IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel “Bend Sinister” (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following:
I am not “sincere,” I am not “provocative,” I am not “satirical.” I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent.
Nabokov was no stranger to the political atrocities of the 20th century. In 1919, he and his immediate family fled revolutionary Russia on the last ship out of Sevastopol, a vessel aptly named “Nadezhda” (“Hope”). In 1937 he escaped Hitler’s Germany by fleeing to France, and in 1940, just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis, he boarded a French ocean liner’s last voyage to New York with his Jewish wife and son. So, was his insistence that his art was independent of politics and society fact or fiction? In “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,” Andrea Pitzer suggests that such pronouncements were merely part of Nabokov’s public façade — “the genteel, charming cosmopolitan, incapable of being dented or diminished by history.” The Nabokov that Pitzer presents to us “is more vulnerable to the past than he publically led the world to believe,” recording events “that have fallen so completely out of public memory that they went unnoticed.” Pitzer is particularly interested in tracing how Nabokov planted references to concentration camps in his art. To prove her point, she chronicles historical events as they unfolded in the course of Nabokov’s life and shows how Nabokov’s works “refract” these events. While the result is an admirable work of archival research, Nabokov’s art, unfortunately, comes out as a mere apparatus for capturing history — a heroic service no doubt but one that raises the question: if all you wanted to do was record events, why go through the trouble of writing fiction? Pitzer suggests that, by burying “his past in his art” and waiting “for readers to exhume it,” Nabokov had devised a new and different method for documenting inhumanity and the history of violence.
If Pitzer is correct, why was Nabokov so cryptic? Pitzer cites Nabokov’s famous assertion that art is difficult and should challenge the reader. But if Nabokov intentionally hid historical information in his fiction as a kind of challenge to his readers, then he was either a sadist for telling them not to look for such content or he was really into reverse psychology. In the introduction to “Bend Sinister,” Nabokov dissuades readers from viewing his book as political dystopian fiction: “The story in “Bend Sinister” is not really about life and death in a grotesque police state,” he writes. Yet Pitzer uses quotes from his foreword to argue that the author “directly links” the world of “Bend Sinister” with the totalitarian states in which he lived, those he calls “worlds of tyranny and torture, of Fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons.” When put back into context, however, Nabokov’s exact words are: “There can be distinguished, no doubt, certain reflections in the glass directly caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life: worlds of tyranny and torture.” According to Nabokov, to read too much into these reflections is to allow these idiotic and despicable regimes to control the realm of art, the only haven that can declare true independence.
Vladimir Nabokov had a specific term for the kind of reader who obsessively searches for political and social clues in fiction: “the solemn reader.” This “solemn reader” falls into the trap of reading his novel “Bend Sinister,” widely recognized as his most political work, for “human interest.” Lecturing about Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” Nabokov would remark that the “solemn reader” takes for granted that Gogol’s prime intention was to “denounce the horrors of Russian bureaucracy.” Such reading is not necessarily wrong. It’s just that, according to Nabokov, his and Gogol’s art deals with “something much more than that.” Vera Nabokov once mentioned that “every book by VN is a blow against tyranny, every form of tyranny.” When Nabokov reminds us in “Lectures on Literature” that “the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world … having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know,” he is not advocating that writers employ their stylistic gifts for the sake of showing off. For Nabokov, there exists no greater blow against tyranny than art that refuses to be a vehicle in the service of society.