It’s always a happy moment when Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck-in-a-Book put out the call about another book club. Around this time last year I was thrilled to be able to join in the 1924 club with a top Russian read, ‘We’ by Zamyatin. Since then, I’ve also been able to get medieval and a bit magical with T. E. White’s ‘A Once and Future King’ (the first volume of which was published in time to be included in the 1938 club). Suffice to say, ‘Bend Sinister’ had a lot to live up to.
‘Bend Sinister’ was the first novel Nabokov wrote in America but as far as setting goes, it feels like it belongs more with my Russian reading project than any specific US genre or school of literature. The story is set in a small obscure country, recently taken over by ‘The Party of the Average Man,’ where the ‘everyman’ dictator, Paduk, is determined that all citizens should join together in collegiality and mediocrity. For a typically unsubtle example of state propaganda, the novel even contains a detailed government circular explaining the wonders of the new regime:
‘Dear Citizen, according to Article 521 of our Constitution the following four freedoms are to be enjoyed by the nation: 1. freedom of speech, 2. freedom of the press, 3. freedom of meetings, and 4. freedom of processions. These freedoms are guaranteed by placing at the disposal of the people efficient printing machines, adequate supplies of paper, well-aerated halls and broad streets…’
Trying desperately to ignore the new status quo is the celebrity academic, Krug. His high profile is both protection and a danger, not least because he has a personal connection with the new ruler (Krug was one of the more determined bullies who daily attacked Paduk, aka ‘The Toad’, at school). The question throughout the novel is whether or not Krug will endorse the new regime. He certainly despises everything it stands for, but he also has close friends and a young son; he may be stubborn, but its hard to guess quite how stubborn as the pressure steadily mounts.
This being Nabokov, I don’t think that readers will enjoy the book for the plot alone. ‘Bend Sinister’ is only going to work for those who will enjoy or be able to ignore the florid and utterly over-the-top prose. Nabokov’s admiration for James Joyce is in plentiful evidence and, if moments of the story reminded me of ‘The Trial’ in their grotesque depiction of power and ineptitude, the writing has none of Kafka’s sparseness of language. If you thought ‘Lolita’ was a bit over-written then you should start your 1947 reading elsewhere. If however you have a fondness for linguistic games, bureaucratic dystopias and writers who can truly shock,’Bend Sinister’ will deliver all this and more.