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April 22 marks the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov. Born in 1899, this writer had similarities to as well as differences from fellow Russian Ayn Rand. But Rand fans will find that his insights on individualism and liberty complemented hers.
Rand and Nabokov probably never met. But both hailed from St. Petersburg, and Rand and Nabokov’s younger sister were schoolmates. Like Rand, the native language of the world-famous author of Lolita was not English. And like Rand, this non-native speaker wrote some of 20th century’s definitive works in English, in the United States—the country they both adopted and that adopted them.
Both were victims of tyranny; the Bolsheviks confiscated Nabokov’s family fortune and Rand’s father’s business. Nabokov lived in poverty among émigrés in Berlin until he, his Jewish wife, and their son fled to France and then the United States. Rand arrived in America via Berlin, when she took advantage of a rare chance to leave the communist dictatorship supposedly on a temporary visa. She stayed in America and had to work her way up like so many other immigrants.
One difference between Nabokov and Rand is that he had no interest in political writing. He claimed only disdain for “art shot through with ‘human interest,’” which he thought dangerously close to propaganda.
However, he did write two novels—Invitation to a Beheading (1934) and Bend Sinister (1947)—with political settings. Both take place in dystopias that resemble Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Perhaps an inspiration for them was that Nabokov, like Rand, was horrified by naive Westerners who sympathized with the Bolsheviks, who he thought no less brutal than the Nazis. But his novels weren’t forewarnings, finger-waggings, or calls to action. His interest was different than that: it was the freedom in one’s soul.
Invitation to a Beheading begins with a political prisoner named Cincinnatus C. The name itself is suggestive. Cincinnatus was an ancient Roman magistrate who had retired but was summoned by the Senate and given the powers of a dictator so he could lead an army against invaders. He defeated the enemy in less than two weeks; but then he gave up his power so he could return to private life, wanting no more part of politics.
Nabokov’s Cincinnatus is in jail, having been condemned to death. His crime? “Gnostical turpitude,” an offense that cannot be defined, other than that he was “opaque” when his fellow citizens were “translucent.” Having an inner life of one’s own and not sharing it with others warranted death. He spends several days in a prison being run by useless bureaucrats and obsequious wardens. An executioner pretends to be a fellow prisoner. Cincinnatus is led out to be beheaded. But he realizes just how absurd the whole situation and his executioners are.
In a surrealistic ending we see his would-be beheader and his henchmen transformed into what they really are. Cincinnatus simply wills them and their terrible world out of existence. The individual imagination is the key to freedom. Nabokov is showing that we must not delude ourselves if we want to avoid the absurdities to which Cincinnatus and too many of us are subjected.
Like Beheading, Bend Sinister takes place in an unnamed dystopian country. It is ruled by Paduk, a thug dictator who locks up anybody who doesn’t follow the tenets of his “Party of the Average Man.” These maxims are mostly regurgitations from a manifesto by a senile leftist iconoclast who called his dogma Ekwilism, a made-up term that is a play on the word equalism.
This bizarre belief system holds that there is a finite amount of “human consciousness” in the world. The problem is, it is unevenly distributed. Therefore, no socialist “leveling of wealth could be successfully accomplished . . . so long as there existed some individuals with more brains or guts than others.” Thus, “the difference between the proudest intellect and the humblest stupidity [was] dependent entirely upon the degree of ‘world consciousness’ condensed in this or that individual.”
The plot of Bend Sinister revolves around a philosophy professor named Adam Krug, who has just lost his wife after an unsuccessful surgery. He deals with his loss as he does everything else unpleasant: he ignores it. Unfortunately, he has also ignored the new dictatorship in his country. But avoiding the situation doesn’t change it.
And now the dictator Paduk, a former schoolmate of Krug’s, wants Krug to publicly embrace Ekwilism, which Paduk is trying violently to implement. Krug refuses even after Paduk fires his colleagues and arrests his friends in an attempt to convince him. But Krug only realizes the brutality of the regime when Paduk’s henchmen go after Krug’s 8-year-old son.
Krug’s attempt to keep his integrity comes at a high price. He had deluded himself for so long about so many things, most notably the degree of Paduk’s savagery. Furthermore, he could have left the country when had the chance, but he thought he could remain in his ivory tower and ignore the ugly reality around him. However, as he learns at the novel’s end, his self-delusion didn’t make reality go away.
Rand fans might not embrace Nabokov’s approach to literature, which was more an aesthetic than a political one. But they will appreciate Nabokov and Rand’s common interest in freedom, both in the political realm and in the individual soul. So on Nabokov’s birthday, if you want a thought-provoking read in some of the most beautiful writing in the English language, crack open one of his fine books, and enjoy.
The author is an editor of major textbooks, as well as an artist and composer who served on the board of the Georgetown Theatre Company.