Friday’s Forgotten Books: Bend Sinister

It’s a bit cheeky suggesting that a Nabokov book could be “forgotten” but I think I can make a case here. After all, Amazon lists the most recent edition as the one from 1990. But first let me mention this fabulous design by Carol Carson for the Nabokov Specimen Box Project, a fantastic design project: check out the slides.

I chose this of course because of the overlap with another obsession, The Fall, who have an album also called Bend Sinister. I haven’t seen much to suggest any lyrical overlap with the novel, but since MES reads both Gogol and Dostoevsky, it’s not much of a stretch to think he’d find Nabokov appealing — though it may just be the heraldry term.

I was actually reading Pale Fire when I decided to switch to Bend Sinister, mostly because I decided I would probably have to buy my own copy of Pale Fire because I was making too many notes and it would be easier to just put them in the book and that wouldn’t be good to do with the library’s copy.

I learn all my new words from Nabokov.

I had already written down tons of new words from Pale Fire, but I found myself writing quotes from Bend Sinister instead. I alluded in my Hamlet review to Ember’s theory about the play: fascinating and fun. The playfulness is what makes Nabokov’s work attractive. Krug’s observation of Ember’s engravings sets the scene visually but also working toward the revelations. The legend on one: “Ink, a Drug.” Followed by pencil marks which “numbered the letters so as to spell Grudinka which means ‘bacon’ in several Slavic languages.” Ham-let, as he points out.

Mmmm, bacon.

Bend Sinister focuses on the dislocation of grief; initially it’s Krug’s grief for his wife, observed by the self-conscious “I” of the author who soon disappears, though reappearing in time for the end. Nabokov uses structure and authorial voice to explore the limits of empathy: “The square root of I is I” (7). All writers know the observer within us: “In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes.”

I have a nub of an idea comparing Ekwilism (the philosophical movement of the new fascist regime in the book) and Vonnegut’s world in “Harrison Bergeron” — but that’s too ambitious for here. You can read a summary anywhere. I’m going to give you some bon mots:

“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form” (46).

“Devices which in some curious new way imitate nature are attractive to simple minds” (69) — a key to phenomenal wealth if you know how to employ it, I suspect.

“We live in a stocking which is in the process of being turned inside out, without our ever knowing for sure to what phase of the process our moment of consciousness corresponds” (193).

“To each, or about each, of his colleagues he had said at one time or other, something… something impossible to recall in this or that case and difficult to define in general terms — some careless bright and harsh trifle that had grazed a stretch of raw flesh” (48).

“I esteem my colleagues as I do my own self, I esteem them for two things: because they are able to find perfect felicity in specialized knowledge and because they are not apt to commit physical murder” (58).


See the round up of Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog.