Laughter in the Dark
is a novel by Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, published in Russian in 1932 and in English in 1936. Nabokov was so unhappy with the English translation he created his own translation, published in 1938. The book depicts a relationship between an older man and a younger girl, similarly to Nabokov’s later work, Lolita,
but with a different tone and perspective.
The story opens with a brief recitation of what will be the main plot: Albert Abinus, a rich art critic in Berlin, will leave his wife for a younger woman who will not love him, and end his life in disaster. The story opens with Albert having what he thinks is a brilliant idea: Take classic paintings and have them transformed into animated films. The first few people he takes this idea to tell him it won’t work, so he writes to a Hollywood film producer, Axel Rex, who agrees to take on the project for a large fee.
However, Albert meets a young girl named Margot when he visits a theater where she is working as an usher, and he becomes instantly obsessed with her. She begins to phone him at his home, making Albert nervous that his wife, Elizabeth, will discover the affair. Margot then comes to his house, having found his address. She’s almost discovered by his brother-in-law, Paul, and Albert, alarmed, agrees to give her money to rent an apartment of her own so they can meet safely.
Margot sends a note to Albert with her new address, knowing full well that his wife will see the note. Elizabeth does, and leaves Albert immediately, taking their children with her. Albert initially moves into Margot’s apartment with her, but she prefers his expensive home, and pressures him to move her there, which he does. Albert then finances a film on the condition that Margot get a large role in it.
They throw a party to celebrate the launch of her acting career. Axel is invited, and is instantly attracted to Margot, and she to him. In order to throw Albert off the trail, Axel implies that he is homosexual. Albert learns that his daughter is fatally ill, but does not go to see her. When she dies, Margot insists he not go to the funeral, and that he come to the film’s premiere and be cheerful. The film is a failure, however, and Margot’s lack of talent is apparent to everyone. To stave off depression, Albert suggests they go on vacation. Axel volunteers to accompany them.
While on vacation, several people comment on the obvious affair being conducted by Margot and Axel. Albert initially resists these statements, but then his eyes are finally opened and he becomes very angry, threatening to shoot them both. He is convinced not to commit murder, but to take Margot away. Without informing Axel, he puts Margot in the car and drives off, upset. On the winding mountain roads, Albert swerves to avoid some bicyclists and crashes; he emerges from the accident blind.
A doctor examines Albert but concludes that he will never see again, and may not regain full use of his faculties. Margot seizes the opportunity and takes Albert to Switzerland and moves into a chalet, supposedly to tend to him and his injuries. Axel accompanies her, but pretends to be Albert’s doctor, and Albert is unaware of his presence. Margot and Axel steal from Albert, writing checks on his accounts, and torture and abuse him as he’s now helpless and in their control. Albert, nearly insane and unable to see, is only somewhat aware of what’s happening to him. His hearing becomes very sensitive, and Axel enjoys torturing him by making maddening noises he pretends are inadvertent. Slowly, Albert becomes suspicious of what’s happening, overhearing clues that lead him to believe he is being made a fool of.
Paul, aware of the alarming series of checks being written out of the Albinus accounts, suspects that someone is forging the checks. His sister Elizabeth begs him to check on Albert. When Paul arrives in Switzerland, he sees Axel torturing Albert. He steps in and takes Albert home with him to Elizabeth, who takes him and cares for him affectionately.
Albert receives a letter informing him that Margot will be returning to the old apartment in order to claim all the valuables. Albert is seized with anger, and he takes his gun and goes to the old apartment. Relying on his memory of the layout and floorplan and his ability to smell her perfume, he barricades the door to ensure she cannot escape and begins hunting her through the apartment. When he catches up to her, she fights back. In the struggle she takes the gun from Albert and shoots him. As he dies, Albert contemplates the ruin of his life.