‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov – Can a Dystopia be Humorous and Tragic at the Same Time?

 

‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov  (1947)  –  217 pages

”Bend Sinister’ is Vladimir Nabokov’s take on authoritarian rule. Nabokov had a lot of first-hand experience with tyrannical regimes.

First Nabokov was born and raised in Russia until the Communists took over, and his family fled the country in 1919. After a short stint in England at Cambridge University, Nabokov moved to Germany where he stayed until 1937. In Germany, Nabokov married a Russian-Jewish woman. In 1936 she lost her job due to the increasingly anti-Semitic environment. In 1937 the Nabokovs fled Germany for France. In May, 1940, the Nabokov family fled from Paris due to the advancing German troops and headed for the United States.

‘Bend Sinister’ is more of an absurdist black comedy about one man’s plight rather than a more direct broad account of tyranny. Our first person narrator Adam Krug is a celebrity in his own country having written the world famous book ‘The Philosophy of Sin’. Thus he is not too worried when his old schoolmate Paduk takes over the government. When Krug meets with the dictator, Krug teases him about how he used to sit on Paduk’s face back at grade school. However Paduk is rapidly setting up a brutal police state and has other plans for his former schoolmate.

Sometimes this dystopian novel gets quite humorous which is a strange thing in a dystopian novel, but ultimately the terror becomes intense. Perhaps this is realistic. At first, Krug, remembering the mixed-up Paduk he knew as a child, does not take Paduk seriously and discounts the threat, until it is too late. Nabokov even injects humor when acquaintances of Krug are arrested just for associating with him.

One of the joys of reading Vladimir Nabokov is that he is skilled enough at writing fiction that he doesn’t have to be plain and sincere with his readers. In other words, Nabokov plays subtle tricks. I, for one reader, get a little tired of writers who are just too earnest and sincere; I’m ready to be deceived for my own good. However sometimes Nabokov just takes his erudition too far and too far off course.

The University in Padukgrad does a rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ where they turn it into “intricate convolutions of sheer stupidity” in order to please the dictator Paduk. Nabokov has great fun telling us this new ridiculous version of ‘Hamlet’. There are pages and pages in this rewrite of ‘Hamlet’ in which Nabokov makes his own humorous changes to the play, many involving mythology and some in various languages.

A Younger Vladimir Nabokov

I an quite familiar with ‘Hamlet’, yet many of these sly changes to Hamlet were still extremely difficult for me to follow. That is one problem with ‘Bend Sinister’ – although many parts are clear as a bell to follow, other parts get extremely murky in all the references and puns and word play that Nabokov manages to shove into them. I did not have this difficulty of understanding at all with Nabokov novels such as ‘Pnin’ and ‘Pale Fire’. Some sections of ‘Bend Sinister’ seem almost intentionally unreadable.

The sumptuousness of Nabokov’s writing in ‘Bend Sinister’ sometimes distracts from the terror of the evil dictator.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. It sounds interesting, but the play with Hamlet is a bit off-putting…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa,
      I had problems with the lengthy authoritarian Hamlet parody in ‘Bent Sinister’, but there are many Nabokov novels which I fully enjoyed including ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Pnin’, and ‘The Defense’. If you haven’t read one of those three, I would read that before ‘Bent Sinister’.

      Like

      Reply

      • I’ve read Lolita, (at uni) but Pale Fire and Pnin are on my wishlist because they’re in 1001 Books. I intend to make a bit of a leisurely effort at 1001 Books this year because I only managed four last year, and that was stupid because the 1001 are nearly all worth reading, and not everything else I read last year was.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply

        • I have probably mentioned this before, but my main fiction guide through the years has been ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’ by Martin Seymour-Smith, written in 1976. He is very opinionated.

          Like

          Reply

  2. I do love Nabokov, but I haven’t read this one yet. I’m intrigued….

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi kaggsy,
      I read Lolita a long time ago, probably before I could really appreciate it. Later I read ‘Pale Fire’ which I consider absolutely fabulous. Then I read ‘Pnin’ and ‘The Defense’ and others which I have liked a lot. Maybe now I should give ‘Lolita’ another try.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: