Peter Cowlam, author of Utopia

It now seems extraordinary that Edmund Wilson, who found Bend Sinister among the least satisfactory in the VN oeuvre, marked its weakness where he marked also its author’s weakness – i.e., in what he saw as Nabokov’s feeble grasp on matters of politics and social agitation. This was the same Nabokov who had been exiled from Russia after the October Revolution, was later driven from Berlin and Paris by the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism, and who had entered a middle-class, professional American life, with its treadmill of academic teaching. Wilson went on to lecture his friend on the merits of Walter Pater (‘art for art’s sake’), whose Gaston de Latour he thought showed insight into the sixteenth-century struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, while Nabokov showed scant understanding of the conflicts of his own century, the twentieth.

Yet the crisis of our era is written everywhere in the paragraphs of Bend Sinister, in Krug’s self-conscious individualism in collision with Paduk, who as a tarnished embodiment of the state reminds us that human flourishing will not come about without an informed exchange between the two. We have found to our cost that the grandiose political idea requires a grandeur of thinking to set it in motion, something mere politicians, bolstered by henchmen whose habitat is press, TV, radio, hardly ever possess. When, usually, the strategy does not work, when its political vision is flawed, when its economic infrastructure serves only the elites with power, then its dissenters have to be silenced or emasculated. These are the remorseless barbs in a Realpolitik we are obliged to live with now, an arrangement Edmund Wilson didn’t think Vladimir Nabokov quite understood. As I say, extraordinary.

Peter Cowlam’s novella Utopia is available from Amazon UK, Amazon USA, and Wordery