The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”

So back in December my editor at the Dallas Morning News asked me (and other contributing writers) to pen a brief essay about a book I’d been given as a gift some time in my life, and I actually wrote two. The first one turned out to be a mistake, in that I neglected the “gift” angle, and only remembered the essay prompt to be about a book that changed my life. When my editor explained it didn’t quite fit the prompt, I wrote another. Here’s the first one, about one of the great writers of the Twentieth Century.

The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”

On the dusty shelves of a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, circa 1979 (in the dimly lit rear of the store, by the flyspeck shelves of plastic toys and dented cookware), I came across a book I’d never heard of by a writer I’d never heard of, and without fanfare or fireworks, it changed my life. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister, first published by Holt in 1947, but due to the success of Lolita (1955), reissued in the Sixties. The paperback copy I bought for fifty cents includes Nabokov’s supremely haughty and gently comic Introduction, in which he urges readers not to make comparisons they will obviously make, and admits, “The title’s drawback is that a solemn reader looking for ‘general ideas’ or ‘human interest’ (which is much the same thing) in a novel may be led to look for them in this one” (xii). I only bought the book because I liked the garish, trippy cover—shades of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”—and because the novel begins with one of the greatest descriptions of a puddle ever written: “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.” I love the use of oblong, tentacled, and spatulate, as well as the alliteration of “dull dun dead” and “fancy footprint.” It reminds me of a review of The Bird Saviors I received years ago by a petulant twit who argued I “used too many metaphors.” Which was said about Nabokov by various critics, otherwise known as other nitwits.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I learned to write by reading Nabokov—all his books, several times. Bizarrely, after thirty-seven years and several lifetimes, I still have that dog-eared copy of Bend Sinister, which has now lost its cardstock covers, front and back, yet has my quaint, loopy signature on the first page, a physical scratching of my life so long ago, put there as a marker in case it, or I, ever got lost.—December 2016

Tomorrow I’ll post the other essay, the one that did make it to press.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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