"Of all my novels this bright brute is the gayest."
-- Vladimir Nabokov
...and who would dare disagree with The Man Himself? It's even got Blavdak Vinomori!
Nabokov's writing splits gracefully into a pair of matched halves, hinged at his emigration to the USA in 1940. In the 1920s and 1930s, he lived in Berlin and then Paris, and wrote in Russian. Those novels he (thank God!1) later translated into English with the assistance of his son, Dmitri. From 1940 until, oh, sometime in the 1960s, he lived in the US. He finally settled famously in Montreux, Switzerland. We like to think he was at home there when Deep Purple made the ill-started visit chronicled in "Smoke on the Water".
If he was aware of that song, he never mentioned it. I'd expect no less.
King, Queen, Knave was written in Russian and in Berlin, in 1927 and 1928. The original title was Korol', Dama, Valet. Nabokov's own English translation is copyrighted 1968, an auspicious year.
In the forties and fifties (not counting The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which I'll excuse as a warm-up exercise), Nabokov could hardly do wrong, but it wasn't always like that. His earlier output is uneven: Some are delightful, some are dull, a couple are just plain lousy. KQK is delightful.
Whether "bright" or gloomy, Nabokov maintained a policy of strict contempt for his major characters (Timofey Pnin and John Shade excepted) and damn near all of the minor ones (not counting Dolly Haze's one-handled husband2). Sometimes he even went for outright loathing. It's a joy to think of Mr. N. standing rigidly upright at his lectern day after day with pencil in hand, sneering down his patrician nose at his index cards as he beat the living daylights out of some imaginary naked wretch who had nobody to blame for his failings but the divine tormentor himself!
There are exactly two sympathetic characters in King, Queen, Knave, and they don't say a word: Blavdak Vinomori and his delightful wife, who arrive on what the author called "visits of inspection"3. All the rest are types of the stolid German bourgeoisie, their poor relations, and assorted "characters" from the Lower Orders (Franz's insane landlord is a treat not to be missed).
The plot concerns the plodding romantic misadventures of a respectable woman who conducts an "intrigue" with her respectable husband's hapless nephew. The lovers conspire to remove the plodding obstacle to their plodding happiness; many events ensue; "justice" of a cruel and aimless variety is served in a seaside resort beset by rain. Never mind the plot. The plot doesn't really matter. The glory of the thing is in the prose and the characters, and above all in the details. Oh, such lovely details!
The moral of the story is this: Don't ever be a character in a Nabokov novel. Read them instead. They're hard to beat.
1Nabokov was an obsessive perfectionist -- he was first and foremost a stylist, remember -- and his translations of his own work amounted to rewrites more often than not. This is why so many of his early novels of the '20s and '30s so magically resemble his mature style of the 1960s. Smoke and mirrors.
2V. N.'s occasional kindness to minor characters reminds us of the opera buffe type of the loveable, gentle shepherd Gomasio and his kindness to cats (sorely missed in these late days).
3Of course, the author didn't make them up, and he'd been obsessively fond of Blavdak Vinomori all his life. "Visits of inspection" is from the author's foreword to his 1968 translation, as is the "bright brute" line.