Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dear Vlad: A Review of Nabokov's Bend Sinister

Dear Vladimir,

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." (Lolita, p. 9)

With these words you drew me into a story of passion, obsession, and perversity. You had me at the first sentence. I was yours for the entirety of the book (even the bits towards the end that kind of dragged). You played with language, used it in such new and beautiful ways. It was a joy, an honor, to read such an intelligent and disturbing novel. I looked forward to reading more of your books, hoping to find them all so readable and engaging.

Alas, it was not to be. When I discovered that you had written a dystopian novel, Bend Sinister, I was beyond excited to read it. What glorious prose would I discover between the aged covers of my library's copy? What depravity would I be witness to now?

You let me down, Vladimir. The majority of this book is unreadable drivel. I'm not talking about the use of Russian words and phrases--those are translated. I'm not even talking about the frequent jumps you make from first person to third person (even to second person), although they were annoying. I'm talking about the fact that this book, though it gets better towards the end, is mostly a soup of incomprehensible nonsense that I cannot connect to the main thread of the story.

To be fair to you, in your introduction to the edition that I borrowed, you discuss your silly plays on words that no one understands. You clearly state that this is not, as I was led to believe, really a dystopian novel. It is, instead, the story of a man, a personal story. I'm not quite sure how you arrived at this conclusion because I didn't see it as such. I saw it as being a string of undeveloped philosophical nonsense interrupted by the occasional hint of a plot with some wooden characters thrown in for good measure.

And I must ask you this, dear Vladimir, because the question has been plaguing me for days. Was it really necessary to devote an entire chapter to having Krug and Ember discuss Hamlet? That entire scene was not only unnecessary, it was also, to be quite frank, boring. I enjoy Shakespeare as much as the next lad, but not at the expense of actual character development and a well-told story.

As I said before, the book did pick up towards the end. It came to a definite conclusion, which I hesitate to call satisfying because of its disturbing nature. I feel that this book would have been better told had you not veered off down pointless avenues lined with inconsequential and hard-to-follow "imagery." It took me several days to read this slim volume and never did I find myself lost in its pages. I was always firmly grounded within reality, forcing myself to continue on the mostly arduous journey towards the end of this novel. If you had simply told the beginning of the story like you told the end of the story, I would have enjoyed it much more.

There are, of course, people who will disagree with me. "Gabriel," they will say, "you're mad! This book is a work of genius!" I will not argue with them. Your words are beautiful, your sentences are uniquely formed. There is much of this novel that makes it worth reading. I wouldn't call it genius--nor would I utter its name in the same sentences as the brilliant Lolita--but I will call call it "interesting." Perhaps even "intriguing." But mostly because I was intrigued as to where the hell all of this was going and whether or not I should just give it up as a lost cause or press onward.

As a dystopia, this novel was not nearly as terrifying as some of the others I have read. The end was definitely spine-tingling and nauseating, but as you had not really set out to create a deeply realistic world, there was little to make me feel for these characters or their struggles in a world gone mad.

The overarching governmental theme of "community" at the expense of the individual was well-executed. I found myself making parallels to other novels, such as Brave New World, which touch on the same ideas found within these pages. This aspect of the totalitarian government was chilling: letting your person dissolve in the virile oneness of the State; then, and only then, will the goal be reached. Your groping individualities will become interchangeable and, instead of crouching in the prison cell of an illegal ego, the naked soul will be in contact with that of every other man in this land; nay, more: each of you will be able to make his abode in the elastic inner self of any other citizen, and to flutter from one to another, until you know not whether you are Peter or John, so closely locked will you be in the embrace of the State... (p. 86)
Yet, so often during this book I found myself forgetting that this was a dystopia, mostly because the main character has no real convictions, making him a shade of a character. He lets himself be (mostly) carried along by events, never letting himself take in the severity of his situation until it's too late. I like my main characters to be active, not passive, and Adam Krug was far too passive for my liking.

There were several funny moments, such as when one of the characters drops his accent halfway through a speech--"when the author gets bored by the process--or forgets"--and then manages to pick it up again at the end--"when the author remembers again" (p. 33). But these instances, and any other real enjoyment that could have been gained from reading this book, were marred by how much I disliked it.

I'm sure that there were delicate intricacies that I missed, nuances that I didn't pick up on. And frankly, I couldn't care less. I was highly disappointed by this book and I'm not going to try to dress it up to be something that it's not. I adore the way you write, Vladimir. I enjoy the way you use the English language, a language you learned rather than into which you were born. I have said to many people before that as a writer you have a better command of English than most native speakers. This does not excuse you from writing poor quality literature. No matter how fancy you make your sentences, if they hold no substance they will get no admiration from me.

You are, unfortunately, no longer with us and will never read this "letter". This is not written with you in mind, but with those people who may be lured into reading this novel by the lush beauty of your other works. I wish only to warn them of what they are getting themselves into if they attempt to tackle Bend Sinister.

A novel of such brevity should not take the better part of a week to read; yet its muddled nature made it difficult to get through. I am giving it a three out of five stars. It would probably have been lower if not for the latter part of the book.

Yours, unapologetically,


I apologize to those of you reading this for its length. I just had so much to say. If you're looking for the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) version, here it is:

This book was pretty much awful. 3/5 stars. Read at your own risk.

If you've read it before and liked it, I would appreciate hearing from you. The comment section is always open to those who wish to disagree with me, vehemently or otherwise. :)



  1. I have read the review you have given from beginning to end. I have never read this book either. Nor do I wish to. Overall, I'm simply commenting to tell you that Shakespeare is over rated and his plays are better watched than ever read. (Unless you're the one putting on the play, of course:) Also I don't think I've ever read a book that's jumped from first person to third person to second person. Not without warning or being set up for the change. I can see how that might feel like an unnatural read, if you get my meaning.

  2. I definitely think that watching Shakespeare is superior to reading Shakespeare. I also think that reading Shakespeare is superior to reading a chapter in a novel that talks about Shakespeare. Although, so is a root canal, to be honest.

    The POV in the story was *really* strange. It was one of the reasons why I didn't like the book. One of many.

    Glad to hear that you read the whole thing. I have a feeling that most people won't and I don't blame them. But I got all of that off of my chest and I feel so much better because of it. :)

  3. Don't ever apologise for a review ... especially when it's well thought out like this one.

    And yes, I read it, not just skimmed it. :-)

  4. Thanks, Goddess. That's so nice of you.

    It's funny because just the other day I posted a link to an article about people not reading "the whole" anymore and I was thinking to myself as I read that article that the author was crazy and that lots of people still read the entirety of something.

    And then here I am a few days later putting a TL;DR at the end of a post in case some of my readers *don't* want to read the entire thing. I must be just as inured to our dumbed-down culture as anyone else.

    Glad to hear you liked (and read) the review. :)

  5. Soooo... this is not a book that I will be acting out in my kitchen and doing some serious blocking?

    (Emily, because how many of your friends would acct out that monologue you quoted from Lolita?)

  6. Emily: Definitely not. And why wasn't I invited to watch you act out Lolita? I'm kind of offended now. :)

  7. Dude!!! you did not understand Bend Sinister at ALL. You are wondering why the whole rant on Hamlet...did you not make the connection between Hamlet and Bend that then would answer near all your annoyed questions?? You are missing the massive multi-layers of the story - the story within the story. Think Fellini film within a film. Or for a easy explanation read "Adam Krug's Parrot" online. Perhaps then go back and read the novel again (though I think that's unlikely) and you may be amazed. Becuz, believe me, once you get it, it is a freaking amazing read....unlike anything I've read. But it's not the plot that's special but the dimensions Nabokov creates that has profs lecturing about still to this day.