It’s hard to imagine Vladimir Nabokov as a commercial failure. Yet that was precisely what happened with his second English-language work, the nightmarish and satirical dystopian novel “Bend Sinister,” which celebrates its 65th anniversary today. Originally titled “The Person from Porlock,” then “Game to Gunm[etal]” and later “Solus Rex,” “Bend Sinister” was Nabokov’s first novel composed in the United States, and was published by Henry Holt and Company. But it received only lackluster promotional treatment after the departure of Allen Tate, the only staff member at Henry Holt who admired the book.
“Bend Sinister” follows Adam Krug, a world-famous philosopher living under a newly formed totalitarian regime in a vaguely Central European country. The recently widowed Krug ignores repeated demands to acquiescence from the nascent dictatorship and its leader, Paduk, a former classmate whom Krug used to bully and refer to belittlingly as “Toad.” As a means of persuading Krug to validate the regime, Paduk’s henchmen abduct his colleagues and friends and shut down the university. Krug finally submits when the government seizes his 8-year-old son, David. But when a bureaucratic error leads to David’s accidental death, Krug defies his captors and, in a brilliant finish, succumbs to his inevitable death after realizing that he is merely a figment of the author’s imagination.
It didn’t help the book’s success that it garnered mostly mediocre to outright negative reviews upon its release. The New Republic praised its fluent prose — which “belies its author’s comparative unfamiliarity with the language” — while disparaging Nabokov’s “apparent fascination with his own linguistic achievement.” Diana Trilling published a notoriously scathing write-up in The Nation two days after its release, arguing that “what looks like a highly charged sensibility in Mr. Nabokov’s style is only fanciness, forced imagery, and deafness to the music of the English language, just as what looks like innovation in method is already its own kind of sterile convention.”