Bend Sinister — Not 1984, Not Brave New World, Not Fahrenheit 451 — is the Defining Dystopian Novel of Our Present Day
Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian, and in perhaps the simplest terms possible, a White Russian (as direct result of the fact that he wasn’t a Red). By his own admission, his personal issues with the Soviets were more romantic than anything else (certainly more than his dislike of their confiscating most every possession his family owned or property they could have laid claim to, which no matter how magnanimous he is in his writings of it, could not have been something he was a-okay with). But here, from Speak, Memory, he says:
My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for emigre de Kickovski, who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land, is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.
Nabokov was no stranger to oppression.
More to the point, though, is Bend Sinister — which is apparently Nabokov’s first “American novel,” i.e. the first novel he wrote while living in America. Whether Nabokov, the man, felt any enmity for the dictatorship that, while he was hard at work writing Bend Sinister, was approaching its zenith of power is beside the point. Bend Sinister is, if it shares any affinities with the popular dystopian novels of approximately the same period, circa the late 1940s, a peculiar sense of the causation that makes and upholds oppressive regimes. It is in that spirit, too, that it resembles our present day America and offers a necessary complement to The Handmaid’s Tale as particularly required reading in opposition to tyrannical rule.
That’s not to undermine the importance of a novel like 1984 or the relevance of Fahrenheit 451, and scores of others that have become dystopian genre canon. 1984’s awareness of strongmen icons whose absolute authority cannot be questioned, no matter the evidence that exists to contradict them, is well outlined in Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay from early last year. That piece is one that I often encourage any student reading 1984 to read as a complementary text.
And while I do believe for many of the same reasons that Gopnik offers and perhaps several he doesn’t that 1984 is vitally important to understanding and reacting to our present circumstances, it’s also true that the mechanics of Bend Sinister, its characters and their relationships with one another, that really offer up the true bullheaded and bumbling nature of a Trump administration, freshly revealed anew for these very aspects of its style of governance in Michael Wolff’s controversial new book, Fire and Fury (which I’ve admittedly not read yet but have read excerpts from (and not the satirical (does that even truly exist anymore?) Gorilla Channel stuff, no)). The ways in which Trump staffers appear to have constantly been at one another’s throats (as we’ve already witnessed through the various leakings and public comments of former admin officials like Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon) runs perfectly in step with the brutality of the ruling Ekwilist Party’s staffers in Bend Sinister, who are always looking to pass the buck and, as logical extreme of that arrangement, occasionally commit farcical acts of murder against one another.
The fascinating character study presented in Bend Sinister arrives specifically in the figure of Adam Krug, a highly regarded, world-famous philosopher.
Krug is an extremely vulnerable man, because he is a man with a child for whom he cares deeply. This Nabokov expressly points out in his prefatory remarks to the novel:
While the system of holding people in hostage is as old as the oldest war, a fresher note is introduced when a tyrannic state is at war with its own subjects and may hold any citizen in hostage with no law to restrain it. An even more recent improvement is the subtle use of what I shall term “the lever of love” — the diabolical method (applied so successfully by the Soviets) of tying a rebel to his wretched country by his own twisted heartstrings.
I will take him at his words, Krug is a vulnerable man because he cannot set aside his powerful love for his child (who among us could? Or would want to? Stalin, interestingly enough, did). Krug nevertheless imagines he is free of the power of the state, in deed and not word so much, for the simple fact that he is an academic and an intellectual of global renown, and the world would not stand for harm coming to him. The powers that be seem content to agree to this much. They wish only to persuade Krug to endorse the regime, so that the world will accept their regime as well.
But Krug is unwilling to put his integrity on the line for a regime that, he more or less observes, has none. Not the least of which integrity is belonging to his former schoolmate, now the leader of this rule, the Ekwilist Party. (Ekwilism being the ideology of the everyman to which Paduk and his disciples supposedly adhere.) This former schoolmate and ruler is named Paduk. Paduk’s forces begin to arrest every cohort of Krug, in an effort presumably to coerce him into doing what they say.
Still, Krug refuses the Ekwilist’s cause. But all the while, and made with such abundant implication and outright explication as to be almost ribald in approach, Krug is shown to be nothing short of a doting father to his young son, David. Therein lies the rub, those heart strings Nabokov alluded previously were to be twisted. It’s there in plain sight. Donald Trump — to his credit? — has as yet fallen short of publicly threatening the children of his political rivals.
But before I get to the exploitative nature of the regime’s tactics against Krug, let me say the black comedy abounding in this novel is arguably the best I’ve ever read. And in the same way we hear tawdry tales of cabinet members crudely questioning Trump’s intelligence, or the tandem of Kushner and Ivanka at odds with Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon till both of the latter were forced out of the administration, we witness the hysterical infighting of the Ekwilists rendered so keenly by Nabokov.
Such is true of the following passage, which to give a little background information, is an anecdote told by Linda, an Ekwilist, relaying the facts of her lover’s (Hustav is his name) being necessarily murdered by the state and the effect this had on her daily routine:
I had to be at my dentist’s at ten, and there they were in the bathroom making simply hideous noises — especially Hustav. They must have been at it for at least twenty minutes. He had an Adam’s apple as hard as a heel, they said — and of course I was late.
In my annotations my initial reaction to this passage led me to regard this as “the most hideous and lyrical description of violent death I’ve ever read.” I would add to that the descriptor “humorous,” as well. It’s not hard to imagine a modern American dystopia as emotionally more relatable to the representative ideas Linda’s attitude embodies, with so many people who seem incapable of feeling anything for anyone other than themselves, no matter how cruel or heinous the other’s experience might be.
Bend Sinister ends in tragedy because it must end in tragedy. Krug has sinned against not only and quite obviously the state but everything that rationality suggests he should do, if he wishes to preserve himself and his family. He is guilty of an abstruse kind of vanity that prevents him from taking the proper course to escaping the country. Yet it is not immediately he who pays for this, or rather, it is only tangentially he who pays for this first. His son, Daniel, the apple of his eye, is the one who is first made to suffer.
Daniel comes to great harm when Krug is finally apprehended by the state police. His boy is sent, due to some bureaucratic error, to an orphanage that serves dually as a state correctional facility for the criminally insane and Krug is presumably sent to a prison for political dissidents. It’s expected Krug will hold out indefinitely and refuse to sign whatever document acceding his full endorsement of Paduk’s rule . But, despite countless examples throughout the novel of the great and selfless lengths Krug will go to protect his child, the Ekwilists do not understand the power of this bond until it is far too late. Krug in no time at all says he will sign whatever they like with the only provision being the immediate return of his son.
As mentioned previously, however, Daniel is sent to a correctional facility for the criminally insane. Krug soon learns that Daniel was made use of there in the most callous fashion imaginable, as an expendable unit intended to absorb the release of the inmates’ worst desires, physically or verbally violent as they might be. The facility operated on the theory that if an inmate were able to indulge in his / her compulsive needs in measured doses, with the use of individuals of no particular societal importance (orphaned children mostly), then (s)he may be rendered less a threat to society at large. Thus is Daniel murdered, and thus is Krug swallowed up by grief so powerful it drives him to insanity, leading to a darkly, grimly humorous finale.
Krug begins to break psychotically and recalls the way he used to bully his schoolyard peer, Paduk, “The Toad” as Krug referred to him derisively then, charging at the clumsy ruler and preparing to sit on him in humiliating fashion, as he did in their youth. It’s particularly fitting to see the most rational character of the story meet the gruesome end of being gunned down by Paduk’s forces as he finally and completely loses his mind. If there is a better metaphor for where America is headed intellectually, I honestly can’t imagine what it would look like.
Vladimir Nabokov was a literary genius. There is no other word with which to describe a writer who, in mid-life, became a stylistic virtuoso in a language that was not his mother tongue. Circumstances - which is to say, the convulsions of 20th-century European politics - impelled him to achieve this feat, exchanging Russian for English as the medium of his art (as well as acquiring an enviable fluency in French along the way).
Nabokov was born, in 1899, into a patrician Russian family who were driven into exile by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. After studying at Cambridge University, he scraped a living as a writer in Berlin, and later in Paris, publishing novels in Russian (some of which were translated variously into English, German and French) without making any great impression on the literary world.
He came to America in 1940, with his Jewish wife, Véra, and their son, Dmitri, as virtually penniless refugees from Nazi-occupied France. In spite of lacking conventional academic credentials, Nabokov was able to find employment as a university teacher of Russian and comparative literature, first at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and from 1948 at Cornell University in upstate New York.
Over the same period he began to rebuild his career as a writer of fiction. His first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) had the misfortune to appear days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was barely noticed. But his essays and stories attracted the attention and admiration of editors and fellow writers, and in 1944 the New Yorker, which at this time enjoyed a uniquely prestigious position in the American literary world, acquired the right to first consideration of his work. His second novel in English was only a little more successful than its predecessor. This was Bend Sinister (1947) a dark fable about an imaginary (but obviously European) state under brutal totalitarian rule.
Over the next few years, Nabokov, in the intervals allowed by his teaching duties and other literary and scholarly projects, began to work on a novel set for the first time in America, based on an unpublished pre-war short story with a European setting about a man sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. Lolita grew in scale and complexity and caused him much labour and anxiety.
In the summer of 1953, when (on sabbatical leave from Cornell) he was drawing at last towards the end of this novel, Nabokov wrote a short story called "Pnin", about the comical misadventures of an expatriate Russian professor on his way to deliver a lecture to a women's club in a small American town. He created the new character partly as a relief from the dark obsessive world of Humbert Humbert - in his own words (in a letter to a friend) as a "brief sunny escape from [Lolita's] intolerable spell". But it is clear that the new project was also a kind of insurance against the difficulties that he expected to encounter in trying to publish a novel where a middle-aged man describes in lavish and eloquent detail his infatuation with and seduction of a 12-year-old girl.
From an early stage in the development of the character of Pnin, Nabokov planned to write a series of stories about him which could be published independently in the New Yorker, and later strung together to make a book, thus ensuring some continuity of publication and income while he tried to find a publisher for Lolita. This proved to be a shrewd professional strategy. It also partly explains the unusual form of Pnin. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Between them, the stories describe a continuous narrative arc, poignantly tracing Pnin's quest, which is ultimately frustrated, to find a home, or to make himself "at home" in alien Waindell. When Nabokov was looking for a publisher for the completed book he stressed the element of character:
"In Pnin I have created an entirely new character, the like of which has never appeared in any other book. A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterised by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual..."
Nabokov was not always so admiring of his creation. Sending the first story, "Pnin", to his editor at the New Yorker, Katharine White, he wrote in a covering letter, "he is not a very nice person but he is fun". The stance of author to character implied in the work itself comes somewhere between these two extremes, and is complicated by the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and Vladimir Nabokov.
The Pnin that emerges from the whole sequence of stories is certainly an engaging character, in whose fortunes (mainly misfortunes) we take a sympathetic interest. We approve of the characters who befriend him and disapprove of those who exploit him. But he is essentially comic - pathetic at times, to be sure, but not a tragic hero. His appearance - the impressive combination of head, shoulders and torso that tapers off disappointingly in "a pair of spindly legs... and frail-looking, almost feminine feet" - is an anatomical anticlimax, an emblem of the kind of situation he is constantly getting himself into by some error of understanding or judgment.
Where did this character come from? There have been several suggestions for real-life models, the most plausible being Marc Szeftel, an émigré Russian historian, who was a colleague of Nabokov's at Cornell (which is recognisable as "Waindell College" in Pnin, according to those who know both the actual and the fictional campus). It is certainly significant that Szeftel was Jewish, because it is Pnin's association with his Jewish sweetheart Mira, and his anguish at her tragic fate that dignifies his character more than any other single trait. But there were other things Pnin apparently had in common with Szeftel, such as his imperfect English, which would have seemed less flattering to the putative model.
It is fairly obvious that Pnin was not an instantly recognisable portrait or caricature of Szeftel, for this would have been impossibly embarrassing for both men, who were not only colleagues, but also collaborators on a scholarly project (a study of a medieval Russian epic, The Song of Igor's Campaign) and met socially in private life. There is evidence, however, that Szeftel suspected the character of Pnin was partially based on himself, and somewhat resented the resemblance, without ever explicitly complaining about it.
Szeftel was both fascinated by and jealous of Nabokov's meteoric success with Lolita shortly after the publication of Pnin. He wrote an article entitled "Lolita at Cornell" for the Cornell Alumni News, long after both men had left the institution, and meditated on a book-length study of the novel which never materialised. Relations between the two men became cool, but while they were colleagues they seem to have made a tacit mutual agreement not to bring out into the open the extent to which Nabokov had borrowed traits from Szeftel to create the character of Pnin (a not unusual accommodation, in fact, between novelists and their friends and relations).
But the author himself had some things in common with his fictional character. Nabokov's lecturing style, for instance - reading from a carefully written text and making little or no eye contact with his audience - was similar to Pnin's. Nabokov too was capable of absent-mindedness, and on one famous occasion began lecturing obliviously to the wrong class until he was rescued by a student who had seen him entering the wrong lecture-room. (He dealt with the mistake more suavely than Pnin would have managed, however, saying before he left the room "You have just seen the 'Coming Attraction' for Literature 325. If you are interested, you may register next fall.")
Pnin shares, in a milder form, several of his creator's intellectual prejudices - against Freud and psychotherapy, for instance. But what links Nabokov to Pnin most strongly is that they are both exiles with painfully nostalgic memories of pre-revolutionary Russia and an inveterate hatred of and contempt for the communist regime that deprived them of their birthright. The ache of loss throbs not far below the comic surface of these tales and occasionally grips Pnin with the intensity of a heart attack.
It may have been to keep this powerful current of emotion under control that Nabokov made Pnin a more comical and absurd character than himself, borrowing traits from other émigré professors such as Szeftel. Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity - a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to understand fully the society in which he finds himself. Pnin, in short, is a composite of observation, introspection and invention, like most fictional characters.
To consider the possible sources of Pnin in Nabokov's experiences at Cornell is to be reminded that the book was a very early example of the "campus novel", a subgenre which is very familiar to us now, but was only just beginning to manifest itself in the early 50s. Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952) has some claim to be the first in the field, and Nabokov would certainly have been familiar with it, since he knew both McCarthy and her husband, Edmund Wilson, who was one of his closest literary friends at this time (they fell out later). Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954) which was, for those in the know, a riposte to McCarthy's book, gave a further impetus to the new genre, though Nabokov had already embarked upon the Pnin stories when it appeared.
What the three books have in common is a pastoral campus setting, a "small world" removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, in which social and political behaviour can be amusingly observed in the interaction of characters whose high intellectual pretensions are often let down by their very human frailties. The campus novel was from its beginnings, and in the hands of later exponents like Alison Lurie and Mal colm Bradbury, an essentially comic subgenre, in which serious moral issues are treated in a "light and bright and sparkling" manner (to borrow the phrase applied to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, who would certainly have a written a campus novel or two if she had lived in our era).
As well as being a pioneer of campus fiction, Nabokov was one of the first writers to whom the epithet "postmodern" may be usefully applied - that is to say, he had absorbed the lessons and achievements of modernism (in prose fiction represented supremely for him by Joyce and Proust) without feeling the need to reject the social realism of the 19th-century novel (he was devoted to Tolstoy and Jane Austen, for instance), but he developed an innovative form of fiction that was distinctively different from both of these traditions.
Novel of character, roman à clef, campus novel, epiphanic short story, postmodernist metafiction - Pnin contains elements of all these fictional subgenres, but ultimately it is sui generis, uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them. For those who know their Nabokov well it is full of allusions to and foreshadowings of those other works (especially Pale Fire, where Pnin reappears, happily ensconced in a tenured professorship at Wordsmith College), authorial in-jokes and hobby horses, and coded meanings concealed in proper names.
A formidable body of commentary and exegesis has by now accumulated around this slim volume. But even first-time readers cannot fail to appreciate Nabokov's marvellous and distinctive way with words. The apparently effortless fertility of his metaphorical imagination is never employed ostentatiously for its own sake, but always to give us an enhanced awareness of reality. For example, Pnin's habit of breaking off from the prepared text of his lectures to interpolate some personal reminiscence is described as "those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present" - a brilliant fusion of the literal and the metaphorical, of the physical and the emotional. Or take the more elaborated account of Pnin's reaction to the extraction of his teeth:
"It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate."
Were the effects of this banal but unpleasant operation ever described so vividly, sympathetically and humorously?
Nabokov does not aim simply at a perfect match between his language and his imagined world. There are always reminders in his work that reality is larger, denser and more various than any work of art can encompass - moments when the discourse suddenly seems to take off on its own and break through the formal limits of the story into the world outside the story, where the author and the reader exist, sometimes sadly:
"During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings... about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody."
The reference in chapter seven to Pnin's conference paper "Homer's and Gogol's use of the Rambling Comparison" acknowledges precedents for this trope, but Nabokov uses it in a wholly original way. And it is not only in figurative language that he is constantly reminding us of how much of reality the economy of art excludes. That is surely the point of the extraordinary plethora of proper names in this short text - over 300 of them.
Some are fictional, some historical, some are mentioned only once, and others reappear unexpectedly in the story. Most trail with them some anecdotal fragment of a whole life, which if reported in its entirety would expand the book to epic proportions. This sentence, for example, wonderfully defies comprehension by sheer overload of disparate information, so that by the time you get to the end of it you have forgotten how it began:
"Should one trace Victor's passion for pigments back to Hans Andersen (no relation to the bedside Dane), who had been a stained-glass artist in Lübeck before losing his mind (and believing himself to be a cathedral) soon after his beloved daughter married a gray-haired Hamburg jeweller, author of a monograph on sapphires and Eric's maternal grandfather?"
When Nabokov submitted the complete Pnin to his American publishers, Viking, in the autumn of 1955, they rejected it on the grounds that it was "too short", probably a euphemistic way of saying that they thought it too unconventional in form for the fiction market. Harper, whom Nabokov tried next, also passed. Finally, in August 1956 Doubleday undertook to publish the book, and it appeared in March the following year. Over the same period Nabokov had experienced mixed fortunes with Lolita. Despairing of publishing it in America, he had agreed to its publication in 1955 by Maurice Girodias, a Paris-based publisher of works in English too sexually explicit to be tolerated in Britain and America.
When Graham Greene picked Lolita as one of his "books of the year" he drew international attention to it and started a controversy about the morality of the book which still continues. For a time Lolita was banned in France, but contraband copies circulated among the literati in England and America. In consequence, when Pnin was published Nabokov already enjoyed a kind of celebrity in America as the author of a highly controversial but generally unobtainable novel, variously described as a masterpiece and a piece of pornography. This ensured extensive, largely favourable review coverage for Pnin.
Though some critics complained that it was a collection of sketches rather than a novel, the book indubitably demonstrated that Nabokov was no sensationalist pornographer but a literary artist of rare ability. Pnin was reprinted twice within two weeks of publication. Nabokov had never known such success before, but it was nothing to what awaited him. When Lolita was at last published in America in the following year, 1958, it went on to sell millions, worldwide, and completely eclipsed Pnin in the public consciousness.
Lolita is the book for which Nabokov will always be best known, but it was Pnin which first established his reputation as a writer of distinction and originality in the medium of English, and as an American rather than an émigré author, representing the manners and speech and landscape of his adopted country as vividly as the Russia from which he was exiled.
· This is an edited extract from David Lodge's introduction to Pnin, published by Everyman's Library