Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave

Originally published in Russian in 1928 under the penname Sirin, King, Queen, Knave is the second novel by famed author Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977). The work was translated into English in 1968 after its publication in Germany. Unlike his first novel, Mary (1926), which is autobiographical in theme and features mainly Russian characters, Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave tells the story of a German love triangle. The author’s virtuosic use of the stock plot of a love triangle results in a highly comic narrative that departs significantly from his first novel, whose meditations on memory, loss, and the passage of time recall the work of the great French modernist Marcel Proust. As an early divergence from modernism, and as an inspired parody of genre fiction, King, Queen, Knave forecasts the great English-language novels of Nabokov’s maturity: Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962), and Ada (1969). Nabokov wrote in Russian until 1940.

Vladimir Nabokov holding a butterfly, 1947.Photograph from Constantin Joffe / Condé Nast / Getty

King, Queen, Knave begins in a compartment of a train traveling to Berlin and then quickly establishes the love-triangle plot. Franz, a hopelessly nearsighted and bland young man, is on his way to the German capital, where he hopes to gain employment in his uncle’s clothing store. Also occupying Franz’s compartment are Dreyer and his wife, Martha, who Nabokov later reveals to be Franz’s uncle and aunt. Seen through Franz’s poor eyes, Martha, appears extremely sensual and more passionate than her husband, a selfsatisfied and successful businessman. Nabokov knowingly employs the clichéd language of romance novels in this scene and throughout the novel to parody the love-triangle genre, as well as to reveal the limited intelligence of his characters. This parodic use of clichéd language recalls the techniques of Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary Nabokov considered to be the best French novel of the 19th century.

Nabokov’s characterization of Martha also evokes the heroine of Flaubert’s great novel. Like Emma Bovary, Martha wants to have an affair to relieve her ennui—and she singles out her husband’s nephew. But what begins as a simple distraction from her boring life with her husband ends up as a raging passion. Because this passion is for an inept, clumsy, ordinary, and distinctly unromantic young man, Nabokov is able to turn the traditional love-triangle story on its head to great comic effect. The early scenes of Franz and Martha’s clandestine affair, as well as those of Franz’s encounters with his uncle, are hilarious parodies of common scenes in triangular relationships in fiction.

The plot, however, eventually takes on a darker comedic tone when Martha decides that Franz should murder his uncle. She thinks that with Dreyer dead, she and Franz can inherit his money and live together forever. The lovers consider many schemes for the murder, but they finally decide that they want to fake Dreyer’s accidental death by drowning during their summer vacation at a Baltic resort. On a rainy day during the vacation, they manage to entice Dreyer to take a ride in a dinghy, but just as they prepare themselves to push him overboard, he reveals that he has recently made a business deal that will pay him $100,000 in a few days. With the knowledge that she and Franz will inherit more money upon Dreyer’s death, Martha decides to wait a few days before attempting the murder again. But Martha’s decision results in the undoing of the murder plot—and the loss of her own life. The rain causes her to catch pneumonia, and she dies two days later.

Throughout the novel, all three of the main characters are unable to break out of their roles in the triangular relationship because of flaws in their ability to perceive the world. Nabokov as narrator has the deck stacked against the characters, as the title suggests. The self-satisfied Dreyer—the novel’s “king”—remains blissfully unaware of his wife’s affair with Franz and the murder plot throughout the novel. Even after his wife dies as a result of the attempt on his life, Dreyer considers Franz amusing and his wife cold and passionless. The misperceptions of the king parallel those of Martha, the novel’s “queen.” Indeed, Martha never perceives Franz’s antagonism to the murder plot because she succeeds in breaking his autonomous will. And Franz, the novel’s “knave,” does not perceive that he can resist Martha’s plot; thus, he never displays the craftiness and intelligence of the true knave.

Taken as a whole, King, Queen, Knave succeeds in parodying the mechanics of the love-triangle plot, with Nabokov acting as the grand master of the narrative game. His comic interest in deconstructing a particular narrative genre, however, leads to the novel’s main flaw—namely, that the characters never really come alive. Despite this, King, Queen, Knave exemplifies the gifts that Nabokov more successfully displays in his later novels.

Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Connolly, Julian W. “King, Queen, Knave.” In The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Vladimir E. Alexandrov, 203–214. New York: Garland, 1995.
Merkel, Stephanie L. “Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave and the Commedia dell’Arte.” Nabokov Studies 1 (1994): 83–102.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Russian Literature

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