Cincinnatus C., a citizen of an unnamed country, is condemned to death for the existential crime of "gnostical turpitude", and the novel relates his final days in prison leading up to his execution. With strong parallels to Kafka's work, especially THE TRIAL, Cincinnatus's crime is never fully articulated. Gnostical turpitude essentially means a kind of malaise or failing related to spiritual/ontological knowledge. Or to put it more simply, the ways Cincinnatus thinks and exists, and thinks about existence, are at odds with his countrymen, and they have condemned him to death for this difference.
Even so, pinning down precisely what is different about Cincinnatus beyond this abstract accusation is superficially easy, but in fact a slippery conclusion that Nabokov never quite allows us to grasp. Cincinnatus sees himself as different. His countrymen see him as different. Therefore, he's different, right? Not necessarily. As the novel is all about subjective biases and the inadequacy of our limited perceptions, Nabokov forces us to examine just what *could* make Cincinnatus different enough to justify his execution.
Cincinnatus is an "opaque" man -- an impenetrable enigma to his countrymen, who are described as being "transparent". Cincinnatus, we learn, is a creative man, a man with ambitions for himself and a loftier mental vision than that possessed by the blind, empty souls around him. Or so he tells us. But this is a false comparison that is not like to like, because Cincinnatus, being set apart from society already, is comparing his individual existence to the herd existence of the society around him. There might be individuals just like him in the herd, who have simply been more successful at hiding who they are to fit in.
Cincinnatus tried to hide. As a younger man, he tried to make himself at least "translucent", but he couldn't do it. His neighbors always felt uncomfortable around him, sensing his refusal to fit in. His current arrest and impending execution are merely the inevitable endpoint of his relationship to society.
Along with keeping the precise details of his crimes a secret (presumably because they don't know more than that they just want him gone), his jailors also refuse to tell him when he is going to be executed. He wants to write some final exculpatory benediction of his life, but the uncertainty of how much time he has left keeps stifling his attempts. But he pushes through as much as he can, and struggles to express his essential "opaqueness" in the creative honesty of his writing.
The day of his execution comes at last. Cincinnatus can't bring himself to believe any of it: not the facts of what are happening, nor the existence of his executioners, nor his own death. The headsman's axe swings down and all this false reality disappears. The novel ends with Cincinnatus in a higher plane of existence, the real world, with the sublimated spirits of those true, honest, visionary men like himself.
Best part of story, including ending:
It feels like a fusion of Camus' THE STRANGER and the Kafka's THE TRIAL (two books I loved), and somehow Nabokov manages to transcend them both.
Best scene in story:
The eerie inevitability of the final scene, with the axe falling and Cincinnatus (possibly) confirmed in his beliefs in the unreality of this world, was the perfect culmination of the entire narrative.
Opinion about the main character:
Cincinnatus can be seen as a living defense of all complex art -- and of the skewed perceptions of all great artists and philosophers -- in a world that fears what it can't easily understand and subsume. As a writer myself, I get it.