November 26th, 2019

From Untoward Magazine

Bend Sinister — Not 1984, Not Brave New World, Not Fahrenheit 451 — is the Defining Dystopian Novel of Our Present Day
Matt Rowan

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Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian, and in perhaps the simplest terms possible, a White Russian (as direct result of the fact that he wasn’t a Red). By his own admission, his personal issues with the Soviets were more romantic than anything else (certainly more than his dislike of their confiscating most every possession his family owned or property they 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.


Nabokov was no stranger to oppression.


More to the point, though, is Bend Sinister—which is apparently Nabokov’s first “American novel,” i.e. the first novel he wrote while living in America. Whether Nabokov, the man, felt any enmity for the dictatorship that, while he was hard at work writing Bend Sinister, was approaching its zenith of power is beside the point. Bend Sinister is, if it shares any affinities with the popular dystopian novels of approximately the same period, circa the late 1940s, a peculiar sense of the causation that makes and upholds oppressive regimes. It is in that spirit, too, that it resembles our present day America and offers a necessary complement to The Handmaid’s Tale as particularly required reading in opposition to tyrannical rule.


That’s not to undermine the importance of a novel like 1984 or the relevance of Fahrenheit 451, and scores of others that have become dystopian genre canon. 1984’s awareness of strongmen icons whose absolute authority cannot be questioned, no matter the evidence that exists to contradict them, is well outlined in Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay from a couple years ago. That piece is one that I often encourage any student reading 1984 to read as a complementary text.


I do believe for many of the same reasons that Gopnik offers and perhaps several he doesn’t that a re-reading of 1984 is essential to react and respond appropriately to our present circumstances. It is also my opinion that Bend Sinister, through its bizarre cast of characters and their dysfunctional relationships, delivers an even more useful analogue to the bullheaded and bumbling nature of the Trump administration. The ways in which Trump staffers appear to have constantly been at one another’s throats runs perfectly in step with the brutality of the ruling Ekwilist Party’s staffers in Bend Sinister, who are always looking to pass the buck, curry favor with their superiors and, as the logical terminus of such a nightmarish arrangement of bureaucracy, occasionally commit farcical acts of murder against one another.


The fascinating character study presented in Bend Sinister arrives specifically in the figure of Adam Krug, a highly regarded, world-famous philosopher.


Krug is an extremely vulnerable man, because he is a man with a child for whom he cares deeply. This Nabokov expressly points out in his prefatory remarks to the novel:


While the system of holding people in hostage is as old as the oldest war, a fresher note is introduced when a tyrannic state is at war with its own subjects and may hold any citizen in hostage with no law to restrain it. An even more recent improvement is the subtle use of what I shall term “the lever of love”—the diabolical method (applied so successfully by the Soviets) of tying a rebel to his wretched country by his own twisted heartstrings.


I will take him at his words, Krug is a vulnerable man because he cannot set aside his powerful love for his child (who among us could? Or would want to? Stalin, interestingly enough, did). Krug nevertheless 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 of global renown, and the world would not stand for harm coming to him. 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 their regime as well.


But Krug 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 integrity is belonging to his former schoolmate, now the leader of this rule, the Ekwilist Party. (Ekwilism being the ideology of the everyman to which Paduk and his disciples supposedly adhere.) This former schoolmate and ruler is named Paduk. Paduk’s forces begin to arrest every cohort of Krug, in an effort presumably to coerce him into doing what they say.


Still, Krug 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 to his young son, David. Therein lies the rub, those heart strings Nabokov alluded previously were to be twisted. It’s there in plain sight. Donald Trump—to his credit?—has as yet fallen short of publicly threatening the children of his political rivals.


But before I get to the exploitative nature of the regime’s tactics against Krug, let me say the black comedy abounding in this novel is arguably the best I’ve ever read. And in the same way we hear tawdry tales of cabinet members crudely questioning Trump’s intelligence, or the tandem of Kushner and Ivanka at odds with Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon till both of the latter were forced out of the administration, we witness the hysterical infighting of the Ekwilists rendered so keenly by Nabokov.


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, with so many people who seem incapable of feeling anything for anyone other than themselves, no matter how cruel or heinous the other’s experience might be.


Bend Sinister ends in tragedy because it must end in tragedy. Krug has sinned against not only and quite obviously the state but everything that rationality suggests he should do, if he wishes to preserve himself and his family. 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 is first made to suffer.


Daniel comes to great harm when Krug is finally apprehended by the state police. His boy is sent, due to some bureaucratic error, to an orphanage that serves dually as 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 Paduk’s rule. 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 there in the most callous fashion imaginable, as an expendable unit intended to absorb the release of the inmates’ worst desires, physically or verbally violent as they might be. 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.


Krug begins to break psychotically and recalls the way he used to bully his schoolyard peer, Paduk, “The Toad” as Krug referred to him derisively then, charging at the clumsy ruler and preparing to sit on him in humiliating fashion, as he did in their youth. It’s particularly fitting to see the most rational character of the story meet the gruesome end of being gunned down by Paduk’s forces as he finally and completely loses his mind. If there is a better metaphor for where America is headed intellectually, I honestly can’t imagine what it would look like.


[The article originally appeared in Untoward Magazine in January of 2018. It has been slightly modified from the original.]