Though best known for his controversial novel, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote other works of fiction which were equally impressive: Pale Fire and Despair are titles that come to mind immediately; Bend Sinister is another. The latter was published in 1947. It concerns the ordeal of a professor of philosophy named Adam Krug as the forces of a totalitarian regime seek to subdue him. His nemesis is a Stalinesque dictator named Paduk, nicknamed the Toad. Readers should not expect realism from this book. The Soviet and Nazi regimes served only as raw material for a work that is in large part fantastical.
The novel opens with the death of Krug’s wife. The style of the first chapter is that of a prose-poem which effectively and dreamily conveys the main character’s devastating loss. He is left with an only child named David. Although the opening has a feeling of gloom about it, humor increases as the narrative unfolds. In fact, I would describe Bend Sinister as an artful blend of hilarity and horror.
The protagonist is a distinguished intellectual whom the police state wants to use for its purposes. But Krug, refusing to play along, attempts to go on with his life as if he were insulated from the oppressive powers that surround him. In an episode that is reminiscent of events that occur today, he and his university colleagues are expected to sign a document that confirms their allegiance to the present government. Although these scholars voice some gripes and protests against the intrusive measure, nearly all of them comply. Their eventual capitulation is rendered with Nabokovian artfulness and wit:
‘The rest sighed and signed, or did not sigh and signed, or signed—and sighed afterwards, or did neither the one nor the other, but then thought better of it and signed.’
Krug is an exception: “Legal documents excepted … and not all of them at that, I never have signed, nor ever shall sign, anything not written by myself.”
I should mention that Adam Krug, in spite of his heroic nonconformity, is not an especially likeable character. It is fair to describe him as a haughty intellectual whose frequent witticisms fail to amuse anyone, including himself. His only attractive trait is that he remains recognizably human, in contrast to the political devils who are devoted to the process of transforming human society into an inferno of uniformity.
On par with James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov was an artistic genius; consequently, his writing is sometimes difficult to understand. Moreover, he knew every literary convention, technique, gimmick and cliché, which he was able to mimic or creatively exploit at will. And like Nikolai Gogol, whom he admired, his style is playful and often uproarious.
In the Library of America edition of Bend Sinister, an introduction by the author is included. About six pages long, it is mostly Nabokov’s opportunity to heap scorn on everyone, from the general reader to Sigmund Freud. Skip it and get right to the novel.