Bend Sinister – Vladimir Nabokov

Time Reading Program, 1947
Not just the name of one of my favorite Fall albums,
but Nabokov’s first novel in English. I had only read one other Nabokov before this (Lolita, of course, in 1995) and reading Bend Sinister reminded me of his mastery of language. The novel follows the philosopher and instructor Krug, having just lost his wife to illness, and living with his precious son in a society that is slowly growing into a Soviet-style totalitarian state, run by none other than a former schoolmate from childhood they used to call the Toad. Obstinate, Krug believes his intellect and position will keep him from harm, even as friends and family are disappeared around him. By the time reality intrudes and his child is threatened, it is too late. The Soviet state (how familiar is this system after reading (some of) Solzhenitsyn!) is presented in all its banal but surreal glory, yet this is in no way a realist novel, as Krug disappears in a landscape of dreams, ideas, thoughts, as does the novel itself, with Nabokov’s wordplay (in English, so incredibly developed) making a kaleidoscope of sentences. The supporting characters often seem to be half-anagrams of Krug’s name, or variations on a set of letters at least. One chapter is devoted to a intriguing, but ultimately facile re-thinking of “Hamlet”. Nabokov appears on and off as a godlike character, toying with his characters, and Krug starts to become aware of this. For some reason, the overlapping realities reminded me of “The Singing Detective,” though Nabokov came first, obviously. There’s even a section that reminds me of Dennis Potter in interview in which Potter talked about past and present running simultaneously together, like sprinters on a track. Here’s Nabokov:

Do all people have that? A face, a phrase, a landscape, an air bubble from the past suddenly floating up as if released by the head warden’s child from a cell in the brain while the mind is at work on some totally different matter? Something of the sort also occurs just before falling asleep when what you think you are thinking is not at all what you think. Or two parallel passenger trains of thought, overtaking the other.

There’s plenty to read about Nabokov and this novel on the web–Zembla is the main repository of scholarly work. I discovered that there was even a film version made of the novel, though unless someone like Peter Greenaway was making it, I can’t imagine how true to the story it could be.
Note: Again, for a first novel in English, the vocabulary stretched my brain to its limit. Check out this list of words I had to look up:
megrim, triskelion, selenographer, amorandola, Keeweenawatin, mnemogenic, velvetina, ruelle, pauldron, salix, cardiarium, dolichocephalic, decorpitation, noumenon, eidolon, kurorts, deoculation, yarovization.
(The problem with Googling unknown words: every fifth word turns out to the name of a literary journal.)

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