Bend Sinister – Vladimir Nabokov; Vintage International; 1990
I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister tonight. It was first published, in English, in 1947. It falls in chronology almost a decade prior to the publishing of the infamous Lolita. This is the fifth Nabokov novel that I have read. My favorite Nabokov novel is The Defense, but this is a close second. In fact, I would say that they both tie for first place in awesomeness.
This is a rather challenging and difficult novel. By this I mean, only intelligent people are going to read this and understand it. It is not a novel that is junk or for the weak-minded. I mention this to be fair. I am going to give this novel high marks, but unless you are an intelligent reader, you will not enjoy this novel. This is meaningful because it is one of those novels that you will get out of it what you put into it. This requires focus and imagination and appreciation of language, symbols, wordplay, etc. Also, you should have a dose of academia and have already read some real dystopian novels.
In this novel, one finds expert, masterful wordsmithing. This is on the level of the greatest of the greats – in terms of wordsmithing. And I do not say this lightly. I am actually really amazed by the level of this book. I saw good ideas/concepts in Nabokov’s other novels. I love The Defense. But when I speak of actual usage of language – I am completely impressed by the work here. I know readers hear about Nabokov’s skill – but, I’ll be honest, this is the first novel wherein I can say the awesome skill was proven and sustained throughout the entire work.
I’m a bit of a sucker for the classic dystopain scary-government reads. Bring on 1984 etc. But compared to this, 1984 seems juvenile. We seems sketchy. THIS was eerie, disturbing, creepy (at least the elements dealing with the sinister government). In fact, the writing is so great in so many respects that I have difficulty describing it adequately and just want to pass you the book.
Get this: the main character is Adam Krug – a philosopher. A real one – like in University and everything! And Nabokov did not make him a whining, sniveling wimp; Krug is a beast. He is a large man; strong, bullish, and stolid. It feels like everyone in the fictional country of the novel has capitulated to the new tyrannical government except Krug himself. His non-emotive, but unwavering protection and concern for his son is rather comforting to read. Krug’s acceptance of his wife death is written perfectly. Instead of outward emotive theatrics, Krug is clearly deeply sorrowed and upset – but internally, and more meaningfully than any external blubbering would demonstrate. Olga’s family comes to the house and Krug (more or less) heads out the backdoor to avoid them.
Krug also has this unflagging duty to his friends – even though they may not be extremely close to him. Krug tires of tedious people, absurdity, and subterfuge. He sighs magnanimously and suffers. He drinks – some accuse him of being a drunkard, but I did not see that. Krug is truly a great character.
Settings are also awesome. The early scenes on the bridge are excellent – so much vivid imaginative work. The scenes in the rural country are also amazing. Finally, the scenes in the University and government buildings are done so well, I felt like I could close my eyes and actually be in the room. Chapeau, Nabokov!
Nevertheless, Nabokov’s arrogance shows through. I have just learned to tolerate it – particularly in novels where he deserves to be a bit cocky and self-satisfied. I feel Nabokov knew how good this work is and reveled in it. Arrogant jerk. Let’s face it, there’s a narrator to this. (Possible paper for enterprising college student: decide who is the narrator and argue for your position). Sometimes it seems like Krug, but only rarely. Usually, it seems like some chronicler. At other points, it’s obviously the Divine. So yes, Nabokov’s arrogance is in full force here. And it’s really meaty and exquisite.
Are not these problems so hard to solve because my own mind is not made up yet in regard to your death? My intelligence does not accept the transformation of physical discontinuity into the permanent continuity of a nonphysical element escaping the obvious law, nor can it accept the inanity of accumulating incalcuable treasures of thought and sensation, and thought-behind-thought and sensation-behind-sensation, to lose them all at once and forever in a fit of black nausea followed by infinite nothingness. (Chapter 6)
Krug discussing his wife. Or the narrator discussing Krug. Etc. But there you have it. Wordsmithing and intelligent pondering. The thing is, Nabokov actually bothered to make his philosopher-character be actually philosophical. And not merely floofy or what passes for philosophy. Nabokov, unlike so many people in the universe, does not treat philosophers as if they are lepers. Nevertheless, he still tortures the hell out of Krug. (People love to torment philosophers.) And someone on Goodreads used a word in their review that really describes this novel in just a word: grueling. And it is grueling – you’d better have some gravel in your gut to get through this one. Also, it manhandles readers because it is intense and challenges the brainpower of the reader. And the end? I feel every reader will synthesize, extrapolate, and contextualize the ending in their own way – which would give us clues to that particular reader’s worldview and psychological make-up. Wow. An author accomplishing that is stunning…. be impressed.
And then, thought Krug, on top of everything, I am a slave of images. We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth. Certain mind pictures have become so adulterated by the concept of “time” that we have come to believe in the actual existence of a permanently moving bright fissure between our retrospective eternity which we cannot recall and the prospective one which we cannot know. We are not really able to measure time because no gold second is kept in a case in Paris but, quite frankly, do you not imagine a length of several hours more exactly than a length of several miles? (Chapter 14)
In any case, the characters are great. David – presented through Krug’s thoughts and speech – is loveable. Quick characters like Phokus appear and reappear and contain little twists and turns of the storyline – but subtly without the reader really noticing until it surprises! Olga – who we never meet – is also a powerful character, one we know and miss even though we never knew her.
This is not a “nice” book. So, do not give it to your mom or your grandmother. Or to your small child. But it is an intense “grueling” and masterful work. I recommend it to all the best readers of the world. While there is a lot of stamina required here – the ending, for me (as I hinted at earlier, I take away what I bring to it), was divinely joyous amidst a lot of dark tragedy. If this was all I knew of Nabokov, I would be completely surprised by everything about him. How did he manage to do this?
Throughout the novel Nabokov gives you hints of what will happen. He warns you and drops hints. He moves from narrative to first-person seamlessly. He shoves characters right at you. He handles whole chapters with philosophical finesse. As each storypoint event occurs, you feel it in your gut – and then you slap yourself because you totally should have seen this coming.
As a fun sidenote, I am not sure if you know the old TV series The Prisoner? I watched it back in 2002. I think it’s been in different venues and has recently gained a re-interest. But the “I’ll be seeing you” stuff? It is from this book. The line is in this book. And it’s done perfectly; I almost fell off of my chair with the way this tickled and thrilled me.