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The New International, September 1947

 

Richard Stoker

Bend Sinister

 

From The New International, Vol.&mnsp;XIII No. 7, September 1947, p. 221.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

Bend Sinister
by Vladimir Nabokov
Henry Holt and Company. $2.75

Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was one of the finest novels of the decade. Bend Sinister, while a lesser creative achievement, has a wider social interest. It is perhaps the most brilliant literary attack on totalitarianism in our time. The satire becomes occasionally heavy, and frequently it is obscured by endless and wearisome polysyllabic word formations. The sentences are strung together, like beads on a chain, and the individual words tumble out in a rather discordant music. But that is the almost inevitable stylistic defect of one working with a strange tongue and Nabokov should not be too heavily censured for it. The book is a brilliant achievement despite its stylistic shortcomings.

The plot of the novel is simple. Adam Krug, an eminent philosopher, refuses to pledge his loyalty to the fascist regime. He is taken to a concentration camp, where he is prepared to capitulate in return for the safety of his son. When he learns that the child has been destroyed, he repudiates the regime. His grief unminds him, and he is killed. Within this very simple narrative are brilliant satiric sketches. An exposition of Hamlet, an ingenious exegesis in distortion for crude political purposes, effectively ridicules the scholarship that is practiced under any totalitarian system. No less sharp is the grim satire on the super-scientific madness of the ultra-modern Nazi extermination chambers. Children are used as “release-instruments” for criminals with records of murder, rape and wanton destruction.

The theory was “that if once a week the really difficult patients could enjoy the possibility of venting in full their repressed yearnings (the exaggerated urge to hurt, destroy, etc.) upon some little human creature of no value to the community, then, by degrees, the evil in them would be allowed to escape, would be, so to say, ‘effundated,’ and eventually they would become good citizens.” One must go back to Swift for irony so strong and so effective.

One section on the freedom of the press seems very much like Alexander P. Morozov’s statement to the Social Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social of Council the press. that Russia Nabokov’s enjoys formulation genuine freedom is so much more skillful, however, that I commend it to Mr. Morozov the next time he presents the unique virtues of Pravda and Izvestia.

This attack on totalitarianism is equally applicable to fascism and Stalinism. It has the same effect and broad scope as Rex Warner’s The Aerdrome, an attack on fascism that earned a sour reception from the Stalinist fraternity. A novel that attacks fascism or totalitarianism becomes, whatever the intention of the author, an attack on Stalinism. Nowhere is the methodological similarity between fascism and Stalinism more clearly revealed than in imaginative literature. The novel does not, or should not, concern itself with economic or political theories on an ideologic level. It deals rather with the behavior of individual personalities in concrete circumstances. The circumstances in which the individual finds himself who opposes fascism or Stalinism are so very much the same that his behavior or reaction to those circumstances is also the same. Subtle dialectical differentiations between the Gestapo and the NKVD somehow do not apply to pain and terror, which recognize no ideologic distinctions or geographic boundaries. It is this common denominator of pain and terror that a novel against totalitarianism emphasizes, and that is why Stalinists must now find anti-fascist novels uncomfortable and disconcerting.

 
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