NABOKV-L post 0000588, Fri, 12 May 1995 08:38:14 -0700

From: Brian D. Walter <>

Sweetening the Ordeal:
Nabokov's Discontent in Bend Sinister

Given Nabokov's well-known scorn for politically-engaged writers, the
effort he expends in his first American novel, Bend Sinister, to discredit
-- even to punish -- the imaginary Ekwilist dictatorship must jar the
reader. What becomes clear in this unpleasant story of Professor Krug's
descent into madness is Nabokov's surprising inability to remain detached
from his characters, his inability to maintain the pose of the authorial
dictator he conspicuously strikes in his other work. His lengthy, highly
protective foreword to the novel registers Nabokov's awareness of this
lack of distance (and the resulting image of the novel's political
project), serving up a warning against hostile or reductive reading even
more vehement than his typically defensive prefaces.

My paper highlights three elements of the novel to exemplify Nabokov's
discomfort with its political concerns: (1) his exaggerated antipathy for
Krug's tormentors, (2) his equally exaggerated care for Krug, and (3) his
intrusive role as the anthropomorphic deity of a narrator. Examining
several key passages from the book, including Krug's school-days dream in
the fifth chapter as well as elements of the well-known "Hamlet chapter,"
the paper argues that the author's unusual personal involvement with the
characters prompts his frequent intrusions on the narrative.

The final point of the paper is that Nabokov's disaffection with his
characters and, still greater, his discomfort with the novel's topic,
results in Bend Sinister's relative coldness toward its reader. Comparing
Bend Sinister (briefly) to both the story "A Forgotten Poet" and the
earlier novel, Invitation to a Beheading, the paper shows that Nabokov has
allowed his first American novel to be determined to a surprising degree
by -- in somewhat simplified terms -- external considerations of history
and politics, considerations that he typically, scornfully rejects. The
consequences of this determination are apparent in Nabokov's equal attempt
to determine the reaction of his reader, to deny the reader any freedom of
response to the story of Krug's grief and madness.