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Bend Sinister

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Bend Sinister is a story about the rise of the party of the average man and the struggle of the country's foremost philosopher, professor Adam Krug, against the totalitarian regime that comes to power and its leader Paduk.

Though one of the most dreadful stories imaginable, Bend Sinister is told masterfully, complete with brilliant descriptions that give the reader everything needed to engage the imagination and make a far-off, vaguely Eastern European country come to life. Always helped to understand Krug's frame of reference, the reader is given description after description of small, everyday things that might remind the protagonist of the kidney that failed in his wife and led to her death at the beginning of the novel.

Like the horrific story Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist ultimately succumbs to the totalitarian regime. For my tastes, perhaps typical of the American optimist view, I prefer to see the protagonist ultimately succeed in the face of tyranny. (Ayn Rand, who like Nabokov, fled Soviet Russia and landed in the United States, which was designed specifically to prevent the rise of a tyrant, wrote many stories of the individual vs. totalitarianism.) That said, Nabokov chooses not to show the success of the individual but the failure of a dictator his regime to get the one thing that it prizes not because of the individual's strength but because of the regime's own ineptitude.

The novel is both brilliant and deeply disturbing. In its conclusion, the reader finds the author finishing the novel, in a wonderful (and welcome) device that helps the reader to make an easier transition from the intensity and emotion of the story that concludes with the insanity of the protagonist back to the reader's own real world, where one would hope that such dreadful stories are only found in works of fiction.

Bend Sinister is widely regarded as the most political of Nabokov's work but I think it correct to consider the book not a political novel but a philosophical one. Perhaps by the time one moves to the realm of public policy there can be no real difference between philosophy and politics but Bend Sinister shows a world view clearly -- where a totalitarian regime, no matter how well-intended, no matter how noble its goals are assumed to be, can succeed. This world view, interestingly enough, is not only widely held in literature but also has some basis in history worthy of consideration. Benjamin Franklin, in "the Pit" in London is an example that readily springs to mind. Up until being charged with every bit of nonsense that could be conjured by his enemies in England, the famous and highly-influential "Doctor" Franklin was one of the Crown's best defenders and loyal subjects in the American colonies. If we may safely believe the account offered by our own historians such as H.W. Brands, it is this idiotic and petty act that sets Franklin against Parliament and aligned with the separatists who would become the Founding Fathers of the most prosperous and powerful nation that the world would ever know. [1]

For nearly as long as humans have had recorded history, we have had accounts of the struggles of the individuals against champions of mediocrity and those prejudiced by their own ignorance or stupidity. But the twentieth century, witness to more tyrannical attempts (and, worse, credible attempts) at world domination, seems to have produced more literature and discussion on the topic. Albert Einstein, probably the most famous scientist of the century, offered his own commentary on the matter: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

From my personal experience, I can attest to the intense pressure placed upon those who dare to use their intellect even by well-meaning actors whose real crime is a repudiation of thought borne of a perverse notion of peace, as if refusal to acknowledge conflict is the same as "freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions." [2] In this twisted world, rather than providing the lowly the reason and means to improve themselves, the high-minded are cut down. Worse is that the cutters, these real-life Members of the Party of the Average Man will not understand the implications of what they're hoping to achieve, fail to discern how to achieve it, and spend a great deal of their limited time and energy working against those they need most to accomplish anything.

(Perhaps there is irrational fear of accomplishment, such that they will find themselves unneeded if successful. Like a road construction crew that knows it will be laid off when the job is done, such persons are not motivated to make progress but merely to look busy. This is probably a subject worth considering another time.)

The tragedy of Bend Sinister is that those who most need to learn its lesson and heed its implicit warning are the least likely to be bothered by "idle pursuits" like reading and the consideration of literature, no matter how artfully presented.


[1] H.W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, Doubleday, 2000

[2] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-12-30 08:47 AM
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