Friday, June 19, 2015

Bend Sinister: a special (but flawed) book

I am constantly reading books (yes, books, not ebooks, books painstakingly tracked down in secondhand stores). I read quite slowly, but it is constant: as soon as one is finished, another is begun.
I mainly read what is probably called "modern literary fiction", along with a smattering of "classics" and a few other assorted genres. For example, in recent weeks I have ploughed through a couple of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books (which were found abandoned on the sidewalk, and which were, I thought, appropriately pedestrian and forgettable); Michel Faber's excellent "The Crimson Petal and the White" (distinctly superior historical fiction); Andrew Pyper's "The Demonologist" (disappointing, despite, or perhaps because of, several good reviews); Milan Kundera's "Identity" (another of his unbearably lightweight books on being, but eminently worthy in a very European sort of a way); Thomas Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge" (by far his most accessible book, but still beautifully written, and just challenging enough); and many more.
I rarely bother to mention these books in this blog, but, from time to time, I do read a special one that I feel deserves some mention, or even a mini-review (such as "Infinite Jest", "Scenes of Clerical Life", "Cloud Atlas", "House of Leaves", "Daniel Deronda").
Vladimir Nabokov's "Bend Sinister" seemed to be just such a special book. I went through a phase a couple of years ago of reading Nabokov books, having been convinced by an article that he was one of the seminal authors of the English language (despite English being his second or even third language), and that I had skimped on him. While I don't find his earlier Russian language works, like "The Defense" or even the more highly regarded "The Gift", particularly arresting, some of his later (American) books, like "Ada" and "Pale Fire", are indeed veritable tours de force of the English language, and pull no punches in their self-consciously "difficult" approach to story-telling, exhibiting an almost Joycean level of complexity, innovation and wilful obscureness. Certainly, stopping short at "Lolita", as so many people do, does Nabokov a distinct disservice (good as "Lolita" admittedly is).
"Bend Sinister" is one of these "difficult" books, although perhaps not as difficult as some. It was written in 1947, just a few years after Nabokov moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, and is widely regarded as his most political novel (although Nabokov himself tries his best to refute this is his 1963 foreword to the book). It is often described as a dystopia, but is perhaps more of a parody of Soviet-style totalitarianism, and the vehemently anti-Communist Nabokov mercilessly mocks the "Party of the Average Man" and the "Ekwilism" philosophy that holds sway in the fictional European city of Padukgrad where the book is set.
It is by no means a universally praised novel, and early reactions to it were most definitely mixed. But, as John Updike notes on a back cover review, Nabokov does indeed write  "ecstatically". Whatever you make of the book's politics and its plot, for me it was the language and the quality of the writing that struck most as I began reading. Nabokov lurches vertiginously from the poetic and lyrical to the mundane and vernacular. An example of the former from the early pages:
"The many-limbed poplars cast their alembic ascending shadow bands up on it, in between their own burnished black-shaded spreading and curving limbs."
And then, just a few sentences away, the stark:
"The operation has not been successful and my wife will die."
The conversations of the characters are almost equally extreme and polarized. The philosopher-protagonist Krug tries to explain his predicament to the doltish bridge guards:
"I am going to put it as simply as possible. They of the solar side saw heliocentrically what you tellurians saw geocentrically, and unless these two aspects are somehow combined, I, the visualized object, must keep shuttling in the universal night."
"Now come on, do something."
By page 20, then, I was hooked, and settling in for a good provocative and challenging read.
A few chapters later, though, I was beginning to question whether this was a modern classic after all. The novel's early linguistic promise did not seem to continue, and it settled down into a more pedestrian, if slightly surreal, sub-Kafka effort, with elements of Ionescoesque absurdism and Orwellian doublespeak thrown in (although admittedly narrowly predating both of those authors).
That said, I can't help but tip my hat to a Russian émigré who is able to pull out English sentences of the quality of:
"The slow languid sounds and half-hearted thumps coming from the next room meant that Mariette [a maid] was engaged in expressing her vague notions of order."
"The window attempted a smile. A faint infusion of sunshine spread over the distant hill and brought out with a kind of pointless distinction the little farm and its three pine tress on the opposite slope which seemed to move forward and then to retreat again as the wan sun swooned."
All things considered, it may well be a classic, even if it did not, I thought, quite live up to its initial prospects.

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