Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov [Book Thoughts]

Like Nabokov says in his opening letter: Bend Sinister may be too clever for most. It’s interesting that it exists, but Nabokov has done better and it’s not for everyone.


Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov is a famous butterfly-collector who also wrote books. Plenty of them actually (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin).  I’ve given plenty of background on the Russian rogue in my other book thoughts so let’s skip straight to the book shall we? Last chance to describe Nabokov’s literary career. Too late.

Bend Sinister: the Penguin Modern Classics edition opens with an annoyed Nabokov complaining that no one understood his book (such introductions almost always contain spoilers so I’d recommend you read it after the book). And looking back, the opening essay does put Bend Sinister is perspective. I could say that the book is about Adam Krug, a professor of philosophy. His wife has just passed away (poor Olga!), his son is motherless and he lives under the rule of the totalitarian Average Man Party led by his old schoolmate Paduk. There’s a narrative thread about the college using Krug’s relationship with Paduk to prevent itself from being shut down, but really what use is plot to a book like this? At first glance, the totalitarian regime might draw comparisons to Orwell or Kafka (as Nabokov points out in his letter) but there isn’t much of a connection. The totalitarian regime, the college’s struggles, even Krug’s son all lie in the periphery.

Bend Sinister is one of the strangest Nabokovian books I’ve read (and his books are usually strange). For one it is aware of being a book, and aware of both being written and read. The narrator is a mysterious presence, sometimes explaining Krug to us and other times changing his mind. There hardly even seems to be a central narrative thread. There are events, they unfold, but in many chapters there are other things of interest. Some chapters are about Russian literature, or the process of translation or jokes about language itself (it seems here that Nabokov enjoys himself the most). There are recollections from Krug’s past, descriptions of the society he lives in, passages about Paduk. If there is anything central to the book it may be the relationship between Krug and Paduk, or perhaps the incompetence of a totalitarian state (Nabokov believes the center is Krug and his son).

Perhaps it’s a compliment that the book fails to be summarized. And perhaps I am not alone when I say that I had difficulty in understanding it. Nabokov is often guilty of acute cleverness in his other works, only here he pushes it an extreme. Bend Sinister bears more similarity to Transparent Things in it’s opacity . The language contributes to this as well. Never before have a read anything with so magniloquent a style or so expansive a vocabulary. I hardly finished a page without retreating to a dictionary (sometimes even twice on a page) and while reading the book certainly did teach me many new words (Agglutinate? Divagation? Execrable?) it was frustrating at times. As his second English book following the linguistically stoic The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, perhaps Nabokov wanted to show the world his expertise in English. He’s a better speaker of it than I am certainly.

Like Nabokov says in his opening letter: Bend Sinister may be too clever for most. It’s interesting that it exists, but Nabokov has done better and it’s not for everyone.

One comment

  1. I think I might give Bend Sinister a miss. I have read two of Nabokov’s books – Lolita and Pnin. Nabokov was certainly a bit of an intellectual snob. I also had the dictionary out every other page when reading Pnin. Have you read Pale Fire?


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