Of all my novels this bright brute is the gayest', Nabokov wrote of King,Queen, Knave.Comic, sensual and cerebral, it dramatizes an Oedipal love triangle, a tragi-comedy of husband, wife and lover, through Dreyer the rich businessman, his ripe-lipped and mercenary wife Martha, and their bespectacled nephew Franz. 'If a resolute Freudian manages to slip in' - Nabokov darts a glance to the reader - 'he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there . . .
Ostensibly the characters are German, the novel's main setting Berlin. But, though sensual, languorous descriptions of rooms and gestures abound, the locale and nationality recedes more or less, and I am reminded of Chekov's country families or the Russian elite at summer dachas when the Dreyers gather at table during the warmer months of the book.
Franz, just off the turnip truck (or, really, the train into town, on which he coincidentally shares a compartment with none other than his future benefactor and paramour), comes to the big city and begins work as a salesman in his uncle's department store. It's only a matter of time before he sets eyes on Dreyer's wife Martha, and she begins to see him as an innocent, perfect, passionate replacement for her upbeat and stable husband.
Juvenile, vulgar trysts ensue. The intimacy is anatomical, repulsive. Everything has a sexual and creepy tinge, offset by Franz' obsessive jags of disgust (at smells, at saliva, excrement; though this doesn't stop him from producing copious amounts of his own) which send him reeling and fleeing. We ourselves want to flee when we're shut into his damp, grim room with him and Marta during their bouts of rather hideous lovemaking.
The entire book feels like an extreme closeup, showing us the pores and pustules of humans and their delusions. Martha, in her sharp-cornered role of icy temptress exudes her femme fatale nature strongly enough that Franz doesn't notice for some time that she actually resembles an 'old toad.' His early perceptions of her brew perfection from slight flaws: he flies into ecstasy over the fuzz of her upper lip, an unbecoming sweater, a pockmark. As he tires of their affair, we hear his noticing of her 'fat thigh' without the embellishment. This spells doom.
Most of the novel is watching Franz and Martha come to the decision that they need to do away with Dreyer to enable their hazy vision of bliss. It's stupid, of course. A folly.
There is a lot of developing Nabokovian symbolism here, of course. Watch for automatons and hints of the ensuing Nazi threat. Some feels a bit pat in light of Nabokov's later exquisite works, and KQK falls short of the immediate rapture and brightness of his first work, Mary. What Nabokov does brilliantly here is segue between perception and imagination, stream-of-consciousness, dreams and then back into narrative again—all while, of course, employing taut wordplay—without stumping the reader. It feels natural in flow, especially because this late-1960s translation, a collaboration between Nabokov's son and the author himself, reworked large pieces of the book to fit better in English, and to reflect changes based on cultural hindsight. The Nazi foreshadowing was increased, and a sentence that caught my eye, that Franz would later be 'guilty of worse sins than avunculicide', added.
The book is worth reading, especially for Nabokov fans. But if you are looking for an entry point or are less committed to untangling the web of the great Russian/French/English writer, read Mary instead.
I thought I detected a slight awkwardness in some passages, almost as if something had not quite come through in the translation. Perhaps not surprising with an author as fond of wordplay as VN. Whether real or imagined on my part, this is a minor quibble - KQKn (as VN himself abbreviated it) is clever, entertaining, and very much worth reading if you've enjoyed other Nabokov.
The story is a classic love triangle where a once fairly geeky nephew begin to grow ( in many ways)as he enters into a love affair with his benefactor's wife. Dreyer, who remains amazingly unaware of the relationship, plays the cuckold husband. Franz and Martha at times seem desperately in love and at other times seem to be going through the motions. Even the planned out murder scene is postponed only because Dreyer hints that he is about to make a lot of money. There is a subplot about Dreyer entering into a business deal to make robot like store mannequins, and according to the snippets of analysis I read , their success mimics the success of the plotting couple. All in all this was a different kind of book for me, but I was glad to move away from only the most recent of fiction. I have another old Nobokv on my shelf -Ada- which I will also have to get to someday.
Especially lovely are some of the metaphors, that pop-up every now and then, and that reveal an acute insight into the world as it is. The story line evolves around a 'classic' triangle and leads to its inevitable catastrophe. While being not special at all in itself, the way it has been treated is convincing. Pride of place goes to the superb language, some passages read not only like poetry, but even like good poetry.
Against the background of the 1920s, the passages about the 'human automatons' that some inventor is offering main character Dreyer are downright chilling in their political and historical consequences. Besides that, smells, tastes and extremely well-chosen shreds of visual imagery galore. The characters are not appetizing at all, but the writing is, very much so, even.
Recommended for those who prefer language over exiting story lines.