Monday, 10 June 2013

Bend Sinister

Bend Sinister - Vladimir Nabokov

Well, Nabokov has thrown this whole blog enterprise into question. All I am, apparently, is increasing the tedium of the world
"There exist few things more tedious than a discussion of general ideas inflicted by author or reader upon a work of fiction. The purpose of this foreword is not to show that Bend Sinister belongs or does not belong to 'serious literature' (which is a euphemism for the hollow profundity and the ever-welcome commonplace). I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment (in journalistic and commercial parlance: 'great books'). I am not 'sincere', I am not 'provocative', I am not 'satirical'. I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of 'thaw' in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent. As is the case of my Invitation to a Beheading - with which this book has obvious affinities - automatic comparisons between Bend Sinister and Kafka's creations or Orwell's cliches would merely go to prove that the automaton could not have read either the great German writer or the mediocre English one."

He's not afraid of opinions, whatever about 'general ideas".

The quick intro (to be followed by some slow seepage of ideas) is that Bend Sinister tells the story of  philosopher Adam Krug as the death of his wife coincides with the consolidation of a totalitarian regime headed by Paduk, whom he had known, and bullied, in school. His name in those days had been the 'Toad'. Krug is the most famous citizen abroad, where his works have sold extremely well. Fellow academics want to use his eminence and connection to the 'Ruler' to lobby for the university. The regime wants his support to legitamize their 'philosophy'.

I often find that I have to read myself into books, particularly where the book adheres to its own stylistic system. I have to admit to finding to rather difficult to catch Nabokov's tail through the opening pages of the book. Oblique would be the word I would use to describe the narrative technique. At many times  the descriptions seem to favour incidental, background details over the 'important' details.

Bend Sinister opens with a description of reflection in a puddle, a puddle that is drying out, "like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver." Is it too much to see the feet of Mercury here, a signifier that this book may, despite Nabokov's protestations, carry a message. But what is that message? That freedom is an illusion? That we are mere whims of physics and chemistry? That a life with the love removed is empty? That equality must always be a fools illusion? That our past will return to haunt us? That the totalitarian state may stop at the skin of our eyes and the drum of our ears but life itself is in their hands? That the epidermis covering our nerves is thin and tender?

So freedom is both profound and illusory. Just as this book tells a heartrending story but keeps us at arms length. As he tries to protect his son from the worst repercussions of his mother's death he may be underestimating his son's ability to survive this knowledge, whereas the blundering edifice of the state should not be ignored.

What else? This book shares with Ulysses a long, comic rereading of Hamlet to fit the philosophy of the totalitarian regime. In it, we discover that the ghost of Hamlet's father is in fact the ghost of Fortinbras' father pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet's father.  It can be seen as first and foremost a gloss on fathers and sons. Tyrants are, of course often presented as fathers of the nation.  It also shares with Ulysses a dead mother and a lot of wandering the streets at night.

I found it a fascinating, odd and cynical book. Written just after WW2 it is clearly infected with aspects of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes but resists any simplistic reading. One can't help but see Nabokov the butterfly collector with his pin and the chess player with his oblique strategies. The author is not seeking our sympathy but rather prodding us with his pointed pen. Sometimes ticklish, sometimes painful but always fascinating, Bend Sinister is defiantly itself, just like its hero.

p.s. I was unable to use quotes I had noted as I lost my notebook.


  1. Nabokov titled a collection of interviews and reviews Strong Opinions, not General Ideas.

    "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected." (Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Lectures on Literature)

    1. Nice quote Tom. I like the sound of that essay. Unfortunately, I'm a little short on sunny details, too.
      (Didn't want to notice too much as I thought it might put my family in danger.)

  2. I have only read Lolita from Nabokov. This does sound like an intriguing book. The idea that the main character bullied the dictator in grade school sounds significant and I am sure is developed here in interesting ways.