By Vladimir Nabokov
Henry Holt and Company; $2.75.
The story of the free man under the totalitarian state is still the classic tragedy of our age, and in Bend Sinister it is given striking and original treatment, at once impressive, powerful and oddly exasperating. This second novel in English by Vladimir Nabokov, an American citizen of Russian birth, a sardonic tale of an intellectual who scorned his nation's tyrant, has an eerie, nightmare quality and savage humor. They combine to make it considerably more than the warmed over Arthur Koestler it occasionally seems on the verge of becoming. Bend Sinister is written with a fluency which usually belies its author's comparative unfamiliarity with the language, but its chief fault is that an apparent fascination with his own linguistic achievement sometimes causes Nabokov to go in for verbal fanciness.
As a dramatic fantasy of totalitarianism, Bend Sinister is both simple and elaborate. It is simple in its tragic story, which is merely that of a world-famous philosopher--and it is one of the novel's successes that Nabokov has drawn, in Professor Krug, an intellectual hero whose status as an intellectual is completely credible--who is firmly convinced that his combination of international fame and moral courage will protect him against the outrages of the police state. It is elaborate both in much of its style and in the manner in which Nabokov has constructed an abstract, totalitarian land which is both Russian and German in its language but decidedly more National Socialist than Communist in its history, theory and practice. I cannot, by the way, resist quoting just one sentence to show the author's prose at its worst, after warning you that he is not often guilty of such things:
“They separated and he caught a glimpse of her pale, dark-eyed, not very pretty face with its glistening lips as she slipped under his door-holding arm and after one backward glance from the first landing ran upstairs trailing her wrap with all its constellations--Cepheus and Cassiopeia in their eternal bliss, and the dazzling tear of Capella, and Polaris the snowflake on the grizzly fur of the Cub, and the swooning galaxies--those mirrors of infinite space qui m'efjrayent, Btaise, as they did you, and where Olga is not, but where mythology stretches strong circus nets, lest thought, in its ill fitting tights, should break its old neck instead of rebouncing with a hep and a hop--hopping down again into this urine-soaked dust to take that short run with the half pirouette in the middle and display the extreme simplicity of heaven in the acrobat's amphiphorical gesture, the candidly open hands that start a brief shower of applause while he walks backwards and then, reverting to virile manners, catches the little blue handkerchief, which his muscular flying mate, after her own exertions, takes from Her heaving hot bosom—leaving more than her smile suggests—and tosses to him, so that he may wipe the palms of his aching weakening hands.”
Nabokov’s police state is considerably less complex than that. Its leader is one Paduk, who was known as "The Toad" in his school days, when he was the butt of his classmates. Even in those days, when one of his worst tormenters was the young Krug--although Paduk seemed to get a masochistic joy from Krug's badgering--he was surrounded by a group of the school's physical and mental misfits. The Toad, it seems, became the disciple of an eccentric old theorist named Skotoma, who, 85, senile and forgotten, preached the doctrine that there was "a certain computable amount of human consciousness distributed throughout the population of the world," and that in the inequality of its distribution lay the evils of the world. Paduk took possession of this theory, called "Ekwilism," and made it the basis of a national movement which proclaimed that social and economic equality were nothing without an equality of consciousness. That was to be achieved by enforcing spiritual and mental uniformity upon his native land "through the medium of the most standardized section of the inhabitants, namely, the Army, under the supervision of a bloated and dangerously divine state."
Ekwilism was probably the only triumphant fascist movement that comic strip as one of its chief inspirations. This was a daily cartoon dealing with the adventures of a Mr. and Mrs. Etermon, a name which the language of Paduk's country meant Everyman. "With conventional human and sympathy bordering upon the obscene," says Nabokov, "Mr Etermon and the little woman were follow from parlor to kitchen and from the garden to garret through all the mentionable stages of their daily existence which, despite the presence of comfortable armchairs and all sorts of electric thingumbobs and one thing-in-itself (a car did not differ essentially from the life of a Neanderthal couple. "Not only did Etermon come to be regarded as man representing the proper sort of existence for a loyal member of Paduk's Ekwilism Party, but the Leader himself decided to dress, wear his hair and adopt a "sort of cartoon angularity" in the fashion of the comic strip. This strip grew much further in conservatism than even the American comic serial, "Little Orphan Annie."
It appears that Ekwilism had its drama as well as its comic strip. One of the most interesting parts of the novel describes how the Paduk government decided to put on a production of "Hamlet" based on the idea that the real hero of the play, whatever Shakespeare may have thought, was not Hamlet at all, but Fortinbras, "a blooming young knight, beautiful and sound to the core." In the immortal words of Professor Hamm, Ekwilist author of The Real Plot of Hamlet, Fortinbras’ status as a hero is thus made irrefutable: "With God's sanction, this fine Nordic youth assumes control of miserable Dennuik which had been so criminally misruled by degenerate King Hamlet and Judeo-Latin Claudius." In this production the famous Elsinore ghost is not the phantom of Hamlet's father but of Fortinbras' father, and the idea of one ghost going about pretending to be another is a fine piece of Ekwilist strategy, since the ghostly imposter was spreading untrue rumors to soften the Danish morale. Professor Hamm felt this was a particularly skillful bit of farseeing politics that was bound to excite the spectator's admiration and to restrict his thoughts to acceptable channels.
Among the achievements of the Ekwilist "Hamlet" was the splendid way in which it rescued another unappreciated Shakespearean hero from decadent democratic slander. Osric, the courtier who arranged the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, has always been maligned by actors who failed to appreciate his proper importance and libelously played him as if he were an effeminate clown. It just goes to show how little we know about our greatest playwright. After Professor Hamm has explained everything, it is clear that Osric was really Fortinbras' most brilliant spy, bent on creating trouble between two of his Leader's most dangerous foes. Indeed, it appears that the followers of the great Paduk did nobly by the classical drama, but Nabokov neglects to tell us hew the dramatic critics of the Ekwilist state greeted the production. It is to be hoped that their party discipline made them kinder to it than the Moscow critics were to the fascinating production of "Hamlet" put on at the Vakhtanghov Theatre in 1932, in which the Prince was a sly young fellow plotting to be king and Ophelia an ambitious girl who unfortunately was drowned while singing drunkenly about rosemary and rue.
Nabakov is at his best in his bitterly humorous thrusts at the narrowness and stupidity of totalitarian thought and action and in his flights of satirical scorn. His scenes of horror, with their eerily distorted lights and shadows, can also be powerful, and his account of the slow, inexorable pressure exerted on Krug captures the terror of the police state in a manner not easy to forget. Then, after his friends have been dragged off to prison as warnings, when the philosopher's son has been taken from him, tortured and then killed by mistake just as Krug offers to give in, an atmosphere of pity and terror is created with shocking forcefulness. It is because Nabokov can achieve some of the ominous and comic effects he manages in Bend Sinister that his puckish weakness for affectation seems so outrageous.