March 08, 2004

Bend Sinister

Posted by Matt

On my way to visit the University of Washington Department of Physics (my first grad school visit), I finished reading Nabokov's Bend Sinister. While I wouldn't recommend it as highly as Pale Fire or Lolita or Ada, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Briefly, it is the story of philosopher Adam Krug, struggling to live a quiet life with his son in the wake of his wife's death. However, at the time that his wife was dying, his country has been taken over by a totalitarian regime led by one of his schoolmates, Paduk, referred to as "The Toad." The prose is typically Nabokovian, full of wit and puns (his preface elaborates on the meaning of some of this "paronomasia," meant to be a "verbal sickness" reflecting the sickness of the state). I'll try not to give away too much of the story, though as with all Nabokov novels, the real pleasure in reading this is to revel in the prose. (And I do give away one aspect of the ending -- though not all of it -- so, if you haven't read the book, read on at your own peril.)

Despite the brilliant Nabokovian prose, and the motifs skillfully woven throughout the novel, I think there are more apparent weaknesses in this book than in the other Nabokov novels I have read. As Nabokov points out in his introduction, the real focus of the story is the emotional connection between Adam Krug and his son, and the father's tragic attempt to secure safety for his child. Nabokov did not intend this to be a political statement, or so he would have us think. But in reading the book, the focus seems to be on the politics, and on the pettiness of the dictator that leads to atrocities. The father/child scenes are not as poignant as one might hope, in part because Nabokov does not seem to be able to write good child characters. (In Ada, for instance, the children seem preternaturally precocious, not realistic -- at least when they are still very young.) Further, the depiction of Paduk's government often seems to come to the fore. His henchmen often seem playful or naive, not conscious of the pain they are causing. The state seems too bumbling and innocent to be capable of evil, and perhaps this is why Krug does not seem to properly appreciate the danger he is in, even as his friends disappear one by one from around him. At one point that strongly hints of systematic murders, I began thinking this was a weakness in the book: Nabokov has been failing to convey the extent of the horror of this regime, then springs a Nazi-like touch on us without warning. In retrospect, I think he was trying to have the reader, like Krug, only gradually suspect the extent of the danger.

I recommend reading this book, though not as your first encounter with Nabokov. It was quite good, though I think it does not really achieve Nabokov's stated goal of focusing on the love of Krug for his son. The political elements are too strong to ignore, and Nabokov's claim that he meant to make no political statement is hard to believe. The running thread of the subordination of the University to the government's aims is also an important one, and it is clear that there is satire, and politics, lurking behind this. The ending invokes a deus ex machina that seems not especially clever, in which Nabokov-as-deity intervenes to make Krug understand that he is just an author's creation. I fail to see how this is anything other than an easy way out of resolving the story in a clean way; one can see it as a manifestation of Nabokov's fascination with frame stories or with fiction-within-fiction, but it strikes me as inelegant and disappointing. Still, the novel is well worth reading. I've perhaps sounded overly critical, but the best way to praise the good parts of this book would be to quote the beautiful prose, and I'll just suggest you read the whole thing for those passages.

Posted by Matt at March 8, 2004 08:55 PM

Bonjour! Interesting thread. If you have time : Mark painting

Posted by: painting at April 25, 2004 03:30 PM
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