Vladimir Nabokov

Bend Sinister

Bend SinisterI 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.

5 stars

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The Defense

The Defense

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in Russian in 1930.  The English translation was first published in 1964 – which is the edition that I read. This is the fourth novel by Nabokov that I have read and it is also the one that I am giving the most stars to:  four stars out of five for this one.  An interesting phenomenon has occurred in my reading of Nabokov.  The first book I read by him was Lolita – which I still despise completely. Then I read Despair, which I reviewed in this blog, giving it two stars.  Then I read Invitation to a Beheading which I enjoyed much more and gave three stars to.  Three stars is probably the closest estimation of an “average” read.  Then I read The Defense and am giving it another star.  So, in theory, if I am to read another Nabokov (the only one left that I have any desire to read is Bend Sinister), the pattern suggests I will give it five stars.

I loved The Defense.  I am honestly surprised and dismayed that most people do not like this novel as much as his other novels.  I mean, in my world, between The Defense and Lolita there is no comparison – Lolita is dreck and The Defense is the magnum opus.  I have speculated in my other blog about why The Defense is not so well-loved. I have only two ideas (feel free to share any you have):  (1.) people are turned off by chess; (2.) it’s way more Russian than the other novels (and therefore difficult to immerse oneself within).

All the great praise that I hear about Nabokov’s writing (that I found to be absent in the other novels) is here in this novel.  Here it is – all the marvel and fame and glory and skill and insight and so forth.  Finally! After four novels I found the Nabokov I was waiting for!

The main character, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, is one of my favorite characters of all time.  He just has to be.  I feel like he is autistic, though there is no mention of this in the novel whatsoever – this is just me hypothesizing.  He is indeed loveable and wonderful.  Sure, he seems surly or distant to the other characters, but Nabokov somehow understands this character so well.  Nabokov writes with insight and intuitiveness that makes Luzhin accessible and yet not fake or overdeveloped as a character.  Nabokov understands Luzhin and he writes so that we can understand too.  This means the author is able to cause sympathy in the reader for the character – the sign of a masterwork novel.

Luzhin does not really understand us.  When he is a child there is a line in the novel that I absolutely love because it’s amusing and it truly depicts an autistic child’s viewpoint.  His household is having an argument and the adults are edgy and grouchy:

Luzhin reflected disgustedly that today everyone had gone mad and went to his room.

That is an awesome line.  I love that Nabokov uses the word “disgustedly” and I love that Luzhin views the incongruous moods of his parents as having “gone mad.”  Nabokov’s genius is right there in that line.  He understands the character and in a short sentence allows us to understand Luzhin, too.

Luzhin proposing to his girlfriend is epic awesome.  He bustles, out of breath, into her room and starts pacing nervously. He says:

And therefore in continuance of the above I have to inform you that you will be my wife, I implore you to agree to this, it was absolutely impossible to go away, now everything will be different and wonderful.

He sits, exhausted, in a chair and starts crying.  So, he does not really ask her to marry him, but rather has it all sorted out in a sort of chess-like way which only seems reasonable to him.  His girlfriend responds to his outburst and tears by stroking his forehead and taking a good look at him.  She comes to this conclusion:

It was then that she realized clearly that this man, whether you liked him or not, was not one you could thrust out of your life, that he had sat himself down firmly, solidly and apparently for a long time.

This line is reminiscent of Oblomov.  Both Luzhin and Oblomov actually have some similar characteristics (though I say only the former is autistic).  Both characters instantiate themselves into their friends’ lives – not boisterously or rudely – but by virtue of their very innocence, naïvité, and reason. They are surprising because they are so different from the social behaviors of the society they live within.  They draw people to them without necessarily trying and by simply being themselves, so to speak. And both characters are wonderful.

There are a number of phrases and descriptions that, though not lengthy, are full of masterful wordsmithing.  The first paragraph(s) of chapter 13, for example, are descriptions of winter – without describing winter.  Nabokov somehow describes the scene as if viewed through Luzhin’s eyes, maybe. And the writing is actual simple and not convoluted, but it is beautiful because it shows Nabokov really really really experiences the scene and can tell us perfectly his experience.  He describes a boy, a storefront, a frozen pond, a dog – all of this with such deft ease.  This is the Nabokov we’ve been hearing about; the one that’s a world-class author.

Late in the novel, Luzhin is trying to hide a notebook.  His wife retires to bed and Luzhin walks around the house searching for a “safe-place.”

Everywhere was insecure.  The most unexpected places were invaded in the mornings by the snout of that rapacious vacuum cleaner.  It is difficult, difficult to hide a thing:  the other things are jealous and inhospitable, holding on firmly to their places and not allowing a homeless object, escaping pursuit, into a single cranny.

Now, I do not know if you have ever sought for a “safe-place” or a secure place to put something, but yes, this is precisely what it is like.  And Nabokov describes this scene so perfectly.  And there’s this touch of autistic understanding in Luzhin’s attempt to hide the notebook.  I like how the difficulty of hiding an object is not the fault of Luzhin or the object – but that of other objects. Thanks for this, Nabokov!

The novel is a tragedy. The ending is sudden and done in a few paragraphs. It can seem like a ludicrous ending to some readers.  However, I think reading the whole novel in terms of a life lived within a chess game – the ending makes sense.  The ending also is congruent with the same, small Luzhin who years ago went to his room disgustedly.  It matches, too, the Luzhin who “proposes” to his girlfriend by stating it must be so.  Because Luzhin, above all, is a grandmaster of chess, life for him is chess. And he sees all the incidents and circumstances as if they are on some kosmic chessboard.  The Defense is, in his mind, the correct move.  The fallout from that is almost inconsequential. Dear Luzhin…..

4 stars

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov; Vintage

This is the third, and best, novel by Vladimir Nabokov that I have read.  It was finally published in English in 1959.  My edition is the Vintage International 1989 edition.  I have to mention the cover . . . .  before reading and through most of my reading, I thought the pink stuff on the cover was just some flower petals.  I never looked too closely at it.  However, I looked at it today and was creeped out – it’s a blurry photograph pinked out of people screaming or whatever. Distorted faces. It’s disturbing and I don’t like it at all.  I think it is supposed to represent the people who visit the main character in jail.

I do not really like Nabokov. I find that he is an arrogant writer.  I tend to think he was a scoundrel.  Also, I tend to like realism more than surrealism or existentialism.  So, Kafka and Nabokov et al. never appeal to me.  Nevertheless, for some ridiculous reason, I keep reading Nabokov hoping to find a novel I will like. I abhor Lolita and I found Despair to be miserable.  Invitation to a Beheading is actually quite good comparatively.

One of the things that I dislike about Nabokov’s novels is that there are chapters where nothing happens or it gets too obtuse for me to care about what happens.  There are chapters in the middle of this novel that plod along and reality seems to drip away like some Dali painting or something.  The existential questions that hang around in Despair are a little more articulated and contextual here in this novel, though.

I really like the name of the main character; I give Nabokov credit for using an unusual name.  But the fact that Nabokov uses first name and then last initial makes it really seem like he’s copying Kafka or something. I don’t know – my distaste for Nabokov tends to color even the times I praise him.  Anyway, Cincinnatus C. is the main character in this novel and he’s actually the only character in any Nabokov that I even liked a small bit.

The novel takes place in the three weeks Cincinnatus spends in jail between his sentencing and his execution.  His crime(s) are not stated directly, much like Kafka novels.  Sure there are some suggestions, but generally, I interpreted his crime as his being an authentic (existentialist) person.  Throughout the novel, there are sections where Cincinnatus describes his past or the present in terms of his difference from those around him.  Not in detail and specific, but as if he is fundamentally more real than they are.  The other characters (named and unnamed) are parodies and inauthentic.

Overall, Cincinnatus has had a rather miserable life.  Apparently, for most of it he hid his “real-ness” and pretended to be just like the society that he lives in. But, there were times they caught glimpses of him and recognized he was different.  For example, his wife Marthe was really only a slut and cheated on Cincinnatus constantly – and this is even how she manages to visit him in jail.  Now that he has been sentenced to death, he no longer pretends and almost fully welcomes his difference.  He struggles to work with other people on their level – within their false system – but he only meets with frustration.  Most of the people torment him psychologically. For example, his executioner is a real bastard toward Cincinnatus – but the prison director approves and praises the executioner.  They toy with Cincinnatus’ hope and his requests.  The only person that seems to have any genuine care for Cincinnatus is the director’s daughter, Emmie, who is just a young child. What is Nabokov’s obsession with little girls?

I really liked the parts of the writing where Cincinnatus is divided into two Cincinnatus.  What I mean is, the actual Cincinnatus, who is in jail and who interacts with those around him and then the other Cincinnatus, who represents (in imagination) the “real” Cincinnatus.  All of this is like riding a subway or a bus and gritting your teeth when teenagers are being obnoxious, all the while you are imagining yourself standing up and punching them in the head.  Or when you are in a business meeting and it’s very droll and tedious and you act fascinated, but in your imagination you are pretending a giant alien insect is devouring your fellow businessmen.  I think Nabokov could have played these parts out a little bit more, because he does a good job with this.  And then, of course, this ends up being the key to the novel – the ending of how Cincinnatus is executed – or not.

There is all the typical Nabokov symbolism in the novel. Colors, butterflies/moths, and tattoos.  But even with all of this, I only give this novel three stars. I think people who like existentialism would enjoy this novel.  Also, people who really adore Kafka’s works will like this one.  For me, it’s the best of the three I read, but it’s just not that great. Worth a read, if you’ve nothing else to read.

3 stars

Despair

Despair

Despair by V. Nabokov; Vintage International

Despair was first published (in Russian) in 1936, Nabokov edited and revised it for the English translation in 1965.  This is the second Nabokov novel that I have read, the first was Lolita; although, I do own Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading.  I absolutely despise Lolita and am not sure that Despair is any better of a novel.  I do want to read The Defense.  I do not honestly know how much more Nabokov I can take – if The Defense is no good, I swear off of the author forever.

I know that by saying anything against Nabokov, it is almost as if I am making myself into some sort of literature-pariah and that I chance no one taking seriously anything that I further say.  Make no mistake, I understand Nabokov’s literature – I understand his writing, the allegories, themes, color, lyricism, etc.  I just do not like it.  I find his writing to be tedious, interruptive, stupid, and immoral.  Without a doubt, the feeling I get from reading Nabokov’s writing is that he is unbearably arrogant and obnoxious.

I have read Russians – the classic group of them (no need to list them) – and I think they are the greatest of writers. Nabokov does not deserve, in my opinion, to be counted among them.  I never can see what readers find in his work. I am beginning to suspect that actually no one really likes his work, they just feel it is their duty to nod their heads and agree with everyone else.  I cannot be one of those people – I dislike Nabokov’s writing and reserve the right to do so in the future.

Reading Despair was a chore. It was a bore – I hated the narrator-character immensely.  Actually, there wasn’t a single character I liked at all. The writing (supposedly that of the main character) was wretched and all over the place (presumably to designate his state of mind or WHATEVER…) but through it all, once again, seeped Nabokov’s wretched arrogance.

So, why did the main character plot and carry out his own murder? Was it for the insurance money? The thrill of it all? Because he fancied himself part of the great mystery-drama that he was writing?  Frankly, I just don’t care.  I am sure in stuffy classrooms across the globe students attempt to plum possible responses to these questions for their mid-term papers.  However, I just don’t care why the character did it.

Maybe there was no actual murder and such. Maybe it was all part of the story-within-a-story. Again, I really don’t give a rip.  Just like the idea that the main character has a double who looks like him – but only to him. Everyone else fails to see the resemblance. Was there a resemblance or wasn’t there? And just why does the main character think there is one? And, most importantly, does anyone care? Not I, surely.

I was uninterested in the tribulations of a self-congratulatory author (main character), the arrogance of Nabokov’s writing, the attempts at vaguely replaying Crime & Punishment, the pseudo-mental anguish of the main character.  Nabokov, you waste my time – I despair of reading any more of your works.

2 stars