Stymied by his penchant for beautiful descriptive passages, Nabokov's plot development falters and circles back on itself. Despite his attempts to dissuade others from the use of allegorical language, it seems that this whole book hints at an allegory which is never quite rendered clearly. Nabokov's main character, Cincinnatus C., is sentenced to beheading for "gnostical turpitude" (knowledge-related deviance?), though he ironically doesn't seem to have much of a clue about why he should be put to death, or understand any of the details surrounding the execution. The reader soon learns that Cincinnatus has performed a few verifiable miracles of sorts in public, including walking on air and disappearing, perhaps related to a talent for transforming Ally McBeal-style daydreams into reality.
Sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, repetitive descriptions of his daily schedule during incarceration, and the shifting architecture of the fortress in which he is imprisoned account for perhaps 75% of the book. If Nabokov sought to give his reader the sense of confusion and emotional constipation perhaps experienced by his main character (the narrator, while omniscient, often refrains from explaining Cincinnatus' reactions to the situations in which he finds himself, barely describing his outward expressions), he has succeeded in this regard. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a very compelling read, on the whole. The absurdity is muted by the circumlocution, Nabokov retreats from ever fully committing to his various hints at magical realism, and he seems to moralize through his characters' dialogue on sex and violence.
It's worth mentioning that the comparisons many reviewers have made to Kafka's Trial seem misguided upon finishing this book. While Kafka described an abrupt and ever-escalating encroachment into one man's fairly ordinary life, Nabokov begins with a death sentence, and follows a confused and tortured individual who exists in a dream-like state during his incarceration, alternating between despair and apathy as he is prodded toward and led into diversion after diversion. There's something distinctively less linear about Nabokov's work, whereas Kafka, for better or worse, sets out to tell us a story (however wild it may seem at points along the way).
I'm glad I stuck it out on this one: the final 30 or 40 pages feature more action than the preceding 190+, and some of the language is truly wonderful (Nabokov's off-handed description of the cameras gathered in the center of town as the "square black snouts" of photographers comes to mind). As a result, I'll probably end up checking out another of Nabokov's novels, despite my dissatisfaction with this book.
Published March 3, 1959 by Putnam.