabokov Studies kazn ', that is Invitation to an Execution (phrasing that in English involves an "unpleasant duplication of the suffix"), Nabokov states in the Foreword to the English edition that "Priglashenie na otsechenie golovï ('Invitation to a Decapitation') was what I really would have said in my mother tongue, had I not been stopped by a similar stutter" (E5). Another aspect of the novel that suggests the presence of this evangelical motif is the time of the year—the end of summer—in which the action takes place. The novel consists of twenty chapters, spanning almost a three-week period. Thus in the penultimate chapter, on the day of execution, M'sieur Pierre says to Cincinnatus: "Good heavens, my friend, you have had nearly three weeks to prepare yourself (E207 / R202). In chapter 16, three days prior to the execution, we learn that Emmie has left town (see E171 / Rl 69) to retum to school, of which she was speaking two chapters and two days earlier (see E149 / R149). Since school commonly starts on September 1, Cincinnatus's execution, then, takes place at the very end of August. This becomes especially significant when we recall that 29 August is observed by both the Greek and the Roman Catholic Churches as the day of John the Baptist 's beheading (see Kalinskii 163-64 and Holweck 541). And, in all likelihood, it was this date that the executioner M'sieur Pierre marked on his wall calendar with the "crimson numeral," as the anticipated festive occasion (see E161 / Rl6O).3 Another reminder of John the Baptist's execution is Cincinnatus's nearly fasting. In the course of the almost three weeks of the novel Cincinnatus barely touches his dinners (see El 5 and 113 / R29 and 116) and merely has now hot chocolate and toast, now soup, and now supper (see E25, 48 and 54 / R37, 58 and 64). His abstinence can be related to commemorations of John the Baptist, whose fate he is supposed to follow. In accordance with Russian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 101-122
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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