This book is an examination of the various states and levels of blindness, both literal and metaphoric. It tells the story of a middle-aged art critic who seduces, and is seduced in turn, by an underage wannabe actress and the desperate unraveling of his life that ensues. Albert Albinus should be happy with his life. As a respected art critic in Berlin, he has a good wife, a nice home, decent wealth, and the satisfaction that comes from being at the top of his profession, even if that profession is not exactly the one he had always hoped would define his public and personal life. The cracks that exist under the surface are widened when he meets Margot Peters, a 16-year-old enchantress who dreams of being a famous actress. She is beautiful and seductive in a way that exposes, to Albert, the mediocrity of his life and blinds him to the risks of pursuing such an illicit affair. But pursue it he does.
He contrives to meet her again and again at the theater where she works, and eventually they strike up a passionate relationship. Albert loses track of his regular life, shirking his responsibilities and becoming a man obsessed with nothing but Margot. Albert's wife, Elisabeth, suspects something is amiss, but only has her suspicions confirmed by Margot herself, who sends a love letter to Albert's home intending it to be intercepted by Elisabeth. Elisabeth divorces Albert, and Albert, rather than recoil from Margot's crass manipulation, finds himself drawn ever deeper into the clutches of this young seductress.
Margot schemes to use Albert's money and connections to jump start her film career become ever clearer to everyone but Albert himself. He believes he is merely helping someone he is in love with. In this way, he introduces her to Axel Rex, an American artist. Unbeknownst to Albert, Axel and Margot are ex-lovers and take this opportunity to not only resume their relationship, but also begin to scheme, right under Albert's nose, to rob the older fool of his wealth and leave him out to dry.
With Albert's help, Margot gets her first film role, but it turns out she has very little talent and even her vaunted beauty, which Albert is continually blinded by, appears to be more of a construct in his own mind. Albert takes her on vacation to get her mind off her failure. While there, Albert begins to realize that Margot has been sleeping with Axel, who, as an up-and-coming painter, already gave Albert, a mere art critic, a sense of creeping failure and professional inadequacy. In a rage, Albert absconds with Margot, but crashes his car and ends up broken and senseless to the world.
No longer capable of taking care of himself, Albert is entirely reliant on his "doctors", who are in fact Axel and Margot. They treat him horribly, mocking him, hurting him, and embezzling money from his various accounts. Back in Berlin, his ex-wife's brother, Paul, notices the embezzling and tracks Albert down. Paul takes him back to Elisabeth's home, where Albert partially recovers.
Realizing what a fool he was, Albert, though still half-blinded, decides to kill Margot. In the final scenes, he traps her in her apartment, but his lingering blindness allows Margot to overpower him, take his gun, and kill him instead.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's hard to treat this book on its own. If Nabokov had never wrote LOLITA, this novel would be quite an achievement. But he did, and the comparisons are impossible to ignore. While the overall leitmotif of blindness is particularly effective, just about everything this novel does well is done better in LOLITA.
Best scene in story:
The scenes where Albert, withdrawn and enfeebled, is being tortured by voices and presences he is only dimly aware of (though we as the reader know are Axel and Margot) are painfully drawn out and incredibly evocative.
Opinion about the main character:
Albert Albinus is a fairly fascinating case study in middle-aged angst and insecurity, but again, LOLITA's Humbert Humbert, another middle-aged lech, is a stronger, more interesting example of this kind of male failure.