Monday, December 27, 2010

Reflecting on the Year and Looking to the Future of My Happy Reading

2010 was rife with awesomeness, reading-wise. I've added Philip K. Dick and Vladimir Nabokov to my list of all-time favorite authors. George Saunders remains among my topmost with a really just neat short story, "Escape From Spiderhead," that appeared in the recent issue of The New Yorker. David Markson, though sadly he passed away this year, also left a positive impression on me with "Wittgenstein's Mistress." William Gaddis proved his intangible value in my mind with "J R." Adam Levin and Patrick Somerville are two great young, Chicago-area writers I look forward to continuing things from. I've got "The Instructions" and I'm making headway with that, a really just enjoyable read so far. And I've got "The Cradle" and I'm waiting with bated breath for "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." A D Jameson is another young Chicago-area writer worthy of note, and not simply because I know him, but because he has produced some damned inventive fiction you ought to check out. (Hell, he introduced me to Philip K. Dick and David Markson's awesomeness, among a great many other things.) Jameson's criticism is always thought-provoking, likewise, and his talent for honest and earnest introspection is unrivaled, as I see it. Lots of men-heavy talk here, but I mustn't forget to mention Lorrie Moore, who has just got lots of stuff that's worth your time. Lindsay Hunter and Karen Russell are two other female authors I've enjoyed in 2010, cannot wait for "Daddy's" to arrive. Oh, and I really enjoyed Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil," which I look forward to attempting to teach to high school students in 2011.

As for the future, i.e. 2011, well, let's start with several books I've gotten for Christmas. There's "The Physics of Imaginary Objects" by Tina May Hall, and that's just got an awesome title. Then there's "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls" by Alissa Nutting, which isn't that also an awesome title? "Daddy's" as already mentioned. "The Museum of the Weird" by Amelia Gray. Somerville's titles, "The Cradle" and "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." Roald Dahl's "My Uncle Oswald." "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov. Oh and philosophy by Soren Kierkegaard.

It should be a great year! How was your book haul? What do you look forward to in 2011, book-wise?" I'll probably give Nicole Krauss' "Great House" a try, and Jim Shepard's "You Think That's Bad." "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace, also, which seems like a good idea, reading-wise.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good Writing and Sad Happenings in "Revolutionary Road"

The first thing I'll think of whenever I think of Richard Yates must necessarily be "Seinfeld" (and NOT the title of Tao Lin's latest novel) -- because he was apparently the inspiration for Elaine's grizzled, aloof father (a celebrated novelist named Alton Benes). Larry David, the well-known co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," used to date Yates' daughter, Monica, which I imagine produced some very "Curb Your Enthusiasm" type moments, as well. I feel like Alton Benes' appearance was very much a precursor to the humor that has informed David's precedent sitcom. I both can and cannot imagine Larry David and Richard Yates seated in the same room alone together. I'm laugh-cringing already.

Here's something a little different, though: I feel like a lot of the time I approach these reviews with an eye more for the logos of the narrative than its pathos. Truth is, Yates' "Revolutionary Road" is nothing if it isn't a tour-de-force of powerful passions, life's life blood, and what results from a failure of things to "work out." Frank and April Wheeler are perhaps two of the most emotionally complex characters I've read in, well, ever. They just throb with every unfulfilled or feigned emotion, which you can imagine is a complex notion in itself, i.e. to be so palpably real in their falseness. I can't say that I enjoyed reading Yates with the same zeal I did Gaddis and Nabokov. "Revolutionary Road" is the kind of novel that demands your discomfort. "Revolutionary Road" gets inside of you. This is perhaps because it cuts to the core so precisely. Maybe you relate too well to the Wheelers, for example. Maybe I do.

Here come certain spoilerifics:

It's not enough to say it's about the stultifying effects of suburban malaise circa 1950, because in so many ways that's the story Frank Wheeler is trying to sell you, because that's the story he's sold to himself. Especially relevant and ironical to this notion is Wheeler's boss Bart Pollock's mantra (page 207 of my edition), acquired by Pollock from a "wiser older man," of which Pollock says, "He said to me, 'Bart, everything is selling.' He said, 'Nothing happens in this world, nothing comes into this world, until somebody makes a sale.'" There isn't much that's terribly unusual about this idea, a tried and true cliche of business speak -- that is, if you don't have the ancillary element of Wheeler imagining how he'll recast the situation to April later, saying to her, "And I kept sitting there getting drunk and thinking 'What the hell does this guy want from me?' . . . Of course I kept thinking none of it matters a damn, but still; he really had me guessing." Frank has sold himself a characteristic: bashful modesty and false ignorance. Plus, he knows he's been taken in by Pollock's own appeal to him, a job offer as head of sales for a new division: electronic computers for the American businessman. Frank's ego is stroked and there's no going back, despite April's plan to finally cast off the "hopeless emptiness" of America for the possibility of something better in Europe as ex-patriots.

Yet the truth of Frank Wheeler's situation is something much more pernicious, and it speaks to anyone who's ever allowed themselves to become just a bit too sure of their own significance and, perhaps, superiority. It's natural for people to want to feel as though they possess skills beyond those of anyone who has ever lived or ever will live. I mean, natural to the extent that we desire feeling unique, as means of demonstrating our purpose and implying a justifiable degree of immortality. We're not Homer of the Odyssey nor Homer of the Simpsons, but hey, we're not unspectacular, either. And given the opportunity, oh, how we might prove this!

You begin to see how Frank and April Wheeler demonstrate another kind of story. Lost in the macro, sociological criticisms -- fictional tellings or otherwise -- of American suburbia of the last half century, is the individualistic myth-making of those of us who seem to think we are above it all, because of our great awareness. "Revolutionary Road" is, among other things, a condemnation of the snobs, but not just any snob, the snob who thinks (s)he can stand apart from the rest of humanity, flippantly wave a hand, and live deliberately. There's also a degree of contempt for those who find they may once have felt differently but now are completely willing to let themselves become ensconced in life's circumstances, taking comfort in the fact that there is no other option. Hoping, praying, lying to oneself and pretending that things will be above and beyond one's control, whether this is true or not (anyone who reads this blog knows I'm an adherent of at least the possibility of determinism; and that I much revile Ayn Rand and her disciples).

The story's catalyst comes in the form of a man named John Givings, the unstable and institutionalized but rather brilliant son of the Wheelers' realtor and neighbor, Helen Givings. John is like a character plucked from Nurse Ratched's domain in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with special reference to Chief Bromden's "The Combine," and set down into the unhappy middle class vista of Revolutionary Road, off of which lays the Wheelers' home, set just apart from the unpleasant cookie-cutter housing of "the dreadful new development" Revolutionary Hill Estates, which is symbolism that I don't think minces too many symbols.

John Givings is not one to mince anything, either. He likes what you're doing or he doesn't. It's to him that Frank Wheeler first uses the term "hopeless emptiness" to describe what they think of the contemporary American landscape. Givings himself commends them, saying on page 200, "Now you've said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the [West] Coast, that's all we ever talked about." Which is why John's reaction amounts to nothing less than disgust when he later is told Frank has found a useful reason for canceling the Wheeler's European exodus, to wit: April has become pregnant with their third child. John sees the sham of it all, sees more than anyone, that Frank is full of it. The Wheeler's happy marriage is anything but, which is why his final pronouncement on page 303 packs an especially powerful punch: ". . . he extended a long yellow-stained index finger and pointed it at the slight mound of April's pregnancy. 'You know what I'm glad of? I'm glad I'm not gonna be that kid.'"

The narrative descends to what I'd define as tragedy, but a powerful and worthy tragedy, one that I've yet to shake and one that I'd just as soon not describe here, because I feel there's such a thing as too much spoiling. My advice? Read "Revolutionary Road." (I can't vouch for the movie yet, as I haven't seen it.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mini Review of the Little Religion of "Miss Lonelyhearts"

Boy-o, "Miss Lonelyhearts" is a short read by Nathanael West. I don't know that I have tons of thoughts about it. It started much stronger than I believe the rest of the story held up. It has an excellent climax. Someone forgot the middle, I think. Or maybe I'm just being lazy, as reviewing goes.

The story was, if I'm being overly critical, far too concerned with Miss Lonelyhearts, the man (Miss Lonelyhearts is a nom de plum that, nonetheless, is the only name by which the main character is referenced throughout the novel), and not enough with his job, which is advice dispenser for a widely read advice column.

My copy came used and annotated by an individual who focused on the many allusions to religion West makes. I think these allusions are a bit trite and obvious, not to make light of the reader who came before me and her (the handwriting suggests it was a female) interests / concerns.

The humanity of the story is in its people who populate Miss Lonelyhearts' column. Those who desire advice, those who are in many ways victims of the advice itself. For example, what proves Miss Lonelyhearts' undoing is when he allows himself to become romantically entangled with one particularly effusive advice seeker. In exposing himself as something quite human and of the earth he relinquish the quasi-deity potency he once held, not so much to his public but to himself, though his hold of it was already beginning to wane. And in fact that is what the story speaks to, the notion of adequacy as dispenser of truth. Miss Lonelyhearts is just another man behind the curtain, no Great and Powerful Oz. Why should his fate be any different than ours?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bend it Like Nabokov, i.e. Sinisterly (Part II)

So there is more, for starters. I attached "part I" to the title of my II part Nabokov "Bend Sinister" postings for a reason: there are II parts! Also, in this post I'm operating on the assumption that you've at least some familiarity with the previous part of this II parter, ya know? So don't act like you're not following me, especially when I gave you all this good fair warning. Same as before, spoilers are basically a given. Now, less ado and more Nabokov.

Here's what I think:

Nabokov slides in these oh so interesting morsels, narrative digressions that compound his novels with amusing, shrewdly crafted ideas to marvel in wonderment at, and from which to attempt to then divine meaning. Analysis of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" by Adam Krug and his friend, fellow academic and pedant, Ember, is one such instance of this, beginning more or less on page 105 of my edition. The thrust of this narrative digression is: what value might be attributable to pursuing high-minded interests in the midst of widespread suffering? The odd nature of such an endeavor described best here:

Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T . . .

There's more to the above quotation but I think that adequately tells its gist (gist used ironically here). The above is also a quote drawn from the exhaustive analysis of Krug, reacting to the nature of Ember's translating Shakespeare into the native. Yes, it is spectacularly well done, as Krug later remarks to Ember, but its relevance, not just in their society but in any society, is called to question. What is the point of such elaborate simulacra? What about the fact that Ember doesn't even know who's running the country, Paduk, as elucidated by the following quote, "To stress the artist's detachment from life, Ember says he does not know and does not care to know (a telltale dismissal) who this Paduk -- bref, la personne en question -- is." I mean, when does artistic, intellectual esotericism go too far? When it, however indirectly, threatens your life, I should think. Of course, like all those others who surround Krug, Ember is shortly after taken away by Hustav and the state police. Krug, for all his recondite and analytical abilities (which likewise are brought into the realm of ambiguity), does not take heed of the foreboding quality of these arrests. He still believes himself perfectly insulated by his high-standing as a figure of world renown. One suspects a man like Martin Heidegger probably saw himself in a similar sense, even though no one can be bigger than the state in a totalitarian society.

People, academic people mostly, like to imagine that if we aren't presently on such a track than perhaps some day we might transition to a world of perfect enlightenment, of free thought and exchange of ideas without the baggage of personal prejudice, yet without much difficulty, as fiction writers and philosophers have presciently demonstrated, the perpetuation of totalitarian creeds is just as likely a scenario from this vantage of human evolution. We are as susceptible as we were seventy years ago in Nazi Germany (one need only note the popularity of sloganeering in the politics, the shoddy distillation of news and the stultification of the two-party system here in the good ol' USofA to see we, i.e. human beings and specifically Americans, are quite at risk).

As Hannah Arendt notes in her opening line to part three of her seminal work, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," -- "Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movement in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced." In other words, if totalitarian heads of state won't stand the test of time in governments of their personal contrivance or, at least, reflective of their massive influence, how could anyone else hope to maintain an individual identity amid the thronging tide of The Masses, the one and only identity extant under a totalitarian regime. Food for thought, I suppose. I don't want the preceding to be viewed as alarmist or, worse, dripping with cynicism apropos of the human condition, but just simply to point out that no one should assume with the rise of so much grandiose technology and the ability to disseminate information faster and more broadly than ever before, that that necessarily means a more enlightened future for mankind. Quite the opposite is still very possible.

Anyway, to return from the preceding lengthy digression, and to return the lengthy digression into a more clearly applicable aspect of the subject matter at hand (i.e. "Bend Sinister"), Krug is operating on this rather false supposition that insists his personal importance in a totalitarian state. True but not too true, as the inchoate totalitarian state of Padukgrad will soon teach him.

Another of Nabokov's more fascinating digressions is the question of what I'll refer to as the presumed venerability of a well-regarded thinker. As it happens, I read a lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a thinker who has forced me to question what is valid, certainly what is certain, more times than I can now list. What's more, he begs by his own skillful linguistic philosophy to be questioned. That's not to say I consider him overrated or anything. In fact, it's for his very ability to question everything, including the correctness of his own personal certainty, and to labor over such ideas in lengthy meditations, that I find him, paradoxically perhaps, one of the most introspectively recondite thinkers of all time.

Krug, if he has any affinity at all to the features of Wittgenstein I note above, it's that he, too, sees a worthy question in his presumed validity. Most evocative of this idea, of this instability of his venerability, is found on pages 172-3, and with the following quotes, "He was constantly being called one of the most eminent philosophers of his time but he knew that nobody could really define what special features his philosophy had, or what 'eminent' meant or what 'his time' exactly was, or who were the other worthies." And then, likewise, ". . . he had begun regarding himself (robust rude Krug) as an illusion or rather as a shareholder in an illusion which was highly appreciated by a great number of cultured people (with a generous sprinkling of semi-cultured ones)." Most likely, in this one can see something relatable to Wittgenstein's reference to his own understanding in "On Certainty" -- "Is my understanding only blindness to my own lack of understanding? It often seems so to me." Is anyone's?

"Bend Sinister" ends in tragedy because it must end in tragedy. There are no two ways about it. Krug has sinned against not only and quite obviously the state but everything that rationality suggests. 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 first suffers. Daniel comes to great harm when Krug is finally apprehended by the state police. His boy is sent to 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 Padukgrad. 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 in the most callous fashion imaginable, as an expendable unit intended to absorb the release of the inmates' worst desires, violent and so forth. 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 demonstrative of all that is best about Nabokov's fantastically unique storytelling.

Holy crap, this is a good book!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Through the Lens of William Gaddis' "J R" & More

I think "J R" came into my life at just the right time. I consider this true from a variety of standpoints, namely 1) broadly, within the context of the nation's political and economic climate 2) as an educator who greatly fears the perils of complete acquiescence to psychometricians and high-stakes testing 3) as a busy, busy, busy person burning the candle at all ends because I must and because I desire the challenge, I know what it feels like now to be thrust into a seemingly unending stream of noise and human interaction, constantly talking to someone about something and then switching on a moment's notice to talk to someone else about something completely different 4) as a fan of literature and in admiration of the tremendous feat of literary derring-do represented by "J R". 5) More specifically as a fan of the 1950s-60s suburban angst of writers like Cheever and Yates, and now Gaddis, (even in certain respects Ken Kesey) and the demonstrative power they possess to elucidate the plight of those characters inhabiting this malaise-laden scene, which has if anything only further stultified in the years since.

It is a difficult novel, but I'm not convinced that the vitriol at its core (if it can be said vitriol or anger is what motivated Gaddis) causes it to lose all sense of whatever its guiding idea was, which is one among many criticisms Jonathan Franzen put to it quite a few years back.

Franzen emphasizes his difficulty in trying to come to terms with the feeling that he should be reading authors of modern and postmodern persuasions, whose work expresses concerns more overtly political and decrying of the establishment than the character-driven classic novels of authors like Dostoevsky and Dickens, or more contemporaneously Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie. For a variety of reasons I couldn't agree less with said assertion (especially since Dostoevsky and Dickens were profoundly political for their day). Still I, too, wrestle with the dichotomy he describes, of characterization being ancillary to more conceptual narratives. Franzen also uses the fact that he quite enjoyed "The Recognitions" -- Gaddis' first novel and arguably his most difficult (certainly his lengthiest: a whopping 950 plus pages) -- to defend his stance, which is a tenable position to argue from, admitting an affinity for an author but then describing the impasse other aspects of his / her oeuvre have brought to bear. Although I find his opinion, that Gaddis didn't craft characters per se, to be remarkably unfair, if not entirely unfounded. Gaddis wasn't like Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme and so forth. Characterization was a very important part of Gaddis' fiction. I hope what follows will demonstrate that somewhat.

Here's a quote by Franzen, taken only slightly out of context: "Battling through 'J R,' I'd wanted to grab Gaddis by the lapels and shout, 'Hello! I'm the reader you want! I love smart fiction, and I'm for a good Systems novel. If you can't even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?'"

As I say, though, I liked "J R" in part because I found it so eminently relatable to my own life at this point. Over the course of a harried slough of cross conversations in classroom environments, both as instructor and student, or as an employee of a retailer like Costco Wholesale (which have I mentioned I'm currently employed by Costco Wholesale Corporation? Good company, on the whole, I really must admit). Fact has been, people seem always to be talking at me and I at them. Hopefully much hearing occurs between us, but no doubt in fragments. What's more, occasionally real humanity breaks through the din, and something such as the following utterance by Amy Joubert from "J R" might be expressed:

. . . someone came to dinner he was a man who made fine china and, Mama'd been cremated and he said if, he said right at the dinner table he told Daddy if they'd give him her ashes he'd, he'd make a fine chop plate human ashes make the finest china he said but, but why a chop plate why he said a chop plate . . .

"Why a chop plate why he he'd never met her but why he couldn't think of, couldn't even think of her as something less . . .
pg 505
Yes, there's the literal commodification of a deceased loved one there, a postmodern trope if ever I've seen it, an idea akin to Fausto Maijstral's ossification to "non-humanity" in "V.", but more to the point there is a woman who can't stand the thought of it, of her mother made into some cheap ware. There is humanity. And the story is rife with humanity. Had Frazen stuck with it, he would have discovered a particularly touching scene unfolds when Edward Bast, the long-suffering envoy of J R Corp. and its eponymous preteen founder, is laid up in a hospital next to Mister Duncan, one of the countless business reps who come in and out of the story, a man who was hospitalized after being beaten up and left to his fate by a prostitute. Mister Duncan espouses an angry philosophy much the same, but probably coarser, as that which Franzen accuses Gaddis' of harboring, i.e., Duncan sez, "It's taken me fourteen years to get out of the wallpaper business people think winning's what it's all about just ask those son of a bitches who ran that war, ran the whole country into the ground while they were at it . . ." and, later, ". . . give them a string of high p e ratios and a rising market it's all free enterprise all they howl about's government restraints interference double taxation, all free enterprise till they wreck the whole thing they're the first ones up there with a tin cup whining for the government to bail them out with a loan guarantee so they can do it all over again . . ." (This latter quotation striking me as more relevant today than when it was written, fool me twice and whatnot.)

But beneath the crotchety, lecherous veneer there's a guy in Duncan who likes people. Duncan's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore, sure, but also Bast reminds him there's still a lot of humanity behind that Darth Vader cast that encircles world economic affairs. In a fit of creativity and the stifling after effects of employ by J R Corp. (he has been terminated by mandate of the board), Edward Bast insists he must complete some sort of work before he dies. He's being a bit melodramatic, and no one, nurse or doctor or anyone, attempts to humor him regarding this want, and he's left to compose (seeing as that's his creative discipline and labor of love, music composer) with a crayon and scrap sheets of paper. Duncan is dismayed by this treatment, saying, "Well then give him his fifty pencils, how do you know who's to die Waddles [a nurse overseeing their care] you give him this drawing paper and one purple crayon all he can write is something for one instrument, give him his fifty sharp pencils he can probably write us a whole concert and bring me some more newspapers. . .!" Then, slowly and finally Duncan moves into candor and opens up to Bast, saying:

. . . I lost a daughter, did I tell you that Bast? . . . she was taking piano lessons when they took out her appendix son of a bitches never let you down do they it wasn't her appendix at all. ... she was learning a song called for Alise's something like that I never did hear it like it was supposed to be, she'd missed notes leave little parts out and start again I always thought maybe someday I'd hear it right hear what I was supposed to . . . though that's all I, all I want, I can still, hear it? hear it . . . ?
Bast devotes himself to finding out which song it was Duncan wanted to remember, but Duncan passes, presumably from his injuries, before Bast can tell him who wrote it, Beethoven, most likely. But that's beside the point -- the point is humanity in slivers. Slivers of giving a shit amidst the all for one and one for one defining everything else, just as J R can only see things as commercially viable or not, much to Mrs. Joubert's chagrin in one memorable scene on page 473 of my edition. (i.e. J R: "like did you ever think Mrs. Joubert everything you see someplace there's this millionaire for it?" To which Mrs. Joubert takes J R outside and asks, "Yes look up at the sky look at it! Is there a millionaire for that?") Bast shares a similar scene with J R, as their relationship deteriorates to the point of no return. On page 655 Bast unsuccessfully exhorts J R as follows:

listen all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it's a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can't you understand what I'm trying to show you there's such a thing as as, as intangible assets?

There's so much unreason to the pursuit of wealth, and it takes a special kind of oblivious or apathetic naivety to care only for it, so seems a true message of "J R."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bend it Like Nabokov, i.e. Sinisterly (Part I)

I've acquired a copy of Brian Boyd's "Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years," which will nicely complement my copy of his "The American Years." I can imagine this will mean most reviews of Nabokov's novels will now come complete with some amount of biographical information, too. But it's the decent thing to do seeing as he's one of history's greatest writers. What I'm saying is it might be worth something to know something about his life or something.

He was a Russian, and in perhaps the simplest, most facile terms possible, a White Russian (as direct result of the fact that he wasn't a Red). This notwithstanding, his personal issues with the Soviets were more romantic, of innocence prematurely stripped, than anything else (certainly more than his dislike of their confiscating most every possession his family owned and 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.

More the point, though, is "Bend Sinister" -- which is apparently Nabokov's first "American novel," i.e. the first novel he wrote while living in U.S. America, Land of the Free / Home of Brave. Whether Nabokov the man felt any enmity for the dictatorship that at his writing "Bend Sinister" was at its height of power is beside the point. "Bend Sinister" is, if it shares any affinities with the popular dystopia novels of approximately the same period, circa late 1940s, a peculiar sense of the causation that makes and upholds oppressive regimes. The fascinating character study herein is presented in Adam Krug, a highly regarded, world-famous philosopher. [Spoilers are forthcoming . . .]

Krug is an extremely vulnerable man, because he is a man with a child for whom he cares deeply. This Nabokov fairly expressly points out in his prefatory remarks. I will take him at his words, and leave the meaning to be divined to the story itself. So Krug is a vulnerable man, because he cannot set aside his powerful love for his child. He 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, and the world would not stand for his coming to harm. 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 it as well. Seems reasonable enough.

But Krug, O, Krug! He 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 belonging to his former schoolmate, now the leader of the ruling Ekwilist Party, Paduk, thus the dictator of the state. (Ekwilism being the ideology of the everyman to which Paduk and his disciples supposedly adhere.) Paduk's forces begin to arrest every cohort of Krug, in an effort presumably to get what they want from him.
Still, he 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 of his young son, David, whom he cares for more than anything in the world. Therein lies the rub.

But before I get to that, let me say the black comedy abounding in this novel is truly astoundingly among the best I've ever read. Nabokov in all his works shows a talent for this unrivaled by, really, anyone. 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 than the synthetic happiness of "A Brave New World" or the scheduled outlet of pathos -- engendered almost exclusively with hate -- in "1984." In other words, pharmaceutical or psychological means needn't be used (though of course you could make the argument that both are already in place), people will wish only to not be inconvenienced themselves by the draconian measures of the state.