King, Queen, Knave

King, Queen, Knave

First edition (Russian)
Author Vladimir Nabokov
Original title Король, дама, валет (Korol', dama, valet)
Translator Dmitri Nabokov and Vladimir Nabokov
Country Russia
Language Russian
Publisher Slovo (Russia)
McGraw-Hill (US)
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK)
Publication date
October 1928
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

King, Queen, Knave is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov (under his pen name V. Sirin), while living in Berlin and sojourning at resorts in the Baltic in 1928. It was published as Король, дама, валет (Korol', dama, valet) in Russian in October of that year; the novel was translated into English by the author's son Dmitri Nabokov (with significant changes made by the author) in 1968, forty years after its Russian debut.

Plot summary

Franz (Bubendorf), a young man from a small town, is sent away from home to work in the Berlin department store of his well-to-do uncle (actually, his mother's cousin), Dreyer. On the train ride to Berlin Franz is seated in the same compartment with (Kurt) Dreyer and Dreyer's wife, Martha, neither of whom Franz has met. Franz is immediately enchanted by Martha's beauty, and, shortly after Franz begins work at the store, the two strike up a secret love affair.

As the novel continues Martha's distaste for her husband grows more pronounced, and with it her adoration for Franz. Franz, meanwhile, begins to lose any will of his own, and becomes a numb extension of his lover. Dreyer, meanwhile, continues to lavish blind adulation on his wife, and is only hurt, not suspicious, when she returns his love with resentment.

As her relationship with Franz deepens, Martha begins to hatch schemes for Dreyer's demise. Franz himself has begun to lose interest in Martha, but he goes along with her plotting. As part of Martha's plans, the three vacation together at the Seaview Hotel at Gravitz, a resort on the Baltic Sea. She plans to take Dreyer, who cannot swim, out in a rowing boat so he can be drowned. On the boat, however, the plot is suspended by Martha when she learns from Dreyer that he is about to close a very profitable business deal. Martha then gets pneumonia from the rain and the cold on the boat. To Dreyer's great sorrow she passes away; he never learns about the betrayal and the danger he was in. Franz, relieved by her death, is heard laughing "in a frenzy of young mirth".

Other characters in the novel are the "conjuror," Old Enricht, who rents out a room to Franz, and the Inventor who was developing robot-like "automannequins" financed by Dreyer who hoped to make money by selling the invention to the American Mr. Ritter. The Inventor promised to make three dummies, however, at the final performance for Ritter, only the "elderly gentleman" with Dreyer's jacket and the woman ("walking like a streetwalker") were ready. The woman dummy crashed in a final clatter.

Themes, foreshadowings

One of Nabokov's favorite subjects, the doppelgänger theme, is enacted through the creation of the "automannequins". The character's fates can be read in the automatons' performance: the male dummy performs with panache and exits the stage; the female dummy's crash foreshadows Martha's demise; the third dummy is incomplete and unable to perform its intended mission.

Additionally, the actual automaton Franz represents a backward critique by Nabokov of the Weimar German psyche—ripe for destructive organization. The picture of Franz is that of a lower-class German who is easily manipulated, surrenders his moral judgment, and becomes increasingly dehumanized. In the book's last scenes, Nabokov describes Franz (with great penetration and comedy) as having "reached a stage at which human speech, unless representing a command, was meaningless."[1] When Nabokov wrote the story, Nazism was then in its nascent stages, and Franz appears as a "Nazi in the making".[2] Franz is faced in the train to Berlin by a man with a grotesque facial disfiguration, a glimpse of his fate according to the narrator. The narrator tells us also that Franz will eventually be “guilty of worse sins than avunculicide", a section that was inserted by Nabokov much later with historical hindsight when he prepared the English translation.[2]

Authorial walk-ons

The author and his wife, though not directly identified, are portrayed near the end of the novel as a happy, but "puzzling" couple who are also vacationing in the Baltic resort and speaking in a foreign tongue;[3] they have a butterfly net, which is taken for a fishing net by Franz and a shrimp net by Martha, but Dreyer identifies it correctly. Later Franz sees them again and feels they are talking about him and know "everything about his predicament". Dreyer reads a list of people in their hotel. The strange name Blavdak Vinomori strikes him; presumably this is the name of the male of this couple; it is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. The name Mr. Vivian Badlook also appears in the text, a "fellow skier and teacher of English," who photographs Dreyer in Davos, another anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.

In the book, there's also a self-reference to a fictional movie King, Queen, Knave, based on a play by a "Goldemar".

Film adaptation

A film adaptation, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski and starring Gina Lollobrigida, David Niven and John Moulder-Brown, was released in 1972.


  1. Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave, New York: McGraw Hill, 1968. p. 247.
  2. 1 2 Leona Toker. Nabokov. The Mystery of Literary Structure. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1989. Page 63. ISBN 0-8014-2211-6
  3. Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave, pps, 232, 254. Nabokov describes himself and Vera in a breezy prose postcard: "The girl had a delicately painted mouth and tender gray-blue eyes, and her fiancé or husband , slender, elegantly balding, contemptuous of everything on earth but her, was looking at her with pride; and Franz felt envious of that unusual pair."
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