First US edition
|Original title||Камера обскура|
The first English translation, Camera Obscura, was made by Winifred Roy and published in London in 1936 by Johnathan Long, the paperback imprint of Hutchinson Publishing, with the author credited as Vladimir Nabokoff-Sirin. Nabokov was so displeased by the translation's quality that he undertook his own, which was published in 1938 under the now common name, Laughter in the Dark. It is sometimes mistakenly assumed that he was not fond of the book, yet in fact it was based on very personal breakthroughs in his life.
The book deals with the affection of a middle-aged man for a very young woman, resulting in a mutually parasitic relationship. In 1955, Nabokov used this theme again with Lolita to a much differently developed effect.
The characters were given different names in the English translation. In the following list the names of the main characters of the English translation are given first with the original names in parentheses.
- Albert Albinus (Bruno Krechmar) - a middle-aged art-critic
- Margot Peters (Magda Peters) - a 17-year-old aspiring actress, common worker, model, seductress
- Axel Rex (Robert Gorn, probably Robert Horn) - A painter from New York and Margot's first lover, also Margot's first broken relationship when he abandoned her
Some minor characters include (from the English version):
- Elisabeth Albinus - Albert Albinus's wife
- Paul Hochenwart - Elisabeth's brother
- Otto Peters - Margot's brother
- Frieda - The Albinus' housekeeper
- Irma Albinus - Elisabeth and Albert's daughter
- Kaspar - A friend of Otto's
- Udo Conrad - An author and acquaintance of Albert's
Albinus is a respected, reasonably happy married art critic who lives in Berlin. He lusts after the 17-year-old Margot whom he meets at a cinema, where she works, and woos her over the course of many encounters, primarily with money. His prolonged affair with Margot is eventually revealed to Albinus's wife Elisabeth when Margot deliberately sends a letter to the Albinuses' residence and Albinus is unable to intercept it before it is discovered. Elisabeth leaves with the assistance of her brother, Paul, and takes their daughter, Irma, with her. Rather than disown the young troublemaker, Albinus is even more attracted to Margot. She eventually manipulates him into allowing her to move in to his flat where he resided with his wife, and she sets to working on him getting a divorce so that she might marry him and acquire access to his significant wealth.
Margot uses Albinus to fulfill her ambition in life to become a rich film star. Even when Albinus' daughter, Irma, takes ill and eventually succumbs to pneumonia, Margot insistently drives a wedge between his old life and his new, in order to totalize her capture of him. Inadvertently, Albinus introduces Margot to Axel Rex at one of his many dinner parties, but he does not know that the two have previously been lovers. Margot and Rex resume their relationship, and start plotting to get Albinus out of the way and rob him of his money.
Albinus gets Margot her first role as an actress, using his wealth as largesse to make up for her lack of talent. At the premiere viewing of the movie, Margot realises how inept she was and is petulant about her public exposure as a mediocre actress. Attempting to appease her wounded ego, Albinus convinces her to take a holiday to the south in the new car he has bought for her. Rex refuses to be left behind, and by this point has wangled his way into Albinus' confidence as a fellow artist (including convincing Albinus that he could not possibly be interested in Margot as he poses himself as homosexual): he presents himself as the ideal chauffeur for their trip, given that Albinus can barely drive. Rex and Margot's trysts have become increasingly brazen, and the holiday seems an opportunity to further deepen their affair on Albinus' payroll.
The holiday didn't quite go as Margot and Rex planned, since rendezvouses were next to impossible without arousing suspicion. On arriving in a small town and finding most lodgings unavailable, they finally get their chance in the only remaining hotel room the three could find, which shared a bathroom and made clandestine access possible. After a chance encounter with an old friend in the town, Albinus realises that Margot and Rex are engaged in an affair. Enraged, Albinus returns to the hotel and threatens Margot, who insists that there is nothing between her and the allegedly homosexual Rex. Still distraught, Albinus demands they leave at once, and they abandon Rex at the hotel. On their journey out of town, Albinus crashes the car and is blinded, leaving him in need of care and oblivious to the world around him.
Rex and Margot take advantage of his handicap. After sending a letter falsely stating that Rex has gone to America, they rent a chalet in Switzerland where Rex poses as Albinus's doctor, although Albinus is unaware of Rex's presence. Rex mocks and tortures Albinus during his recovery. Albinus becomes increasingly suspicious as his ears become more attuned and he perceives someone's presence, although Margot continuously denies his concerns.
Paul, Albinus's brother-in-law, suspects forgery when he encounters multiple high value cheques on Albinus' account at their shared bank, with the signature scrawled and the amounts in a different handwriting (Rex and Margot have been bleeding Albinus's accounts dry and coercing him into signing blind). Elisabeth, Albinus' estranged wife, asks her brother to drive to the Swiss residence. There, Paul discovers Rex toying with Albinus in his blinded state while Margot is out. Paul hurriedly bundles Albinus into a vehicle before Margot can return and convince the wretched Albinus otherwise, and escorts Albinus back to the Elisabeth's home, where he is given proper care.
After a short time, Albinus receives a call from the porter at his old original Berlin flat informing him that Margot has returned to his flat to collect some things. Finally knowing where she is, he decides to kill her. Without haste, he makes his way to the familiar flat and traps her inside by barricading the door, intending to shoot her with his pistol. He seeks her out by her scent and faint sounds, but when he tries to shoot her she overpowers him, grabs the pistol, and kills him.
In 1969, Laughter in the Dark was adapted for film directed by Tony Richardson, which was originally intended to star Richard Burton as Albinus. When he was fired for drunkenness, he was replaced by Nicol Williamson. Anna Karina played Margot and Jean-Claude Drouot played Axel Rex.
- Camera Obscura and Laughter in the Dark, or The Confusion of Texts, by Christine Raguet-Bouvard (translated by Jeff Edwards)
- Nabokov's Poetics of Vision, or, What Anna Karenina is Doing in Kamera obskura by Thomas Seifrid.