Written in Cambridge in 1944 (“at a particularly cloudless and vigorous period of life,” Nabokov said later), the novel was published by Henry Holt two years later upon the recommendation of Allen Tate. It is a truth rarely acknowledged that Nabokov’s career as an American novelist was midwifed by New Critics. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first English-language novel, was recommended to New Directions by Delmore Schwartz.
Bend Sinister tells the story of philosopher Adam Krug’s resistance to the demands of a tyrannical state. Krug is world-famous; his book “the Komparatiwn Stuhdar en Sophistat tuen Pekrekh or, as the title of the American edition had it, a little more snappily, The Philosophy of Sin,” was a surprising bestseller for two years. What is perhaps of greater interest to the State, Krug was a schoolmate of Paduk, the new dictator. One of the few successful portraits of a deeply intelligent man in American fiction, Krug is something of a cross between Wittgenstein, who attended school with Adolf Hitler for two years in Linz, and Heidegger, who collaborated with Hitler in establishing a National Socialist state. Krug too is a philosopher of being and time, but a stubborn non-collaborator.
Because of his personal history with the dictator and the respect he commands in his own country and around the world, Krug is highly sought after by the State. He would serve as a powerful endorsement of Ekwilism, the ruling ideology, if only he would lend his name to the State’s designs.
The night of his wife’s death Krug is whisked away to a government house along with other prominent members of the University faculty. The University’s president, striking the familiar chords of university presidents everywhere, urges them to sign a loyalty oath. “Whatever political opinions we hold,” he says—“and during my long life I have shared most of them—it cannot be denied that a government is a government and as such cannot be expected to suffer a tactless demonstration of unprovoked dissension or indifference.” Which is how, of course, a refusal to sign the loyalty oath will be received.
The faculty dutifully signs, but Krug will not. “Legal documents excepted,” he says, “and not all of them at that, I never have signed, nor ever shall sign, anything not written by myself.” This is the heart of the case for freedom of speech: the irreplaceable good, the fugitive urgency, of individual expression. The University president appeals to Krug’s fond memories of school days with the dictator. “You are the victim of a sentimental delusion,” the philosopher answers. Krug remembers the dictator as the Toad. That’s what all the boys called him at school. “What I and the Toad hoard en fait souvenirs d’enfance [in terms of childhood memories] is the habit I had of sitting upon his face.”
The funniest parts of the book are the first chapters, in which Krug resists the petty tyranny (and stupidity) of Ekwilist soldiers by means of a voluble individualism. One band of soldiers permits him to cross a bridge, but the soldiers on the other side force him back across to obtain a signature on his pass. When he returns, the first band fails to recognize him:
“No,” said Krug. “Do try to understand. C’est simple comme boujour, as Pietro would say. They sent me back because they had no evidence that you let me pass. From a formal point of view I am not on the bridge at all.”
“He may have climbed up from a barge,” said a dubious voice.
“No, no,” said Krug. “I not bargee-bargee. You still do not understand. I am going to put it as simply as possible. They of the solar side saw heliocentrically what you tellurians saw geocentrically, and unless these two aspects are somehow combined, I, the visualized object, must keep shuttling in the universal night.”
“There is none,” cried Krug and hit his side of the table with his fist.
“I beseech you to be careful. The walls are full of camouflaged holes, each one with a rifle which is trained upon you. Please, do not gesticulate. They are jumpy today. It’s the weather. This gray menstratum.”
“If,” said Krug, “you cannot leave me and my friends in peace, then let them and me go abroad. It would save you a world of trouble.”
“What is it exactly you have against my government?”
“I am not in the least interested in your government. What I resent is your attempt to make me interested in it. Leave me alone.”
“ ‘Alone’ is the vilest word in the lnaguage. Nobody is alone. When a cell in an organism says ‘leave me alone,’ the result is cancer.”
Thus the State, “bloated and dangerously divine,” must get him to capitulate, or destroy him. Krug’s “handle” is found at last: his beloved eight-year-old son David (“The perfection of nonhuman creatures—birds, young dogs, moths asleep, colts—and these little mammals,” Krug reflects as he watches David sleep). The scenes between father and son are some of the most touching in English-language fiction, giving the lie to my claim that novels about fathers are almost unheard of when written from a father’s perspective. David is arrested, and Krug is prepared to do the State’s bidding: “I speak, sign, swear—anything the Government wants. But I will do all this, and more, only if my child is brought here, to this [prison] room, at once.”
By then, however, David has already died, having been tortured in a particularly grisly manner. A representative of the Ministry of Justice apologizes, and offers “the most scrumptious burial a white man’s child could dream up”; but even so, he continues, the tragedy has not changed “the relationship, the bond, the agreement” which Krug has entered into. “Individual lives are insecure,” he says; “but we guarantee the immortality of the State.” In response, Krug plunges into insanity. His freedom of thought is taken away at last—by taking away the person who matters most to him.
In an Introduction written twenty years later for a reprint edition, Nabokov sniffed that “automatic comparisons between Bend Sinister and Kafka’s creations or Orwell’s clichés would go merely to prove that the automaton could not have read either the great German writer or the mediocre English one.” I don’t share his disdain for Orwell, but in this instance Nabokov also happens to be incorrect. A comparison between his novel and Nineteen Eighty-Four establishes that Nabokov understood something about totalitarianism that escaped Orwell.
Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art are the ultimate value, because they are the last refuge of resistance to the State. It has been argued, in fact, that actual totalitarianism is an impossibility, because man always retains his freedom of thought, even in prison. Both Nabokov and Orwell set out to refute this liberal commonplace. Where Orwell imagines that the State will destroy freedom of thought through terror—Winston Smith has a cage of rats strapped to his face, and breaks—Nabokov understood that the State has a far more sinister weapon. Human freedom is destroyed through the destruction of human warmth.