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on 5 September 2011
Ah Nabokov. Verbally ebullient Nabokov. Na-Bo-Kov. Did you know that he hand-wrote his novels on numbered blank postcards? As friends of mine who've kindly put up with my eulogistic diatribes in praise of Nabokov's brilliance will be aware, he's one of my favourite writers, and perhaps my very favourite stylist. But what's that you ask? If I'm such an ardent fan, why have I only just read his black comic dystopian masterpiece Bend Sinister when surely any genuine and discerning Nabokov devotee would have devoured said novel the instant they learnt of its existence? Well, such is my love for Nabokov, that rather than be the fat kid who spoils his pleasure by stuffing all the ice cream down his throat in one exorbitant gorge of deliciousness, I've decided to stretch my consumption of Vlad's output over a long period, all the better to savour the piquancy of his genius. So, it's one or two Nab novels a year for me, which means I have many years of Nabokovian banquets ahead. Geez, does writing about books make anybody else feel hungry?

Bend Sinister is set in some non-disclosed East European country recently renamed Padukgrad in honour of its new dictator Paduk, leader of the totalitarian `Average Man' party. The party is a philistine, para-military organisation whose conform or die approach to government and mandate to suppress all expressions of individuality has clear real world parallels with the far-leaning regimes of contemporary Europe (Nabokov wrote this in 1945). As such Bend Sinister can loosely be grouped with a whole host of other first-half-of-the-century reactionary dystopias such as 'Brave New World', 'We', and of course 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

The significant point of difference is that Bend Sinister is strikingly more comic than other novels of its oeuvre. The protagonist isn't a noble dissenter whose valiant struggle against oppression and subsequent defeat at the hands of unstoppable evil is the ultimate expression of righteous individualism; instead, Adam Krug is an aloof and detached professor of philosophy, fundamentally dismissive of the party and its aims. The former class mate of the dictator Paduk (a parallel to Wittgenstein, a one-time class mate of Hitler's, perhaps?), Krug used to bully the crazed leader in a daily routine of "sitting on his head". The crux of the novel is that the `Average Man' party desperately wants the endorsement of Krug to bolster the world standing of their philosophy, Ekwillism (sounds like `equalism', geddit?), but as a world famous philosopher, Krug's too well-known to be threatened with death. What ensues is a disturbing and dark sequence of intimidation; a kind of fear campaign led by the party against Krug, which sees his friends arrested, his possessions taken and his child abducted. Somewhat predictably, Krug only comes to his senses about the true power of the party when it's just a little too late.

So far so de rigueur, and before I started reading BS (actually, probably shouldn't call it that...) and before I started reading Bend Sinister, I anticipated that this would be an easy review to write. A couple of sentences about freedom here, a warning about the dangers of totalitarianism there, a short comparison with Orwell's book... and we're done. But ohhoho (that's Nabokov laughing), oh so naive me: - Bend Sinister just isn't as (dare I say)... obvious as any of those novels mentioned above. It's beset with a kind of dark and sinistral irony that contorts all clarity and distorts interpretation; nowhere more so than in the novel's bewildering introduction, in which Nabokov lists and systematically rejects all labels a reader could use to classify the novel: satire? Nope. Didacticism? Guess again. Parody or analogue? I spit at you! In fact, Nabokov refutes almost every possible interpretive tag, but without actually providing a suitable alternative. Obviously this isn't up to him, right? And I read the introduction with the same cautious lookout for irony that I employed while reading the rest of the novel, "he must be joking", I thought, "some of this critical mud must stick" - but dammit if it didn't play on my mind, and it was this half michael-taking, half deadly serious tone that coloured, for me, my experience of Bend Sinister.

So where does that leave this review? My one-size-fits-all dystopian fiction critique isn't going to cut-it, and besides, it's somewhat dull to regurgitate the same thoughts about freedom, extreme politics, oppression and art as resistance that have been used and used and used in countless school essays on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Similarly, I don't want to fall into the trap of attributing any of the critical labels to Bend Sinister that Nabokov so forcefully rejects in his introduction, even if that was all one big joke. Instead I'm going to talk briefly about the book's myriad images and metaphorscapes - surely there's interpretive substance in that, Nabokov being such an imagist master and all?

The book begins with a description of an oblong puddle outside a hospital in which Krug's wife has just died, reflecting the building, sky and pavement in a grey mimicry of the real world (which, of course, isn't actually real - but just the world of the novel). As well as forming a striking metaphor for grief as a spreading "tentacled black dampness" through which the world is viewed at a muted remove, this image is an emblematic introduction to the novel's foremost problem: that of being able to discern what's real from what's mere imitation. I often fixate on Nabokov's penchant for doubles (for e.g. the Humbert Humbert dualism in Lolita (both the protagonist's name and his sinister shadow Mr Quilty), the doppelgangers in Despair or the unknowing love rivals in Laughter in the Dark) but in Bend Sinister it's the entire world that is constantly re-created, copied, doubled and reflected; first in the grey puddle, later in mirrors, spilt milk, theatre and language (Krug's nickname is `mad adam' - a nice little palindrome/mirror image).

Early on, Krug attempts to cross a bridge only to be turned away by guards on the other side - but, once he re-arrives at the bridge's beginning, a new set of guards turn him back; and so he is forced to wander between two sides of a bridge, repeatedly turned-away at either end. The image of our protagonist walking back and forth, back and forth along a bridge is bizarrely comic, but also functions as a visual metaphor for his mental state: the bridge is a hinterland that he is struggling to cross: from his married life into widowerhood, from happiness into despair - and also, for the country, the bridge symbolises the new regime: a crossing from one political shore to another (if you want to be twee about it). Such metaphorically loaded imagery is repeated over and over, and always in a way that questions rather than cements an impression of reality: reflections in mirrors, artificial lighting, mirages - all visual preoccupations that suggest copies or clones of the world, forcing the reader to question deeper parallels between the world of the novel, and our own.

So Bend Sinister is filled with other worlds: in reflections and paintings, over bridges and through echoes and even puns, everything is at a remove from reality; viewed in a mirror or through a double or as a shadow. There's even a nice passage in which an oak tree is replaced by an iron copy, which serves as a metaphor for the difficulties of translation, but also highlights a fundamental problem with allegorical fiction: the world of the novel is not our own, but an imperfect and artificial cipher. There are moments (particularly towards the end) in which Krug seems to acknowledge his identity as a character in a fiction (frequent changes of narratorial register into the first person can be explained as Nabokov acting as voice of the `creator', speaking on behalf of his protagonist). Krug's inaction in the face of the tyrannical new regime is even parodied by constant references to Hamlet, reinforcing the idea of theatre, performance and the artificial.

Krug is always on the bridge: between the old politics and the new, between happiness and grief, and, crucially, between our world and his own. Fundamentally, I would argue that Bend Sinister is a novel preoccupied with the creation of itself. The visual landscape, rampant with removes, doubles and shadows, is a symbol of the book's own relationship with the real world: simultaneously familiar yet strange and removed (is `uncanny' applicable here?). Ironically, it's through his madness that Krug sees most clear and realises that he's not real: mirrors and plays and paintings and shadows bring the reader's attention to the artificiality, the art, of it all - the layers of life and perception that colour the world with beauty and depth. Yes there's a run-of-the-mill dystopian critique of totalitarian politics to be found here, if that's really your bag - but more than that, Bend Sinister is a novel about writing novels, which explores the hinterland in which our world ends and the novel's begins: we are looking in at Krug, but he is also looking out at us. Crucially this highlights the significance of art (the `freedom to art', if you will) in the creation of our own world. Freedom of thought, Nabokov insists, is Freedom of Art. When political tyranny obstructs this freedom, the final result isn't a poorer world, but [spoilers]: the end of the world. In case you're wondering, a `Bend Sinister' is a diagonal band drawn from the left side on an heraldic coat of arms: a divide or split in the world, a crack in the mirror.
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on 25 July 2015
Nabokov's second English novel, he still sounds like he is adjusting to writing in a different tongue to his native Russian. However, he is simply a master of the language, and Bend Sinister certainly was not what I expected from the description. Of course, Nabokov being Nabokov, he insists that this is more than just a dystopia, and he is correct to a large extent, with many references to Hamlet and with intriguing sentence structures. He changes perspectives a lot, which makes the read somewhat disorientating, but it is ultimately rewarding. Much better than 1984.
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on 25 November 2016
A dip in form after the very underrated Seb knight but there are, nevertheless, hints of the genius to come from big Vlad. The prose is dazzling as always but it lacks at times the fluidity and magic that can be found in his later works.

If Nabokov had his own rating system I might give this book a 3. Compared to Dostoevsky, football boots and stainless steel toasters though, it's a 5.
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on 13 May 2009
Nabokov loves playing. His novels are strewn with mirrorings, distortions, anagrams, etymological jests and downright lies, all used to give his tales multiple layers of hidden meaning ... and provide English lecturers with a ready source of knotty problems for their students. Bend Sinister is filled with all these things, quite possibly beginning with the author's 1963 introduction to the piece, in which he attempts to dismiss any claims that the novel is "serious" or "satirical" while claiming instead that it is the story of one man's loving heart and the tortures to which it is subjected. Is Nabokov being sincere? I'm not sure.

"Bend Sinister" (the title intended, according to the author to indicate a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life: immediately, as he acknowledges, pointing the reader in the direction of the very satiric meaning Nabokov disclaims) tells the story of Adam Krug, a recently-widowed professor of philosophy, world-renowned following the English translation of one of his books "Komparatiwn Stuhdar en Sophistat tuen Pekrekh" as "The Philosophy of Sin". Krug is a rather unpleasant hero: bullying, priggish, pompous, self-absorbed and (initially at least) self-satisified, confident both of his superiority and invulnerability (one wonders if Nabokov had been spending time among Oxbridge dons). The reader's sympathy is at first evoked not by his actions but by his widowed state: it is clear from the outset that Krug has lost someone almost impossibly dear to him.

While Krug has suffered a terrible hurt, so has the state, now known as Padukgrad following its recent fall to the fascistic/communistic party of "The Average Man", which seeks to do away with individuality. At the party's head is Paduk, once the feeble, ugly, "dull, commonplace and insufferably mean" boy whom Krug knew at school ... and regularly tormented. Krug's university colleagues call on him to plead their case with the new rulers, both as Padukgrad's only figure of international repute and as Paduk's schoolmate. Krug will not stoop so low. Then again, Krug's friends advise him to flee, taking his son David with him, before the borders are closed. Once more, Krug sure of his invulnerability, refuses.

It is at this point one has to ask whether Nabokov's tale is truly that of Krug's love for his son, because this is the point when this reader, at least, could not understand Krug's failure to act to protect him. If there is a tale of Krug's love here, it seems far more like the tale of his love for himself ... or at least his image of himself. And it is that, as much as his relationship with his son, that the novel will proceed to assault as it moves on.

With things set up in this manner, Nabokov proceeds to have more fun - bringing in dream sequences, hazy recollections, extracts from Padukgrad's new constitution (much of it cribbed from real-world fascist/communist states), extended meditations on a ludicrously inappropriate reading of Hamlet - even as he sets the as yet unoiled mechanism of the new state to grind Krug down - removing his work, locking up his friends, setting a young woman to spy on him, entrap him make him unfaithful to his dead wife. Does this affect Krug? He seems amused or irritated by the state's actions ("an amusing new law demanded that everyone boarding a motor bus ... give the conductor a signed and numbered photgraph") rather than outraged by them. Only when he tries to write does he discover that so-called Krugism is ill-defined, that his skill is in picking apart the ideas of others rather than creating them for himself.

It is then that the final blow falls and David is removed from his father and the story moves towards its dark conclusion. What happens to Krug is cruel, what happens to David crueller still (perhaps unnecessarily so, Nabokov delighting a little too much in turning David's fate into a particularly horrible grand guignol game). And then we are left back with the author himself, stretching and getting up to investigate a moth caught in the netting of his window, much as the characters have been caught in the netting of his novel. The game is over.

Is it a good game? I'm not 100% sure. There are great sentences and perhaps great thoughts going on throughout but something about this left me feeling cold in a way that, say Pale Fire (a novel even more stuffed with linguistic games and plays with reality and perception) never did. There is something undisciplined about the way it is put together, even with regard to the sometimes over-exuberant sentences ("Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves had stuck" ... this sentence was brought to you by the letter "d", the word "alliteration" and the urge to give the opening paragraph an unsubtle atmosphere of death). What it is - like everything Nabokov wrote - is a very worthwhile read.
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on 15 August 2001
One must have respect for Nabokov- the man who is famed for turning a smutty subject such as is found in 'Lolita' into a beautiful and heart-breaking account of an unrequited romance is a man who has perfected the art of storytelling; who knows how to capture an audience and makes them see through new and wider eyes. In 'Bend Sinister' you will find Nabokov's same love of words, his same courtship of them, that makes his work not merely an account of a plot, but a story with which a reader can fall into, can explore like a living world that moves and writhes in its own emotions. However, do not be prepared for another 'Lolita'- the story handles very different subject matter in a very different, political tone; a man whose values oppose the state, and how the state can tempt, revolt, exhile and eventually break an individual who does not comply, in this case a philosophy lecturer called Krug. This is an appropriate career for the protagonist, as this book is laden with thought and theory. I found, personally, that in reading the book it ended rather abruptly, that perhaps a building-up, a rising of tension, was nurtured in the book that never truly came about; or perhaps this is merely the truth in how we all perceive life. Nabokovians will find this book interesting, as it brings yet another colour to the portrait of a truly great and intriguing writer. For those of you who are a novice to the god of all things nymphet, I suggest you start with his more famous work, 'Lolita' and then give this one a go. Overall, a linguistically striking read, as you would expect from Vladimir.
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on 29 April 2012
I would tend to agree with many of the comments made by the (admittedly few) critics; the text was littered with overly complex metaphors and non-sequiturs, not to mention the abundant use of brackets all over the place. It's partly style, I get that, and partly it works (there are some excellent turns of phrase used in places), but overall it is frustrating for the reader; when an entire sentence lasts for several lines with absolutely no punctuation, that isn't style, that's just bad editing.

However, unlike The Guy Who Gave This One Star I did actually thoroughly enjoy the book. It is at once funny, chilling, warm and confusing (confusing in the manner the author intended, aside from the occasionally dodgy prose). This book is certainly worthy of more than one star; whilst correct in their criticisms, its detractors such as those above are incorrect to knock the book completely down on the text - that would be completely missing the point. Perhaps this was the point, to smoke out the boorish punctuation/prose Nazis, but then you start to get into the realm of pseudo-intelectual excuses in irony and we come back to square one.

If anything the book serves to illustrate the kind of man Nabokov must surely have been: stubborn, arrogant and pretentious, qualities which appear in in his main character. It speaks volumes to me that within the preface, written by Nabakov himself, George Orwell is described as a 'mediocre' and 'overrated' author. Nabakov himself misses the point of Orwell's writings - Orwell praised simplicity and the ability to able to present his ideas and stories to as many people as possible. Nabokov, it seems, was more interested in writing his art for art's sake, a book to be praised by intellectuals and other authors. It is a testament to the man that despite this there is an excellent story within.
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on 6 February 1999
Nabokov can turn a sentence with the best of them, Lolita is the supreme example of this, but the simple act of telling a story seems almost beyond him. He makes the potentially great premise in Bend Sinister (about a dystopian, tyrant state) come across as less than pedestrian. This book is, for reasons unknown, regarded as a classic. It most certainly is not. It has no narrative drive, its characters, never a strong point in Nabokov third person narratives, are mere cyphers, and his attempts at humour, with the exception of where Krug's child is misplaced, fail. The books biggest failing is its satirical sideswipes. In his preface Nabokov attacks George Orwell and calls him 'mediocre'. True, Orwell couldn't turn a sentence with anything approaching the flair, or invention, of Nabokov but he managed to write a satire on Tyranny that will long outlive the empty, stylized posturings of a writer waaaaaay off form. I tried to like this novel, I really did, but just as things are starting to look bright (the section involving the misplacing of Krug's child) Nabokov spoils everything by ending the novel with the ultimate example of author intrusion, a stylistic device loved by surrealists because it masks literary laziness, making it seem 'ironic'. If there is an irony in this novel it is merely the fact that it is deemed to be a classic. This is a book for Nabokov completists only, for everybody else: avoid like the plague.
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on 3 October 2000
In 'Bend Sinister' is crystallized the delicate interplay of the creator and the created, so important to Nabokov's metaphysics. Within these few pages, layer upon layer of the 'slippery sophism' of Krug's immortality is explored; Nabokov describes the intimate relationship between man's consciousness and memories with heart-rending pathos only rivalled in 'Pnin'. Krug is an eminent philosopher and the range and brilliance of his thought is amply attested in the philosophical passages, some frivolous, some more serious. But primarily he is a private individual with an infinity of love contained in his soul, condemned to lose his beloved wife and child. Unable to bear the loss of his wife, following a failed operation, he ignores the dangers of the Toad's fearsome totalitarian regime, gradually encroaching on his life. Yet even the privacy of his grief is not allowed to remain sacrosanct. Desperate for the international recognition Krug's eminent approval would bring, the State relentlessly, and blunderingly, hounds him. The tragic culmination of the novel, disturbingly reminiscent of only recently uncovered Nazi atrocities, is only relieved by madness bestowed on Krug by his benevolent creator. This is Nabokov's dazzling study of the tension between the individual, in love with life, and the misguided notions of the common good.
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In a fictitious European state now known as Padukgrad, lives the world-renowned philosopher Adam Krug. A new philosophy, known as `Ekwilism' has led the takeover of the state which is now being run by Paduk and his `Party of the Average Man'. Ekwilism discourages the idea of anyone being different from anyone else, and promotes the state as the prominent good in society. Naturally, equality and happiness for all does not require (or tolerate) individualism or freedom of thought. Adam Krug is grieving over the recent death of his wife and, at first, believes that there is no threat in Paduk's activities. After all, Krug knew Paduk at school where he once bullied Paduk and referred to him disparagingly as `the Toad'.

`Nothing can happen to Krug the Rock.'

But those who oppose Paduk's Ekwilist philosophy are being arrested, and this includes many of Krug's friends. Paduk attempts to persuade Krug to promote the state philosophy, but Krug refuses. When Krug's young son David is kidnapped, he capitulates and is prepared to promote Ekwilism in order to have David returned. Alas, there has been a mix-up, and the child returned to Adam Krug is not his son David. David has been accidentally tortured and killed. Krug is also killed, after being driven to madness by the realization that freedom of thought is no longer his once the person he cares for most in the world is killed.

`Individual lives are insecure; but we guarantee the immortality of the State.'

And the title, `Bend Sinister'? Nabokov wrote that: `This choice of title was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.'

It's not the story so much that held my attention in this novel as the way Nabokov structured it. The use of chess metaphors: a form of constrained movement and confrontation which sees the story finish in checkmate; the crossing of bridges; and reflections on the qualities of puddles each have a role in the narrative. In this novel, Nabokov has constructed and controls a dystopian society which he also extinguishes once he's finished with it.

`Twang. A good night for mothing.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 3 August 2010
This is not one of Nabokov's best novels. The self conscious artifice so characteristic of his work is here heightened to almost unbearable levels, the whole thing written as though it is being imagined by its author, the characters flipping between idioms and genres freely. Maybe this wonderfully mirrors the artifice of the totalitarian regimes this novel satirizes, but there is something about the dark, comic treatment of such issues that is unnerving, in a way that it isn't, quite, in Lolita (maybe because those characters had a ring of truth). On the other hand, the book is overbrimming with exquisitely surreal comedy (my favourite moment, perhaps, is when an interview with the dictator is interrupted by a parrot entering with a note in its mouth. You know this note is the latest of many attempts by an outside observer to reprimand Krug for the way he addresses the dictator, who impatiently kicks the parrot out of the door). And of course the many rich observations (a bike's rear reflector is called an 'anal ruby'). To list such moments would almost take up as much space as the book itself.
One last thing, this Penguin Modern Classics edition (the one with the drawn picture of a bridge, a father and son, a woman brushing her hair) has one of the most insipid, amateurish, uninspiring and incompetent covers I have ever seen on any book. An insult to Nabokov's name.
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