Wednesday, April 2, 2014

B is for Bend Sinister #atozchallenge #Nabokov

The theme for the month is my novel, six years in utero, which just made the second round of the ABNA competition.

There are a whole lot of talented, dead writers who inspired me to keep going with this tale of mine, JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. (Toni Morrison was the only famous living author in the bunch.)

Vladimir Nabokov was the dead role model to whom I always returned, the one I most often imagined coaching me, the one I tried hardest to please. This morning, as I was getting ready to write this, it occurred to me that I've read a greater percentage of Nabokov's body of work than any other novelist's.

I keep coming back to Nabokov because I want to be able to do what he did. This all started in 1977, when I stumbled across his bizarre, hilarious-yet-nightmarish dystopian fantasy BEND SINISTER, which my father had picked up in a used bookstore.

Most American readers with a Vladimir Nabokov fixation begin with LOLITA. As a result, they usually end up filtering everything the master did through the lens of poor Humbert Humbert's doomed fixation on young Dolores Haze. Not me. I began my Nabokov addiction with the elaborate persecutions dealt out to Adam Krug, the brilliant, recently widowed philosopher who must decide whether he will publicly support a tyrant.

The cover of this deep-strange volume was unlike anything else in my father's jumbled, delirious book collection. Its interior mingled a fierce, personal anti-Communism with an aesthetic that suggested Alice in Wonderland gone hideous under Stalin. It drew me in like a magnet.

I'd never read anything like it, I never will, and neither will you. This is Nabokov's underrated, overlooked, dark-magical child. And it is frankly political.

The short answer to the question "Why should I bother reading this?" is: "You deserve to experience a master prose stylist tilling the same half-acre as George Orwell's 1984." 

Comparisons between the two works are inevitable. This book will, for me, always be superior to Orwell's masterpiece, because upon finishing it I wanted to start BEND SINISTER again. Not only did I want to reread it, I wanted to write like that, to create a world like that, to build a book intricate and authentic and odd enough for people to want to return to it.

Nabokov's novel, a commercial failure, came out before Orwell's. It must have galled Nabokov to watch 1984 tear up the bestseller charts.

BEND SINISTER planted a seed that took thirty years to sprout. It left me wondering whether my own political opinions could inspire a book worth reading twice. It convinced me that 1984, as powerful and compelling and massively influential as it was, had nevertheless failed at some artistic and personal level.

I don't much care what the critics have to say about this book. It changed my life.