Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nabokov's "Bend Sinister":
Book Review (after my dream it inspired)

The after-effects of "Bend Sinister," that sad Vladimir Nabokov novel that I finished before sleeping, inspired a poignant dream last night. In my reverie-- a series of overlapping, dissolving vignettes each only a second or two-- the world was ending. But, this happened as a ripple transmitted by visual media that slowly spread as those recording the phenomenon on camera themselves were overtaken by this soft annihilation. This repeated itself, at first for me as the spectator with curiosity but not comprehension. Then those whose faces the amateur or professional (as if it mattered in this age of YouTube vs. CNN) reporter had documented themselves, moments later as captured on the image before it too faded, themselves turned to nothing. Not that you'd see it on camera, but there was a subtle editing that transferred you to the next group.

As far as my dream logic (suiting Nabokov's own narrative so well) can figure out, it began when some alien force had plummeted straight down into a downtown full of tall modernist buildings, all harsh Objectivist angles and oblique shiny stone granite surface. Like some Robert Longo painting seen from a distance, suited figures still walked upright, but in the monochromatic tones, a few had begun to topple. A disaster had penetrated our atmosphere, but as recording devices tried to document it and share it, those who did so and those whom they filmed would only be on the screen a few seconds before the pictures evaporated and another group took up the attempt. This was all seamlessly connected as if controlled by an unseen editor.

The first time the dreaming "I" viewed this alien intrusion, I wondered why more spectators had not succumbed. After the progression of random scenes that then unfolded, all of ordinary people gazing with gentle confusion shading into insistent dread as the camera scanned their faces, I realized that the apocalypse was upon us. I wondered why it was not instantaneous. Why hadn't I died yet? It seemed that as long as people had not been put on camera, they were still not aware of the menace that spread over the very mundane looking scenes of urban life.

But, as in one strong shot, a few women inside a steel room about the size of a small truck camper's hold, hastened to close the door that a filmer had opened, too late. In my dream, seeing this image, I understood that the contagion spread as it was witnessed, a sort of sudden shocking virus. This reminded me of a recent news story about the infinitesimal danger of setting up one of those inexplicable (to me) supercolliders inside a mountain, that could set off theoretically a black hole that without us having the time to comprehend could swallow up our universe in less than the proverbial blink of an eye.

Then, the earlier image of the alien force returned before my eye, and I knew it was my time to vanish. There was no pain involved, and like the blink, it was no different than an eyelash's closing in duration or sensation. I then woke up.

Here's a review of this amazing 1947 novel below, posted today to Amazon US. I read it in the old TimeLife Reader's Edition, 1964. The edition sold now's a newer one.

Adam Krug's a philosopher who must kow-tow to the totalitarian regime of President Paduk, who has taken over the nation. Despised by Krug, who tormented the boy he called "Toad" when they were schoolboys, Paduk gradually tightens pressure for Krug to submit by arresting his friends and eventually, in a terrible series of satiric but chillingly evoked episodes, his little son. As the book begins, Krug has been at the deathbed of his wife, and he looks out the hospital window at a puddle. This sample shows the power of Nabokov's prose, exact, precise, yet with the slight tilt of one who has learned English better than we native speakers, so as to heighten its force and ornament its control:

"They have turned on the lights of the house I am in, and the view in the window has died. It is all inky black with a pale blue inky sky-- 'runs blue, writes black' as that ink bottle said, but it did not, nor does the sky, but the trees do with their trillions of twigs." (3)

This next excerpt displays the off-kilter realism of Nabokov's prose. The omniscient voice wanders in and out of Krug's mind as the author sees fit, in Joycean homage that reveals Nabokov's deft use of indirect narration while, somehow, deepening its power by Nabokov's manipulation of his acquired language. Also, the book reads as if taking place in a Kafkaesque realm, yet one darkened even more by the shades of cruel political apparatuses that even Kafka had yet to witness. (As an aside, in its use of a phrase like "politically incorrect" and a send-up of a true press controlled by the people's participation, it eerily anticipates blogging, corporate domination of much of the Net, and even Big Brother's Newspeak, although Nabokov beat Orwell to print by a year-- in my edition's 1961 introduction he brands Orwell as clichéd but admired K.) "Bend Sinister"'s both dream-logical and mundane as the mood suits the plot, and there's an editorial slant that heightens the absurdity of much of the Ruritanian dialogue while somehow sharpening the everyday nature of brutality-- as if Bloom mingles his mind with Dedalus within the Paduk police state.

"'The state is your only true friend.'
'I see.'
Grey light from long windows. The dreary wail of a tugboat.
'A nice picture we make-- you as a kind of Erlkönig and myself as the male baby clinging to the matter-of-fact rider and peering into the magic mists. Pah!'
'All we want of you is the little part where the handle is.'" (130)

I looked up this German term: it's from a Goethe poem on a child assailed by a supernatural being who takes him away to death. I did not know this when I bookmarked this exchange, but it proves the resonance and multilayered texture of this story. The tale shifts, in the middle, into a digression on alternate readings of Hamlet, and while inventive this section appears more a chance for Nabokov to insert some pet theories in the guise of Ember, rather than a chapter that moves the admittedly challenging narrative forward. I know Nabokov's inverting what we expect in this novel, but this whole episode could have been better a feuilleton or a tale separate from Krug's story, for it is Krug who inspires us to pity and horror.

Anticipating "Lolita," this earlier novel (written 1945-6) in English sends up trashy teens, slutty vixens, sycophantic professors, and thuggish youths. These witless characters provide walk-on parts for comic, sexy, bumbling, if uneasy relief-- for many of these supporting roles only serve to tighten the net that Krug and David find themselves in as their assurances of stability disappear. As with Kafka, Shakespeare, or Beckett, these tragicomic interludes make the more ominous stretches of the story a bit less unbearable in their tension. The story becomes more manipulated by the narrator as it nears its climax, yet this conjuring trick only makes us watch more closely the dexterity of its tricks. We willingly surrender to the illusion. We see the strings, yet this only puts us more in the hands of the master, whose very fumblings (with English? with our expectations of how it's conventionally deployed so lifelessly around us?) deepen our hypnotic spell. We place our selves in the power of a maker who tells us of his own construction.

How Nabokov manages to create a book totally aware of its fictionality, while using our distance from its shadows to draw us closer into its nightmares, remains an amazing feat. This novel, while imperfect, shines more brightly than thousands of better crafted, yet far more superficial, statements about our purpose. Nabokov here may have written a novel "lesser" only by comparison with his later works in English.

Of course, this novel does not flounder in getting too exact an equivalence between any specific system of grinding down the individual in the name of the common good. Six decades later, it's still therefore fresh, for like Swift, what's attacked is not a particular cabal, but the tendency of many people to forgo thinking for themselves. An historian who's capitulated on Krug's fellow faculty tells his craven colleagues: "Oh yes, a parliament or a senate has been upset before, and it is not the first time that an obscure and unlovable but marvellously obstinate man has gnawed his way into the bowels of a country. But to those who watch these events and would like to ward them, the past offers on clues, no modus vivendi-- for the simple reason that it had none itself when toppling over the brink of the present into the vacuum it eventually filled." (40) So we repeat history farcically and inevitably.

The novel lurches about as our own minds do, between the Big Questions and the messiness of routine. Krug tries to take as an academic on the eternal mysteries; his wife's death plunges him into chaos, while all around him Krug's Ekwilist ideology (sort of a predecessor of the self-esteem fads of the later 20th century) enables the stupid to inherit this Slavified corner of a dismal world. Throughout, phrases from the "native," unnamed language are bracketed from a mingling of Russian, German, and other tongues either invented by the polymathic author or unknown at my lesser level of literacy. Again, while no explanation for these linguistic comments is given, they provide a layer I suppose of commentary for scholars and those more fluent in Slavic speech, and an estranging element for the rest of us.

Still, this novel humanizes Krug despite formidable obstacles placed by Nabokov's narrative structure and authorial tone. The relationship between departed Olga and child David deepens our connection to Krug even as we know that he's a puppet and the whole charade of Padukgrad itself plays out, supposedly as Nabokov instructs us, as another elaborate type of Potemkin village of archetypes, stock characters, and fictional ingenuity. In this too's mixed speculation on the role of the intellect.

"What is more important to solve: the 'outer' problem (space, time, matter, the unknown without) or the 'inner' one (life, thought, love, the unknown within) or again their point of contact (death)?" (154-55) While this talk may seem daunting, it unfolds as naturally (or artificially) as the surprisingly engrossing story, about which you are never sure how Krug's fate will transpire until the end (although Nabokov gives away his strategy in his introduction, if read closely).

Finally, in a manner that for its deceivingly random structure reveals much more verisimilitude than more realistically scripted depictions of organizational oppression and scholarly inspiration, Krug blurred into the narrator wonders about the ultimate purpose of any introspection, put on paper. What may have started for Nabokov as ridicule of a cult of the Leader becomes a memorable inquiry into the survival of the human within a capricious universe. We panic over our fate, the narrator notes, but we cannot imagine "the infinite past, which extends on the minus side of the day of our birth." This happens since we've already gone through eternity, but from the opposite end. It holds no fear. We've already "non-existed once," so why worry? "What we are now trying (unsuccessfully) to do is to fill the abyss we have safely crossed with terrors borrowed from the abyss in front, which abyss is borrowed itself from the infinite past. Thus we live in a stocking which is in the process of being turned inside out, without our ever knowing for sure to what phase of the process our moment of consciousness corresponds." (172)

Such a book, which for admirers of not only Kafka and Joyce but Borges and Beckett (and even Orwell) must be essential reading, manages to integrate such meditation into a moving portrayal of loss, an often mordantly funny burlesque of institutional conformity, an expression of contempt for mass culture and glorification of Everyman, and a horrifyingly exaggerated yet somehow convincing depiction of the inner life of one man collapsing under the weight not only of the truncheon and the megaphone but of the weight of mortality.

Images: P.S. Dieter F. Zimmer's filmography on the Zembla site about Nabokov has stills of a film adaptation of the novel: Film stills. Right, "dexter" although N. unconvincingly denies heraldry to interpret the title, British Penguin (they always have better art-- this ambiguous photo works well). On the left, or "sinister," U.S. Vintage. On the other hand, whoever designed the American paperback chose a precise visual "negative" of a very emblematic episode! Of course, as an intrepid fan of another equally baffling artistic creation by The Fall, forty years after the novel, now I must go back for clues to give another listen to their identically titled LP.

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