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.

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