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NABOKOV'S BEND SINISTER: THE NARRATOR AS GOD Richard F. Patteson* In Bend Sinister (1947), more than in any of Vladimir Nabokov's earlier novels, the role of the "omniscient" narrator assumes a central thematic significance. In Mary (1926), the narrator is merely the conventional storyteller, a Russian exile speaking to his fellow émigrés. Somewhat later, in King, Queen, Knave (1928) and Laughter in the Dark (1938), he begins to acquire a more vivid personality. He becomes the self-conscious artificer of his created world and, as such, he calls attention to that world's artificiality. With Invitation to a Beheading (1938) this type of narrator reaches the penultimate stage in his development. The dramatic thrust of that novel involves the protagonist's struggle to achieve his creator's level of consciousness. The narrator of Bend Sinister emerges still further from the shadows. His peculiar position, with one foot in his story and one foot out, raises interesting questions not only about his own ontological status but about the nature of reality as a whole. He is explicitly presented as the fabricator of the novel's world, yet he is himself a character in the novel. For this reason the book's "theology" must be approached warily. It is not sufficient to state that the primary theme of Bend Sinister is "the exploration of deceptive reality, of life as a theatrical performance, and of man, strutting his hour upon the stage, as a being controlled by a supreme, game-playing deity."1 The danger of this way into the novel lies in the incorrect assumption that the world of the novel is simply analogous to the actual world, when in fact the relationship is subtler than that. There is indeed a religious (or at least a metaphysical) aspect of Bend Sinister, but it is not quite so orthodox as some critics might wish. Bend Sinister is concerned with two broad themes (perceptual and political) which, as might be expected in a Nabokov novel, closely interlace. If human beings define themselves and their world by their perceptions, the importance of intellectualvitality cannot be overstated. But the life of the mind does not flourish in apolice state. Like Invitation "Richard F. Patteson is an Assistant Professor of English at Mississippi State University. He has published several scholarly essays including articles in the North American Review, Critique, and Language and Style. 242Richard Patteson to a Beheading, Bend Sinister deals with the effort of an intelligent and sensitive man to survive the snares of a repressive regime.2 And also like the earlier work, it includes the protagonist's coming to terms with himself as a fictional character. The relationship between character and narrator is much more complex in Bend Sinister, however, because of the narrator's literal presence in the novel as both "author" and character. On one level, the narrator is a god whose intervention can save his creature, Adam Krug, from suffering and death. But on anotherlevel, the narrator is a character whose own existence is circumscribed by the covers of the whole novel. The implications of this scheme are rather farreaching . Adam is a philosopher. His task is, as the young poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev puts it in The Gift, to "keep straining for the faraway," to "search beyond the barricades."3 But he lives in a state the purpose of which is to erect barricades, to inhibit intellectual exploration . Adam's philosophy, furthermore, bears directly on such matters as time, death, and the nature of knowledge. From Adam's point of view, the narrator's omniscience might seem to hold the solution to many of these questions, but the reader knows that such omniscience is restricted to a particular fictional world. For this reason alone, the novel's treatment of its main subject, the potentialities of human consciousness, is qualified by a keen awareness of the mind's limitations. For Nabokov, all dictatorships are fundamentally alike. The one in Bend Sinister combines the worst features of fascism and communism. In his introduction to the novel, Nabokov equates "Fascists and Bolshevists" with "Philistine thinkers and jackbooted baboons."4 The modern police state, Nabokov seems to suggest, is the apotheosis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 241-253
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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