Review: Bend Sister, by Vladimir Nabokov

ninner2Synopsis: The state has been recently taken over and is being run by the tyrannical and philistine ‘Average Man’ party. Under the slogans of equality and happiness for all, it has done away with individualism and freedom of thought. Only John Krug, a brilliant philosopher, stands up to the regime. His antagonist, the leader of the new party, is his old school enemy, Paduk – known as the ‘Toad’. Grieving over his wife’s recent death, Krug is at first dismissive of Paduk’s activities and sees no threat in them. But the sinister machine which Paduk has set in motion may prove stronger than the individual, stronger even than the grotesque ‘Toad’ himself.

Title: Bend Sister
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
Pub Date: 26 April 2001
Pages: 192
ISBN: 9780141185767

Rating: 4stars

“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form”

This is the third Nabokov novel I’ve now read. The first, Mary, made me fall in love with his style. The second, Lolita, made me delight and despair in his writing style. And this, the third, has made my feelings take an even more extremist turn. Whilst reading Bend Sister there were times I had to just stop, and completely take in the beautiful passage I had just read. At others, I badly lost patience with the man.

His semi-bearable attitude of condescension started to get really quite tiresome in Bend Sister. Nabokov’s compulsive need to disrupt the natural flow of the novel became less of an artistic quirk than a need to show the world just how shockingly ‘cray cray’ he can be.

I’ll admit his artistic abilities are often lost on my simple, business-educated mind, but when even I notice a sentence has gone on for over half a page for no other reason than to ‘be’ long – then you’ve probably gone too far.

“And what agony, thought Krug the thinker, to love so madly a little creature, formed in some mysterious fashion (even more mysterious to us than it had been to the very first thinkers in their pale olive gloves) by the fusion of two mysteries, or rather two sets of a trillion of mysteries each; formed by a fusion which is, at the same time, a matter of choice and a matter of chance and a matter of pure enchantment; thus formed and then permitted to accumulate trillions of its own mysteries; the whole suffused with consciousness, which is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.”

There is, however, no denying quite how good an author he is. Nabokov’s ability to go from long, baffling and tangled sentences to a passage that will stop you short just because he wants to keep you on your toes is a testament, however annoying, to his skill.

My initial attraction to this novel was the plot of a totalitarian regime. After 1984, I simply haven’t found something that compares and thought Nabokov was up for the job. Nabokov, however, dismisses and scorns any connection to Orwell’s work and goes as far as calling it “mediocre”?!

giphyHis distaste for one of my favourite authors made me, to say the least, slightly angry. This, in hindsight, probably didn’t put us off to a good start. The more I read, however, the more I had to agree with the man. Not on his opinions of quality, but on the futility of comparing the two books.

1984 highlights the evil and grotesque nature of a totalitarian government. In Orwell’s world totalitarianism is the terrifying nightmare that comes to life. Nabokov’s take on totalitarianism is that it’s terminally stupid. Here, the regime is led by the men who were once the weird kids at school that were picked on, instead of the chilling bullies we normally connect to such governments.

In this parody of a bureaucracy, Bend Sister focuses on the nonsensical ideologies that take precedence over reasonable thought. The ridiculous dialogue between the state officials point to the futility of reasoning with the regime – how can you change a system that is barely capable of coherent thought?

By the end of the novel, I wasn’t sure which was worse – a state that is horrific but logical in its cruelty? Or one that is so ridiculous you can’t help but underestimate the brutality it can accomplish?

Overall, once you get over Nabokov’s introduction, and force yourself through some of his longer sentences – this is a brilliant piece of work. I think I may have underestimated the man, again. Not to worry though, I’ve just bought An Invitation to a Beheading to work my way through and I have a good feeling about this one.

Famous last words.

“This moment of conscious contact holds a drop of solace. The emergency brake of time. Whatever the present moment is, I have stopped it. Too late. In the course of our, let me see, twelve, twelve and three months, years of life together, i ought to have immobolized by this simple method millions of moments; paying perhaps terrific fines, but stopping the train. Say why did you do it? the popeyed conductor might ask. Because I liked the view. Because I wanted to stop those speeding trees and the path twisting between them. By stepping on its receding tail. What happened to her would perhaps not had happened, had I ben in the habit of stopping this or that bit of our common life, prophylactically, prophetically, letting this or that moment rest and breathe in peace. Taming time…”

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