Friday, January 14, 2011

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.


C. Margery Kempe said...

Ain't he, though? I am always impressed by his mind and I look forward to the love letters coming out soon.

Todd Mason said...

And it's quite amusing, if in an easy way, that PALE FIRE, that novel of notes, is moving you to copious notation as well. As with John Simon, not to be too obvious about it (oh, and I suppose that "Conrad" guy, too--and my old hero Algis, actually Algirdas, Budrys), those who come to English out of love, not necessarily but in these cases from Slavic languages, so often show us what what joy we are too often willing to gloss over with the native tongue.

Contrast also the inherent politics of Theodore Sturgeon's "The Skills of Xanadu"...

C. Margery Kempe said...

I used to try to keep all my books as pristine as possible. Now books I love are filled with notes and comments and rejoinders -- one of the more important habits I picked up from grad school.

Pale Fire certainly invites that kind of interaction. I love how his hatred of Freud and desire to prove him wrong (i.e. Freud said it was impossible for a paranoid homosexual male to exist) has resulted in a classic (albeit 'experimental') novel.

I remember it popping up on a list of novels that could never be adapted to film, so I make as my potential joke if needed sometime, when asked what I am up to, that I will say, "Adapting Pale Fire for film." Like Dylan Thomas' young boy "smoking" his candy cigarette and waiting to be caught, I suspect this will never occur. Although I've just realised the character I can give that to... hmmm.

And isn't the internet as good as provided "The Skills of Xanadu" in a crowd-sourcing sort of way?

George said...

PALE FIRE is my favorite Nabokov book. Yet, most college English Departments don't have Nabokov on their reading lists. Hopefully, all of Nabokov will be available in ebook formats.

C. Margery Kempe said...

What departments have reading lists? Disputes about the canon are far too wide-ranging to have many who can agree on one list. I suspect Harold Bloom has a list, but few of my colleagues would agree with it (I certainly wouldn't).

There are many yet who teach Nabokov.

I'd welcome an interactive ebook edition of Pale Fire; it would be just the thing and suit it perfectly.

Anonymous said...

If you like VB then you should explore his equivalent in Spanish:Fernando Vallejo, particularly La Virgen de Los Sicarios which is translated into English. VB published his teaching lectures, but note that he was highly opinionated about 'canonical writers', especially women writers.

As for 'forgotten books': Dorothy B. Hughes's In A Lonely Place is worth a read and reissued with two essays. The movies version does not honor the book. City University Press has a series of 'neglected' women writers. Explore


C. Margery Kempe said...

Yes, very highly opinionated -- about what novelists should and should not do, too. Insisting he knew exactly what he was doing in every novel and there was no "message" or whatnot. LOL, you can intend all you want, but the subconscious is very slippery.

Thanks for the recommendations -- I am very familiar with Feminist Press. They brought out Despentes' King Kong Theory which I have reviewed elsewhere.