A poor young man, sent to live and work with his uncle in Berlin, falls in love with his uncle's wife and gets caught up in her ambitious, yet incompetent plot to kill the uncle and take over his business. Franz Bubendorf grew up in a small town in the German countryside. With little money and fewer prospects, his uncle's successful department store in Berlin is his only real option for bettering himself. His uncle, Dreyer, agrees to help him, and even offers to accompany him from his small town to the big, potentially intimidating city.
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But on the train ride into Berlin, Franz, seated with Dreyer and Dreyer's alluring wife, Martha, finds himself becoming infatuated with her. Nothing happens between them, but the spark is lit. Franz takes up work at the department store, and as he spends more time with Martha, that initial spark erupts into a wild, passionate affair. As her relationship with Franz grows, Martha becomes increasingly detached from Dreyer, and soon she begins to consider the possibility of killing him to get him out of the way. Franz, though, is beginning to have sex thoughts about the affair. His autonomy is increasingly subsumed by Martha's overbearing personality. He is uncomfortable with this changing dynamic, but Franz -- being the good, biddable German, naturally eager to follow orders -- has no chance of breaking free on his own.
Dreyer, for his part, is oblivious to not only Martha's murderous scheming but the affair entirely. Her emotional withdrawal only spurs him to shower more affection on her, and he blames himself for any coldness she displays toward him, never once considering the possibility that she is sleeping with Franz, or anyone, behind his back.
Martha decides, at last, to take Dreyer out in a boat and let him drown, since Dreyer can't swim. But while they are out in the boat, Dreyer lets slip that he is very close to completing an extremely profitable business deal. Martha greedily concludes that she can't kill him now, not with so much potential money coming in. But unfortunately for her, the cold, rainy conditions out on the water cause her to catch pneumonia, and she soon dies, without Dreyer ever learning of her plots. Franz, freed from the woman at last, runs away in a frenzied delirium of relief.
Meanwhile, on the novel's more meta-structural level, Dreyer funds the creation of some sort of automated mannequins: plastic, grotesque humanoids that move and act to a limited degree. The automannequins, never quite rising to life due to each of their clear and unique defects, are strongly implied to stand as analogues for the three main characters in the story. There is also an appearance by characters resembling Nabokov and his wife: a foreign couple clearly in love, who Franz overhears discussing himself and the events of the story, adding another metafictional layer and suggesting the artificial nature of the narrative.
Best part of story, including ending:
Nabokov does an (unsurprisingly) brilliant job evoking the undercurrents of the story through his lush and complex linguistic choices, but overall the story felt a little flat, like a story told thirdhand that never quite feels present and real. But maybe that's the point. Either way, didn't quite work for me.
Best scene in story:
The tragic irony of Dreyer's genuine grief in the scene during/after Martha's death, never grasping that her death probably saved his life, is perfectly drawn out.
Opinion about the main character:
None of the main characters are likable, in the conventional sense. They're all driven by their one overriding flaw, or blinded by it, which gives the characters the sense at times that they are more or less ethical constructs in a (complex and inverted) morality play. It's difficult to like or dislike an ethical construct.