Likely Stories: Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

Mar 30, 2017

  Novel by Vladimir Nabokov presents a quandary for this reviewer

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

One thing I find hardest to do is blast a novel by a well-known, and widely-admired great writer.  So I struggle to write this review of Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov.  I read this novel long before I started keeping track of my reading more than 10 years ago.  Perhaps I notice the things which bother me more now that I have experience writing these reviews.  Reading with a possible public review in mind certainly has affected me.

Nabokov is well-known for his meticulous pursuit of the correct word in a sentence.  I have heard tell he sometimes spent hours trying to find a precise word to fill a blank in a sentence, of a chapter, of a novel.  I admit to sometimes searching for a particular word, but I never spent more than a dozen minutes before I turned to a dictionary and a thesaurus. 

When I began re-reading Bend Sinister, I was immediately struck by his diction.  In the first chapter, he wrote, “An oblong puddle in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see nether sky.  Surrounded.  I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun leaves have stuck.  Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size” (1).  Can readers spot the two “made-up words”?  Can you spot words that seem just a bit pretentious?  Not to forget to mention some rather strange syntax?

Now, I pride myself on a higher than usual vocabulary, but on the other hand I have long fought the fight against obfuscation in my diction.  I suspect the latter was a reaction to the legalese I suffered through for about 15 years.  I might also blame my admiration for Hemingway, that is, his diction not his misogyny.  I even find this paragraph a bit pretentious.  What is a reader/writer to do?  Well, I have decided.  I am going to tell the world I believe the emperor has no clothes or, rather, the emperor has too many dictionary pages stuck to his crown. 

Here is part of another paragraph my reading notes labeled as poetic.  Nabokov wrote, “November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold—because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air.  Their immobility is in contrast with the spasmodic ruffling of the inset reflection—for the visible emotion of a tree is the mass of its leaves, and there remain hardly more than thirty-seven or so here and there on one side of the tree.  They just flicker a little, of a neutral tint, but burnished by the sun to the same ikontinct” (2).  “Ikontinct” is not in my OED or my Random House Dictionary of well-over twenty-four hundred pages.  It is amazing how a few words can spoil poetic phrasing.  So, with a measure of pretension of my own, I will revert to that old Latin phrase: Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus.  Look it up if you wish.  2 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!