Haloed Hallucinations

Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and the Cult of St. Antony from Athanasius to Gustave Flaubert

In: Religion and the Arts
Erik Eklund University of Nottingham Nottingham UK

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Among the most popular hagiographies throughout Eastern and Coptic Christianity, Athanasius’ Life of Antony has exercised profound influence upon Western visual and literary art, not least Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. Querying the alleged originality of Nabokov’s “symbol of the Divine power,” this article examines Nabokov’s engagement with the Antonian hagiographic tradition—represented by Athanasius’ Life, Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, and Gustave Flaubert’s Le Tentation de saint Antoine—to reveal the religious ground of protagonist Adam Krug’s saint-like identity and the novel’s metaliterary mysticism in the Lord’s figural descent upon an inclined beam of light at the end of Antony’s temptations. Providing a transgressive theological terroir for Nabokov to probe the porous varieties of the real, the Antonian sources of Krug’s “haloed hallucination” invite further reconsideration of Nabokov’s self-styled “indifference” to the Christian imaginary.

“Death is but an illusion.”

Gustave Flaubert, La Tentation de saint Antoine (224)1

“Death is but a question of style.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (169)

1 A New Tradition

Within a few years of the death of St. Antony of Egypt in 356, St. Athanasius, twentieth bishop of Alexandria, composed a hagiography of the monk entitled The Life of Antony. With many stories attesting to Antony’s virtuous faith, Athanasius’ Life quickly became the most popular hagiography throughout Eastern and Coptic Christianity, not least because of the mesmerizing account of Antony’s temptation:

Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime they made such a crashing noise that that whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake. The demons, as if breaking through the building’s four walls, and seeming to enter through them, were changed into the forms of beasts and reptiles. The place immediately was filled with the appearances of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions and wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its form … Struck and wounded by them, Antony’s body was subject to yet more pain … In this circumstance also the Lord did not forget the wrestling of Antony, but came to his aid. For when he looked up he saw the roof being opened, as it seemed, and a certain beam of light descending toward him. Suddenly the demons vanished from view, the pain of his body ceased instantly, and the building was once more intact. Aware of the assistance and both breathing more easily and relieved from the sufferings, Antony entreated the vision that appeared, saying, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear in the beginning, so that you could stop my distresses?” And a voice came to him: “I was here, Antony, but I waited to watch your struggle.”


This story of the illiterate old saint’s temptation exercised palpable influence upon the imaginations of Western visual and literary artists, who in their turn modified and enriched the Antonian hagiographic tradition. The masters of the Northern Renaissance, for instance, gave to the modern world the archetypal image of the saint. As with many artistic representations of Antony, the Life is the central source of Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1500) (fig. 1). That Bosch includes the oft-neglected vehicle of Antony’s deliverance, from what Jacques Le Goff calls the hermit’s “theater of shadows” (49), ultimately distinguishes his triptych from other Flemish representations.


Figure 1

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, center panel of triptych, c. 1500. Oil on oak. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Citation: Religion and the Arts 27, 4 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685292-02704001

Wikimedia Commons

Bosch’s triptych is by all counts among the most faithful in this respect, though it is also a rather typically surreal retelling of Antony’s temptation. At its subtle center a beam of light, indicative of the Lord’s pity, power, and presence, streams through a bullet-sized hole in the monastery wall while Antony, with his face turned toward the viewer, kneels in devotion, mimicking the hand gesture of Christ who stands haloed in a darkened room before a crucifix.

Antony was an uncommon subject for authors by comparison. The world would have to wait until 1874—when Gustave Flaubert completed the third round of revisions to his experimental novel La Tentation de saint Antoine—to receive something remotely comparable in literature to the visual phantasmagoria typical of Northern Renaissance depictions of Antony. Revised in 1856 and again in 1872, Flaubert received the initial shiver of inspiration for the work in 1845, during a visit to the Balbi collection in Genoa, where he viewed Jan Mandyn’s Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot (c. 1570) (fig. 2).2 Incorrectly believing the painting to be by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (Davenport 297), Flaubert wrote to Alfred Le Poittevin on May 13: “I have seen a painting by Bruegel representing The Temptation of Saint Antony, which made me think of arranging The Temptation of Saint Antony for the theater” (Correspondance 1, 230). Upon returning to Croisset, Flaubert purchased an engraving of Jacques Callot’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1635), which he framed in his study to keep inspiration always before him (Davenport 297–298). In order to lend greater realism and psychological depth to his revisionist portrait of Antony in his dramatic poem, La Tentation de saint Antoine, Flaubert drew upon an innumerable array of scholarly translations, editions, histories, and studies of the patristic era. Yet for all the ingenuity of his work, Flaubert departs from Athanasius’ account of the final moments of Antony’s temptation: excluding the beam, Flaubert opts instead for a rather slavish though nonetheless imaginative adherence to the visual tradition of the Northern masters, who consistently make a point of depicting Antony as literate, whereas Bosch is rather ambiguous about Antony’s literacy.

With the publication of his first American novel in 1947, Vladimir Nabokov made his own contribution to the tradition of Antony’s temptation. This has not been observed, however. According to Maurice Couturier, Nabokov “rejected the very concept of influence, with regard to himself at least” (412), and it stands to reason that Nabokov would actively work to ensure that any inkling of influence would remain hidden. Nabokov even boasts to his editor at Doubleday of deploying “a device never yet attempted in literature” in what would eventually become Bend Sinister:

Krug, who in the months following his wife’s death, had begun to work at a book about death and resurrection, has a most prodigious illumination (coinciding with his imprisonment after [his son’s] death), the dawning of a certain great understanding—and this is the most difficult part to explain—but to put it bluntly, he realizes suddenly the presence of the Author of things, the Author of him and of his life and of all the lives around him,—the Author who is myself, the man who writes the book of his life. This singular apotheosis (a device never yet attempted in literature) is, if you like, a kind of symbol of the Divine power. I, the Author, take Krug to my bosom and the horrors of the life he has been experiencing turn out to be the artistic invention of the Author.

Letter to Donald B. Elder, Letters 50

As we will see in section three, Nabokov overstates the originality of his “device” to obfuscate the source tradition from which he received it, and which would otherwise lay bare his debt to the cult of St. Antony. Nabokov’s dissembling is doubly suspicious, moreover, as a sleight of hand: though he rehearses many of the novel’s arcane secrets and their corresponding sources in his introduction to the novel (published in a 1963 re-print), he yet withholds the sources behind the mysterious scene which initiates the novel’s denouement with its corresponding themes of hallucinations and divine deliverance.3 As with Nabokov’s other attempts to ward off certain interpretations of his novel, Nabokov’s claim to originality “introduces into the text a possibility which is not effaced but highlighted by being crossed out” (Karshan 6, n. 6). These sources belong to the Antonian hagiographic tradition initiated by Athanasius and carried on by Bosch (a favorite of Nabokov’s) and Flaubert, whose entire catalogue Nabokov “read or re-read” in French “by the age of 14 or 15” (Strong 39).4

2 The Monk in the Theater: Flaubert

There is perhaps no writer with whom Nabokov would suffer comparison than Flaubert. Nabokov lists the Frenchman (simply as “Flaubert”) among “the best and most successful works of literature” (Think, Write, Speak 381). Indeed, his opinion of Flaubert challenges attempts at overstatement. “My best friend is Gustave Flaubert” (Think, Write, Speak 341). “Without Flaubert there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland. Chekhov in Russia would not have been quite Chekhov” (Lectures 147). Nabokov also shares his father’s belief that Madame Bovary remains “the unsurpassed pearl of French literature” (Speak 509), and so it does not surprise that, excepting brief appeals to Bouvard et Pécuchet, studies of Flaubert’s influence on Nabokov are limited to Madame Bovary.5 Yet even as Flaubert’s Tentation remains absent from such studies, Flaubert’s experimental novel is a key source of Nabokov’s Antonian appropriations in Bend Sinister.6

Flaubert’s revisions to the hagiographic tradition complement the metaliterary aspect of his project. Whereas Athanasius states Antony “could not bear to learn letters” (30), the Scriptures retained in his memory serving him instead for books, Flaubert’s saint is literate:

It was up to me only to be—for example—a grammarian or philosopher. I would have in my chamber a sphere of reeds, tablets always at hand, young people around me, and at my door, as a sign, a laurel wreath hung.

Tentation 56

Antony’s literacy is a vital aspect of Flaubert’s project, which is to expose and consummate the fundamental relation of the book (broadly conceived) to other books. It is imperative, therefore, that the Scriptures remain open on Antony’s lectern. This is arguably the most striking of Flaubert’s revisions, and it provides further evidence of the influence exercised upon Flaubert by Mandyn’s Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot (fig. 2).


Figure 2

Jan Mandyn (also attributed to Jan Verbeeck), Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot, c. 1570. Tempera on wood

Citation: Religion and the Arts 27, 4 (2023) ; 10.1163/15685292-02704001

Private collection, on deposit at the Musei Nazionali di Genova—Galleria Nazionale della Liguria

The hermit sees only the large book that he leans over. He does not see, he cannot see, or perhaps he sees only through the corner of an eye the array of demonic phantasmagoria surrounding him on all sides. Antony’s status as a reader is thus rendered ambiguous, and this ambiguity makes for the troublesome liminality of his visions. It is not simply that there is no internal key in the text which might indicate whether “all the other characters are hallucinations and dreams sent by the devil or the devil himself in disguise, or both,” as Laurence Porter observes (“Antoine” 9), but that “the full range of fantastic apparitions that eventually unfold before the hermit,” contends Michael Foucault, “arise from the opening of a book, as they issued from the libraries that Flaubert consulted” (95). The library thus becomes the realm of Antony’s saintly purview, perhaps even of his intercession, since it is in the library that one reads into a weird existence the same demons which torment(ed) Antony.

Antony’s ambiguity as a reader and the liminality of the visions belong to the theatricality of Flaubert’s text. Indeed, the realm of theater imbues every aspect of La Tentation. On childhood holidays in Rouen, Flaubert attended many performances of Father Legrain’s marionette play The Mystery of Saint Anthony (Davenport 297; Foucault 95). The blocking directions retained in the final version of the novel are traces of those memories. They suffuse its narrative, narration, and even its identity as a text with an ontological ambiguity which complements the liminality of Antony’s vision. “The presence of the book in The Temptation,” writes Foucault:

its manifestation and concealment, is indicated in a strange way: it immediately contradicts itself as a book. From the start, it challenges the priority of its printed signs and takes the form of a theatrical presentation: the transcription of a text that is not meant to be read, but recited and staged.


It is not solely a question of whether we are reading a novel or a play, but whether the book in hand is present poetically. For though Flaubert’s initial blocking directions describe a stage “in the Thebaid, at the top of a mountain, on a platform rounded in a half-moon, and enclosed by huge stones” (51), Foucault is correct to observe:

these indications do not suggest a future performance (they are largely incompatible with an actual presentation); they simply designate the specific mode of existence of the text. Print can only be an unobtrusive aid to the visible; an insidious spectator takes the reader’s place and the act of reading is dissolved in the triumph of another form of sight. The book disappears in the theatricality it creates.


This makes for what Foucault calls the “simultaneously empty and overpopulated space” of the book (99). For the book in the reader’s hand begins to disappear only once Antony “lights a torch and plants it on the wooden desk, so as to illuminate the large book” (Flaubert, Tentation, 57). Now a different book, Holy Scripture, enters into the theatrical space to delimit it and ensure “the spectator’s gaze dissolves into the hallucinated gaze of the hermit” (Foucault 98). Should Antony close the Scriptures, his torments would end, but then there would be no theater, no novel.

The peculiar place of the Scriptures in La Tentation makes for a series of receding levels. Foucault identifies and delineates these levels in the following way:

The first intersection is the reader (1)—the actual reader of the text—and the book lies before him (1a); from the first lines … the text invites the reader to become a spectator (2) of a stage whose scenery is carefully described (2a); at center stage, the spectator sees the hermit (3) seated with his legs crossed; he will shortly rise and turn to his book (3a) from which disturbing visions will gradually escape—banquets, palaces, a voluptuous queen, and finally Hilarion, the insidious disciple (4). Hilarion leads the saint into a space filled with visions (4a); this opens a world of heresies and gods, and a world where improbable creatures proliferate (5). Moreover, the heretics are also capable of speech and recounter their shameless rites; the gods recall their past glories and the cults that were devoted to them; and the monsters proclaim their proper bestiality. Derived from the power of their words or from their mere presence, a new dimension is realized, a vision that lies within that produced by the satanic principle (5a), a vision that contains the abject cult of the Ophites, the miracles of Apollonius, the temptations of Buddha, and the ancient and blissful reign of Isis (6).


Each of these levels may be conceived as an individual stage backdrop, and the making-present of each subsequent level means the concealment of each level’s theatrical-revelatory ground (i.e., the prior level). Whereas the first level makes for the revelation of the second, which makes for the revelation of the third, and so on, the sixth level conceals the fifth, which conceals the fourth, and so on. And because the reader’s gaze is more-or-less identical to Antony’s own, that which should seem the most “fictitious” or the least “real” appears before the reader with the greatest solidity. “Thus,” writes Foucault, “the fictions of the last level fold back upon themselves, envelop the figures from which they arose, quickly surpassed the disciple and the anchorite, and finish by inscribing themselves within the supposed materiality of the theater” (97).

This effect or device, which Foucault calls “retrospective envelopment” (97), explodes in the transition from the theatrical climax of Flaubert’s text, where Antony and the reader with him watch with uninhibited curiosity as the demons of the sixth level engulf the visible space of the novel’s theatrical dreamscape, to their final dissolution when the face of Christ appears in the rising sun.

And then the plants are confused with the stones.

Stones resemble brains, stalactites like udders, iron flowers like a tapestry of ornate figures.

In fragments of ice, he distinguishes efflorescences, (im-)prints [empreintes] of shrubs and shells [coquilles; also, misprints]—not knowing if they are the (im-)prints [empreintes] of these things, or these things themselves. Diamonds beam like eyes, minerals throb.

And he is no longer afraid!

He lies flat on his stomach, supporting himself on his elbows; and holding his breath, he looks.

Insects that have no stomachs keep on eating; withered ferns bloom and re-bloom; missing members grow back.

Finally, he perceives tiny globular masses, as big as pinheads and covered all over in cilia. A vibration agitates them.



O happiness! Happiness! I have seen the birth of life, I saw the beginning of movement. The blood in my veins is throbbing so hard that they will burst. I want to fly, to swim, to bark, to roar, to howl. Would that I had wings, a shell, a bark, to puff smoke, wear a trunk, twist my corpse, divide myself everywhere, be in all, emanate with odors, develop myself like plants, flow as water, vibrate as sound, shine as light, embrace all forms, penetrate each atom, descend to the bottom of matter—be matter!

Day finally appears; and like the curtains of a tabernacle drawn up, golden clouds, rolling up in large volutes, unveil the sky.

In the middle, and in the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Antony makes the sign of the cross and returns to prayer.


In addition to laying bare the device by which Flaubert ensures that the figures of the sixth level (visions of visions) overtake the theatrical space of the book, only to be dismissed like actors when day appears like a new stage set, this conclusion evidences Flaubert’s departure from Athanasius’ Life, perhaps because Athanasius’ “beam of light” (39) would require Flaubert to transgress his ideal relation to his work:

The author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, present everywhere, and visible nowhere. Art being a second nature, the creator of that nature must act by analogous processes: that we feel in all atoms, in all aspects, a hidden, infinite impassivity.

Letter to Louise Colet, Correspondance 2, 204

Jacobus de Voragine’s compilation of brief hagiographies, The Golden Legend (c. 1260), seems to be the key source here. Yet while Voragine includes the story of Antony’s temptation, the beam from Athanasius’ hagiography becomes under his pen “a wonderful light” (Voragine 93). This may account for the Christic sunrise which greets the exhausted monk at the close of La Tentation.

The conclusion is markedly ambiguous with regard to Antony’s spiritual state. Interpreting the appearance of the face of Christ in the sun as evidence of “Anthony’s renewed ability to pray—his spiritual reunion with God,” Porter claims Antony desires only “to become one with God” (“Temptation” 322). Foucault, however, is less certain, and insists Antony “wished to be a saint through a total deadening of his senses, intelligence, and emotions, and by dissolving himself into the images that come to him through the mediation of the Book [the Scriptures]” (108). Antony’s return to prayer thus suggests to Foucault that “he is now able to perform, through is prayers, prostrations, and readings, this mindless sanctity he has become” (109). However one interprets the conclusion of Flaubert’s text, the proto-metaliterary dissolution of Antony’s dream theater upon the appearance of God paves the way for a corresponding though more Athanasian expression of authorial presence of Nabokov’s own in Bend Sinister, to which we now turn.

3 The Symbol of the Divine Power: Nabokov

Written between 1941 and 1946, Bend Sinister was published in 1947 and re-printed with a new introduction by the author in 1963. Referring to his characters as “merely my whims and megrims” (163), Nabokov (in the 1963 introduction) describes the period when he wrote Bend Sinister as “a particularly cloudless and vigorous period of life” (164). “Megrims,” however, as Leona Toker correctly points out, “is an ironic understatement” (176). The memories of Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany which form the historical background of the novel are unmistakable. “Much as one might want to hide in one’s little ivory tower,” writes Nabokov to his sister in June 1946, “there are things that torment too deeply, e.g., the German vilenesses, the burning of children in ovens,—children as funny and as strongly loved as our children” (quoted in Toker 177–178).7 Nabokov’s choice of title is apt in this regard:

The term “bend sinister” means a heraldic bar or band drawn from the left side (and popularly, but incorrectly, supposed to denote bastardy). This choice of title was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.

Bend 163

Though “this idea of heraldry conveyed in the title hints thus at the idea of a clear genealogical line which can be followed back to its beginning[,] Krug’s attempts,” writes Siggy Frank, “are ultimately frustrated” (184). Krug perceives not a genealogical origin but the groundlessness of his fictional existence in the mind of “an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me” (Nabokov, Bend, 169).

3.1 Infusoria at the Ballet

The novel follows world-renowned philosopher Adam Krug as he tries and retries to resist the urgings of his childhood schoolmate, Paduk, alias “the Toad” (tod, death, in German) into collaborating with the recently established revolutionary government. Krug sat on Paduk’s face on multiple occasions throughout their schooldays. The pitiable figure that Paduk had been in youth changes, however, when he becomes the leader of the new police state of Padukgrad and reorganizes the country according to the universal philosophy espoused by one Fradrik Skotoma:

At every given level of world-time there was, he said, a certain computable amount of human consciousness distributed throughout the population of the world. This distribution was uneven, and herein lay the root of all our woes. Human beings, he said, were so many vessels containing unequal portions of this essentially uniform consciousness. It was however quite possible, he maintained, to regulate the capacity of the human vessels … He introduced the idea of balance as a basis for universal bliss and called his theory “Ekwilism.” … He died soon after his treatise appeared and so was spared the discomfort of seeing his vague and benevolent Ekwilism transformed (while retaining its name) into a violent and virulent political doctrine, a doctrine that proposed to enforce spiritual uniformity upon his native land through the medium of the most standardized section of the inhabitants, namely the Army, under the supervision of a bloated and dangerously divine State.


Perturbed and undeterred by Krug’s hostility to the regime, Paduk escalates his strategy by arresting Krug’s friends. Still, Krug naively believes that the police state can be thwarted if we “proceed logically” and “stick to pure reason” (329). But Krug is eventually arrested and taken to prison:

Krug was led through several yards to the main building. In yards No. 3 and 4 outlines of condemned men for target practice had been chalked on a brick wall. An old Russian legend says that the first thing a rastrelianyĭ [person executed by the firing squad] sees on entering the “other world” (no interruption please, this is premature, take your hands away), is not a gathering of ordinary “shades” or “spirits” or repulsive dear repulsive unutterably dear unutterably repulsive dear ones in antiquated clothes, as you might think, but a kind of silent slow ballet, a welcoming group of these chalked outlines moving wavily like transparent Infusoria; but away with those bleak superstitions.


Though the image is peculiar, the wording could hardly be more precise. Infusoria the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a class of Protozoa, comprising ciliated, tentaculate, and flagellate animalcula, essentially unicellular, free-swimming, or sedentary; so called because found in infusions of decaying animal or vegetable matter.” The entry seems as if it had been written by Nabokov, and it perfectly describes the “outlines of condemned men” which “had been chalked on a brick wall” for the police to use for target practice. The word appears here only, though Nabokov also uses the word in his introduction:

The plot starts to breed in the bright broth of a rain puddle. The puddle is observed by Krug [Rus. circle] from a window of the hospital where his wife is dying. The oblong pool, shaped like a cell that is about to divide, reappears subthematically throughout the novel, as an ink blot in Chapter Four, an inkstain in Chapter Five, spilled milk in Chapter Eleven, the infusoria-like image of ciliated thought in Chapter Twelve, the footprint of a phosphorescent islander in the intimate texture of space in the closing paragraph. The puddle thus kindled and rekindled in Krug’s mind remains linked up with the image of his wife not only because he had contemplated the inset sunset from her death-bedside, but also because this little puddle vaguely evokes in him my link with him: a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty.


With this in mind, we see that the narrator’s casual invocation of “a welcoming group of these chalked outlines moving wavily like transparent Infusoria” (333)—which he proffers only to deny—is in fact a covert sign of Krug’s participation in a metaliterary deity. For the image is simultaneously deployed at a higher level of narrative diegesis which transcends the narrator and points to the active machinations of someone who has been secretly orchestrating the nightmare of Krug’s existence.

This orchestration is distinctly theatrical and self-reflexive. Indeed, self-reflexive theatricality suffuses the novel’s metaphysical sense, and Krug receives the initial impression of this mysterious author-cum-playwright-cum-deity in a dream the night following the death of his wife, which returns him to his schooldays and foreshadows the circumstances of his death.8 Though the “desk at which Krug finds himself sitting has been hastily borrowed from a different set” and so does not have (as the ambiguous narrator relates) the “special inkstain in the shape of Lake Malheur” that his real desk had, Krug nevertheless senses

among the producers or stagehands responsible for the setting there has been one … it is hard to express it … a nameless, mysterious genius who took advantage of the dream to convey his own peculiar code message which has nothing to do with school days or indeed with any aspect of Krug’s physical existence, but which links him up somehow with an unfathomable mode of being, perhaps terrible, perhaps blissful, perhaps neither, a kind of transcendental madness which lurks behind the corner of consciousness and which cannot be defined more accurately than this, no matter how Krug strains his brain. O yes—the lighting is poor […] and the orchestra of the senses is limited to a few native instruments […] but closer inspection […] reveals the presence of someone in the know.


Here and elsewhere, Nabokov deploys theatrical language to highlight the infusoria or rain puddle “theme” and its corresponding sense that there exists a mysterious link between Krug and some transcendent world of beatitude.

The narrator’s seeming unawareness of the novel’s self-consciousness further problematizes his hasty dismissal of an afterlife. For as Krug enters the prison building for processing, the narrator observes: “So suddenly did his guards disappear that, had he been a character in fiction, he might well have wondered whether the strange doings and so on had not been some evil vision, and so forth” (334). Characterizing these “strange doings” as “some evil vision” is surely a feature of the novel’s self-reflexivity, since Krug is not only a character in fiction, but his entire world is the creation of a mysterious god-like author-playwright. Indeed, just as the visual torments St. Antony was made to suffer by the demons vanish upon the appearance of God, the characters in Bend Sinister, “all of them,” writes Nabokov in his introduction, “are only absurd mirages, illusions oppressive to Krug during his brief spell of being, but harmlessly fading away when I dismiss the cast” (165).

3.2 Senseless Agony

Krug would not dream again until after the murder of his eight-year-old son David, whom Paduk had taken as a hostage to force Krug to repent and publicly endorse Ekwilism and the Party of the Average Man. “Either I remain silent for ever [sic],” says Krug to the guard responsible for his processing, “or else I speak, sign, swear—anything the Government wants. But I will do all this, and more, only if my child is brought here, to this room, at once” (335). But, to everyone’s surprise, is it not David that is brought, but some other child.

It was quite clear that something had gone dreadfully wrong; the child had been taken to a kind of—well, Institute for Abnormal Children—instead of the best State Rest House, as had been arranged … Unfortunately, the director of the Institute had understood, as who would not, that the child delivered to him was one of the so-called “Orphans,” now and then used to serve as a “release instrument” for the benefit of the most interesting inmates with a so-called “criminal” record (rape, murder, wanton destruction of State property, etc.). The theory … was that if once a week the really difficult patients could enjoy the possibility of venting in full their repressed yearnings (the exaggerated urge to hurt, destroy, etc.) upon some little human creature of no value to the community, then, by degrees, the evil in them would be allowed to escape, would be, so to say, “effundated,” and eventually they would become good citizens … A nurse led the “orphan” down the marble steps … The “orphan” or “little person” was left alone and allowed to roam all over the enclosure … After a while the patients or “inmates” (eight all told) were let into the enclosure. At first, they kept a distance, eyeing the “little person.” It was interesting to observe how the “gang” spirit gradually asserted itself. They had been rough lawless unorganized individuals, but now something was binding them, the community spirit (positive) was conquering the individual whims (negative); for the first time in their lives they were organized … And then the fun began … Sometimes the “squeezing game” started at once after the “spitting game” but in other cases the development from harmless pinching and poking or mild sexual investigations to limb tearing, bone breaking, deoculation, etc. took a considerable time. Deaths were of course unavoidable, but quite often the “little person” was afterwards patched up and gamely made to return to the fray. Next Sunday, dear, you will play with the big boys again. A patched up “little person” provided an especially satisfactory “release.”

Now we take all this, press it into a small ball, and fit it into the center of Krug’s brain where it gently expands.


All of this Krug was prepared to endorse should David be returned to him. But David is currently sleeping, and to pass the time, Dr. Hammecke, director of the “experimental station,” invites Krug to watch a recently filmed movie showing “how healthy and happy the child was” (343).

A trembling legend appeared on the screen: Test 656 … Armed nurses were shown unlocking doors. Blinking, the inmates trooped out … Down the floodlit marble steps leading into the garden he [David] came. A nurse in white accompanied him, then stopped and bade him descend alone … The whole thing lasted a moment: he turned his face up to the nurse, his eyelashes beat, his hair caught a gleam of lambent light; then he looked around, met Krug’s eyes, showed no sign of recognition and uncertainly went down the few steps that remained. His face became larger, dimmer, and vanished as it met mine.


Those involved in the experiment were promptly informed “they would all be court-martialed for doing to death the only son of Professor Krug” (346), whereupon chaos ensues, and the narrator attempts to translate several jumbled sentence fragments whose source resists identification. Someone says “Mezhdu tem,” which the narrator translates as “among the themes,” which he takes to mean “among the subjects of his dreamlike state” (346). It is a peculiar phrase in the chaos of the paragraph and complements the ambiguity of the real which has remained a defining feature of the Antonian tradition since the hermit was given the gift of literacy by several Northern masters. In this regard, the burning building in the upper left quadrant of the center panel of Bosch’s triptych (fig. 1) is a fitting visual representation of the carnage which closes the chapter, as soldiers rush about “burying the rest of the staff and setting fire to the building where the buzzing patients were locked up” (346).

Krug is now promptly returned to his jail cell, where he loses consciousness and dreams of his blessed dead.

In the middle of the night something in a dream shook him out of his sleep into what was really a prison cell with bars of light (and a separate pale gleam like the footprint of some phosphorescent islander) breaking the darkness … Although of humble origin (a vigilant arc light outside, a livid corner of the prison yard, an oblique ray coming through some chink or bullet hole in the bolted and padlocked shutters) the luminous pattern he saw assumed a strange, perhaps fatal significance, the key to which was half-hidden by a flap of dark consciousness on the glimmering floor of a half-remembered nightmare … The pattern of light was somehow the result of a kind of stealthy, abstractly vindictive, groping, tampering movement that had been going on in a dream, or behind a dream, in a tangle of immemorial and by now formless and aimless machinations. Imagine a sign that warns you of an explosion in such cryptic or childish language that you wonder whether everything—the sign, the frozen explosion under the window sill and your quivering soul—has not been reproduced artificially, there and then, by special arrangement with the mind behind the mirror.

It was at that moment, just after Krug had fallen through the bottom of a confused dream and sat up on the straw with a gasp—and just before his reality, his remembered hideous misfortune could pounce upon him—it was then that I felt a pang of pity for Adam and slid towards him along an inclined beam of pale light—causing instantaneous madness, but at least saving him from the senseless agony of his logical fate.

With a smile of infinite relief on his tear-stained face, Krug lay back on the straw.


The anthropomorphic deity whom Nabokov impersonates is very clearly the God of St. Antony. Theirs is the same demonic mirage and the same inclined beam of light, revealing equally to Antony as to Krug (as Nabokov writes in his introduction) “that he is in good hands: nothing on earth really matters, there is nothing to fear, and death is but a question of style, a mere literary device” (169). “Thus death,” says Antony in Flaubert’s Tentation, “is but an illusion, a veil, masking in places the continuity of life” (224). Though he claims for it a dubious originality, Nabokov’s “symbol of the Divine power” (Letters 50) is the most blatant indicator of his active engagement, revision, and contribution to the cult of St. Antony.

3.3 The Communion of the Saints9

The novel makes several furtive gestures toward Krug’s saint-like identity, even though Krug, who with his son has a Jewish forename, is neither Christian nor Jewish by religion. During processing, a guard asks Krug of his “religious affiliation,” to which he responds: “None … There is no answer” (334). Krug is also visibly confused when asked if he has been baptized: “I do not know what you are talking about” (334). And while it must be acknowledged that a peculiar metaphysics permeates Nabokov’s oeuvre, Krug places little value in the speculations of positive metaphysics, mysticism, or religion to reveal the essence at the heart of being:

He had never indulged in the search for the True Substance, the One, the Absolute, the Diamond suspended from the Christmas Tree of the Cosmos. He had always felt the faint ridicule of a finite mind peering at the iridescence of the invisible through the prison bars of integers. And even if the Thing could be caught, why should he, or anybody else for that matter, wish the phenomenon to lose its curls, its mask, its mirror, and become the bald noumenon?


None of this, of course, precludes Krug’s saint-like identity, much as his forename (coupled with various allusions to the Christian faith throughout the novel) may be read as pointing to Christ as the “second Adam.” Nabokov’s initial vision for the scene of Krug’s murder further supports this interpretation: whereas in the published novel Krug is led to a theatrical restoration of his childhood school to be shot (more on this below), Nabokov first envisions Krug as a kind of dystopian Christ who is “taken up a hill, through the vineyards, to be shot” (Letters 50).

The novel’s intertestamental play with the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament is further evidence of this conflation of religious identities, and Maxim Shrayer is surely correct that Krug “regarded Judaism and Christianity as a single religious continuum” (76).10 This is readily apparent in the way Krug:

in one compact sentence referred to several religions (not forgetting “that wonderful Jewish sect whose dream of the gentle young rabbi dying on the Roman crux had spread over all Northern lands”), and had dismissed them together with ghosts and kobolds.

Nabokov, Bend, 321

Like Nabokov, who counts “the New Testament” with “Flaubert” among that same list of “the best and most successful works of literature” (Think, Write, Speak 381), Krug may be imagined as reading within a distinctly European-Christian frame which approaches the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament as two parts of a single if abstruse narrative, where the God of Proverbs and the God who saved the Christian monk in the Egyptian desert are one. Indeed, though Nabokov quotes Proverbs 25:2—“the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it” (Bend 252)—that he also welcomes Krug “unto the bosom of his maker” (169) shows that he engages a modified Jewish idea within a broadly Christian (con-)text (Luke 16:22). Krug should therefore be read as the archetypal saint-like person in the novel’s transgressive and theological world, while his Jewish forename (and that of his son David) serves as a foil to the latent anti-Semitism of Padukgrad’s police state, which would punish any who associate with or merely resemble Jews. That the narrator explicitly indicates that Krug’s descent into madness occurs during or immediately preceding the Christian season of Advent—Krug had just received “his dentist’s Christmas greeting” in the mail (299)—further suggests that Padukgrad is a Christian country in the same sense that Nazi Germany was a Christian country.

For all of this, the novel encourages and rewards reading Krug as a saint-like figure of the Christian tradition. On the wall of Krug’s flat, for instance, there hangs a “mezzotint of the Da Vinci miracle—thirteen persons at such a narrow table (crockery lent by the Dominican monks)” (188). Recalling St. Veronica’s gift to Christ on the way to Calvary, Susan Elizabeth Sweeney reads “the little blue handkerchief” which Krug’s housemaid Mariette gave to him “so that he may wipe the palms of his aching weakening hands” (Nabokov, Bend, 217) as a “relic cast to Krug in his misery” (Sweeney 200). Add to this the narrator’s use of ekphrasis to produce a veritable icon of Krug, haloed and monkish in solemn procession on the night of his arrest, which is among the clearest expressions of Krug’s saint-likeness:

The little procession made its way downstairs. The place was still and dark. Krug walked in front, with a circle of light playing upon his bent bare head and brown dressing gown—looking for all the world like a participant in some mysterious religious ceremony painted by a master of chiaroscuro, or copied from such a painting, or recopied from that or some other copy.11


These signals reach their climax when “at dawn four elegant officers” (352) lead an insane Krug to the yard where he is to be shot. On his way, the narrator kindly asks the cast to hold still for a colored photograph, whereupon the reader catches clear sight of Krug’s saint-like identity: “On the left, in the middle of the yard, hatless, his coarse dark graying locks moving in the wind, clothed in ample white pajamas with a silken girdle, and barefooted like a saint of old, loomed Krug” (355). As if Krug’s white pajamas are not a sufficiently clear allusion to the white robes given to the saints who share in Christ’s victory over death and are “told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed” (Rev. 6:11 NRSV), the phrase “barefooted like a saint of old” is unambiguous. Soon after posing for the photograph, Krug is stopped again, this time by his friend Ember, who makes a final attempt to persuade Krug to endorse Ekwilism and so save their lives. With the story of Antony’s temptation in mind, Krug’s otherwise perplexing response unfurls its meaning as he intimates that he is not only written and cast, but a kind of Antony:

Don’t start complaining until I settle this misunderstanding. Because, you see, this confrontation is a complete misunderstanding. I had a dream last night, yes, a dream … Oh, never mind, call it a dream or call it a haloed hallucination—one of those oblique beams across a hermit’s cell […] You know as well as I do that there is nothing to fear?


The recurring theatrical imagery reaches its climax precisely here, effectively closing the temporal circle of Krug’s hallucinatory world and laying bare Krug’s Antonian identity.

3.4 Infinite Dissolution

Recall that on the night after the death of his wife Krug had a dream which communicated to him (among other things) something of the theatricality of his world as well as a gnawing sense of the inevitable failure of words to express the “unfathomable mode of being, perhaps terrible, perhaps blissful, perhaps neither, a kind of transcendental madness which lurks behind the corner of consciousness and which cannot be defined more accurately than this” (219). “You entered a tunnel of sorts,” writes the ambiguous narrator of Krug’s initial dream,

it ran through the body of an irrelevant house and brought you into an inner court coated with old gray sand which turned to mud at the first spatter of rain. Here soccer was played in the windy pale interval between two series of lessons. The yawn of the tunnel and the door of the school, at the opposite ends of the yard, become football goals.


Now, on the morning he is to be shot, Krug, who went insane as a result of his final dream in prison, is led by four officers

through a kind of tunnel into a central yard.

As he contemplated the shape of the yard, the jutting roof of yonder porch, the gaping arch of the tunnellike [sic] entrance through which he had come, it dawned upon him with a kind of frivolous precision difficult to express, that this was the yard of his school; but the building itself had been altered.


The crude theatrical restoration of his school yard confirms Krug’s suspicions that he is a theatrical figment of some unfathomable authorial imagination—“the program,” says one soldier, “must be carried out without all this chatter and confusion” (356). This realization motivates Krug to approach his death with the confidence that some ineffable deity had turned death into a plaything.

In a burst of vigorous speed, Krug was running towards the wall, where Paduk, his features dissolving in the water of fear, had slipped from his chair and was trying to vanish … He saw the Toad crouching at the foot of the wall, shaking, dissolving, speeding up his shrill incantations, protecting his dimming face with his transparent arm, and Krug ran towards him, and just a fraction of an instant before another and better bullet hit him, he shouted again: You, you—and the wall vanished, like a rapidly withdrawn slide, and I stretched myself and got up from among the chaos of written and rewritten pages, to investigate the sudden twang that something had made in striking the wire netting of my window.12


The similarities between the proto-metafictional dismantling of Antony’s visions (in Athanasius and Flaubert) and the dissolution of Krug’s world, as well as the demonic magic by which the Toad attempts to protect himself, are undeniable. Just as Flaubert’s Tentation concludes as “day finally appears; and like the curtains of a tabernacle drawn up, golden clouds, rolling up in large volutes, unveil the sky” (237), the wall which Krug stood before when he faced the firing squad vanishes upon his death like a “rapidly withdrawn slide” (357). The dissolution of the Toad is particularly symbolic, as well, evidencing Krug’s successful if merely metafictional transcendence over death as he returns to his author who (literally) sits beyond the diegesis of his nightmare.

The self-reflexive theatricality of Bend Sinister also allows Nabokov to affect a kind of “retrospective envelopment” (Foucault 97) similar to that found in Flaubert’s Tentation. D. Barton Johnson has shown at length that receding levels or “worlds” are a major aspect of Nabokov’s art: “Each world is a level of consciousness subsumed within a larger one that creates and contains a smaller one” (203). Nabokov specifically attributes this device to Flaubert:

The writer has to remain outside the ambience he suggests: not of his work itself, but of the life by which he must not let himself be caught. In short, he is like a God who would be everywhere and nowhere. The formula is Flaubert’s. I have a very special love for Flaubert … It’s what allowed me to situate myself at a distance from my character … There’s my character, the character who speaks, and sometimes two, three, four series of other levels.

Think, Write, Speak 279

Johnson identifies only two major levels in Bend Sinister, yet closer examination reveals four; though Johnson rightly admits “the number ultimately implied by the scheme is limitless. The regression is infinite” (203), if we follow Foucault’s earlier delineation (quoted in section two), we recognize (1) the novel written by Nabokov (Bend Sinister) and (2) the text (which Krug experiences as reality) written by the pseudo-divine persona impersonated by Nabokov. (3) The fictive world in which Krug finds himself inhabits both spaces, as do (4) his dreams and hallucinations. The latter two levels are “mere” fiction according to the first level and theater according to the second. The first-timer reader, however, is likely to conflate levels one and two because Krug’s perspective delimits their gaze, just as “the spectator’s gaze dissolves into the hallucinated gaze of the hermit” (Foucault 98) in Flaubert’s Tentation. Thus, whereas Krug first intuits that an ambiguous divine playwright is orchestrating his nightmarish world and his dreams alike, he later discovers another identity behind the divine playwright. For the “I” who slides down the inclined beam of light does so as an impersonated God, whereas the “I” who acknowledges that “the immortality I had conferred on the poor fellow was a slippery sophism” (Bend 358) no longer wears a mask. The sentences coming after Krug’s metaliterary return to the “anthropomorphic deity” (169) must therefore be read as “ontologically” distinct from the proceeding sentences, occupying a different level of narrative diegesis.13

This narrative unmasking lifts readers beyond the narrative plane of Krug’s theatrical world, where the reader watches the inclined beam which had initiated the novel’s denouement transmogrify into the beam of the author’s “bedside lamp,” “the shadow of an arm … combing invisible hair,” and “the slanting black trunk of a poplar” (358). “I could also distinguish,” writes the unmasked author,

the glint of a special puddle (the one Krug had somehow perceived through the layer of his own life), an oblong puddle invariably acquiring the same form after every shower because of the constant spatulate shape of a depression in the ground. Possibly, something of the kind may be said to occur in regard to the imprint we leave in the intimate texture of space. Twang. A good night for mothing.


At this most foundational level, which until the final sentences is the most obscure because it is the furthest from the reader’s direct perception (for it is the horizon by which anything is seen at all), the reader is given to recognize that Krug’s entire “world,” as Valentinus says to Antony in Flaubert’s Tentation, “is the work of a God in delirium” (102). Indeed, the “throbbing headache” (Nabokov, Bend, 334) Krug endured as he awaited processing into prison is but a metafictional sign of the fact that his reality is but an authorial emanation streaming from “the veins of my aching temples” (358). Yet whereas Apollonius rebukes Antony because “he believes, like a brute, in the reality of things” (Flaubert Tentation 115), which is to say that he mistakes his visions for reality, Krug becomes a holy fool in his (forced) departure from “pure reason” (Nabokov, Bend, 329) and consequent descent into “blessed madness when he suddenly perceives the simple reality of things and knows but cannot express in the words of his world that he and his son and his wife and everybody else are merely my whims and megrims” (165). What he could not express was more real than the words with which he could only fail to describe it.

4 Synthesizing the Tradition

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov contributes to a long and idiosyncratic hagiographic tradition focused upon St. Antony of Egypt. The novel is further evidence in support of Samuel Schuman’s conviction that Nabokov’s work betrays “a serious focus on explicitly Christian material” (“Beautiful Gate” 55) and that Bend Sinister belongs among those “other works” by Nabokov—not least “The Word” (1923), “Christmas” (1924), Invitation to a Beheading (1935–1936), and Pale Fire (1962)—where “a staunchly secular approach does not do justice to the religious richness of the fiction” (“Nabokov’s God” 74).14 Indeed, even as Schuman was unaware of the Antonian subtext which delimits the theological self-reflexivity of Bend Sinister, he was surely correct in his judgment: “puppeteers do not slide down beams of light or confer immortality; gods do” (“Nabokov’s God” 76). Betraying his enduring engagement with Christian sources throughout his transition from Europe to America, and so from Russian to English, as a means to express the mystical heart of his metaliterary art, Nabokov’s descent is divine mimesis pure and simple.

The painterly tradition of the cult of St. Antony hinted at the ontological liminality of the monk’s vision, and Flaubert maximized this liminality in his proto-metafictional retelling of the story of Antony’s temptation and reunion with God. Yet even as the theatricality of Krug’s insubstantial world may be traced (in part) to the dream theater of La Tentation, that no aspect of Flaubert’s text alludes to the beam of light evidences Nabokov’s final recourse to Athanasius’ hagiography in the form of his lambent bend sinister. Just as in Athanasius’ Life, the beam figures the divine power and presence which initiates the dissolution of Krug’s torments; and whether the visions are the work of demons (Athanasius), of reading (Flaubert), or of writing (Nabokov), the phantasmic kingdoms must fall when the god comes. In addition to framing the denouement of Nabokov’s novel, the legend of Antony’s temptation grounds Krug’s saint-likeness and underwrites the coincidence of metafiction and mysticism which forms the beating heart of Nabokov’s self-reflexive theater.

Nabokov makes his most original contribution to the tradition by transposing Antony’s hermetic cave into the prison where Krug awaits capital punishment. Perceiving in the saint a powerful challenge to the brutality of the fascist state of the new Russia, Nabokov re-canonizes Antony as the patron saint not only of the modern author in their white tower but of the imprisoned in their cage. Indeed, the visions of the saint gone mad in solitary confinement present Nabokov with a distinctly theological and transgressive space to probe the porous varieties of the real; to consider the incantatory power of reading and writing; and to lift a protest on behalf of the parent whose child a deranged tyrant destroys in an attempt to hasten their surrender, while their children must watch their parents’ lifeless feet describe a grotesque halo at eye level. “God sees the truth, but waits,” says Tolstoy (701), and Nabokov agrees in Bend Sinister. The Antonian subtext is most fitting in this regard because, like Antony, Krug perceives that his world is but a dream and that he is in the dream because he is the dream. Protracting Antony’s visions, Krug’s haloed hallucination abides in the conviction that the world is a phantasmagoria of the Word and we, just a trick of the text—no more real than fictitious, deformed arachnids of ink by which God dreams the world, where we hope and wait for the God we have dreamed.


Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Flaubert’s works are my own.


The painting has also been attributed to Jan Verbeeck.


Hallucinations are a common trope in the cult of St. Antony and a common side effect of gangrenous ergotism, colloquially called St. Anthony’s Fire because the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony had considerable success in treating the disease (Grzybowski et. al. 1089). In his Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512–1516), painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony, German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald focuses the far-right panel of the inner wings upon Antony’s temptation, which depicts a sufferer of St. Anthony’s Fire, as well as numerous demonic beasts tormenting Antony.


For a list of references and allusions to Bosch in Nabokov, see Vries and Johnson 178. See also Ashenden.


For Nabokov’s lecture on Madame Bovary, see Lectures 125–177. On Flaubert’s influence on Nabokov, see Couturier, Delage-Toriel, Keersmaekers, Reigner.


La Tentation was also a favorite of the young Stéphane Mallarmé, whose influence on Bend Sinister has been traced by Karshan.


Quoted from Vladimir Nabokov, Perepiska s sestroi (Correspondence with the sister) (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1985), 41.


For an illuminating treatment of theatricality in the novel, see Frank 178–186.


The saints and the symbols of their iconography were subjects of notable fascination for Nabokov. H. Peter Kahn, one of Nabokov’s colleagues at Cornell, recalls a conversation where Nabokov “recited fifty-five sainted Johns, in that sort of order in which he loved to categorize. He told about the main saints, and the minor saints, and the banished saints, and the Popes that were saints, and so on and so on. Actually, we had two windows in that little chapel, and there are two major St. Johns. One of them was apparently St. John the Baptist, and the other was St. John the Evangelist. And Nabokov knew all the attributes, and the symbols that are associated with the two saints” (quoted in Gibian and Parker eds. 229). Nabokov likely received much of his information regarding the saints and their corresponding feast days from Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Lives of the Saints (1872–1877). Barabtarlo 166 points to Baring-Gould’s Lives as the source for Nabokov’s of St. Bartholomew in Pnin (1957; 363). Consisting of sixteen volumes organized in chronological order by feast day, Baring Gould’s hagiographic encyclopedia contains copious information about St. Antony, and the vast majority is a veritable repetition of Athanasius’ hagiography, as may be seen in the following recapitulation of section ten of Athanasius’ Life (original quoted in paragraph one of the main text): “Neither then did the Lord forget Antony’s wrestling, but appeared to help him. For, looking up, he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light coming down towards him. The devils suddenly became invisible, and the pain of his body forthwith ceased, and the building became quite whole. But Antony, feeling the succour, and getting his breath again, and freed from pain, questioned the vision which appeared, saying, ‘Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear to me from the first, to stop my pangs?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight’ ” (1, 254–255). Though it is unclear whether Nabokov looked to Baring-Gould over and against Athanasius or if he appealed to both texts, it stands to reason that aspects of Nabokov’s Antonian appropriations in Bend Sinister are traceable to Baring-Gould’s Lives.


On the theme of Jewishness in Nabokov, see Livak, Shrayer.


Nabokov would make a similar move in Pnin: “A quiet, lacy-winged little green insect circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin’s glossy bald head” (422). I am grateful to Christopher Link (personal communication) for pointing out the passage to me.


In a letter to London Sunday Times published January 1, 1967, Nabokov appears to suggest that the scene of Krug’s death is a fictionalization of his father’s death: “The two sinister ruffians who attacked P.N. Milkyukov at a public lecture in Berlin on March 28, 1922, had planned to assassinate him, not my father; but it was my father who shielded his old friend from their pistol bullets and, while vigorously knocking down one of the assailants, was fatally shot by the other. I wish to submit that at a time when in so many Eastern countries history has become a joke, this precise beam of light upon a precious detail may be of some help to the next investigator” (Letters 397, emphasis added). As Krug is processed into prison, an official tries to calm him by telling him that his son is “perfectly safe,” but he loses his temper and yells, “He is not! … You delegated two ruffians—” (335, emphasis added).


It should be added that this four-tiered schema, too, falls apart to reveal a fifth level hidden in-between the first and (what had been) the second level, since the divine impersonator remains other than the Nabokov who wrote Bend Sinister, but is instead another fictional, authorial refraction, as Nabokov well knew: “An observer makes a detailed picture of the whole universe but when he has finished he realizes that it still lacks something: his own self. So, he puts him in it too. But again a ‘self’ remains outside and so forth, in an endless sequence of projections” (“Chapter Sixteen” 254).


On the Christian subtexts of “The Word” and “Christmas,” see Schuman “Nabokov’s God” 77–83; of Invitation to a Beheading, see Shapiro 71–124; and of Pale Fire, see Schuman “Beautiful Gate” 53–54, 61–65, Eklund “The Name of God,” Eklund “Gist of Masks.” In a masterful article, Link persuasively demonstrates that the Edenic and Adamic themes of the biblical creation and fall narratives form a “strong, central, recurring pattern in the intricate grand design of Nabokov’s lifelong work … Indeed, both the significance and the complexity of Nabokov’s Edenic allusions appears to have grown steadily over the course of his career” (63, 66). For very recent perspectives on Nabokov and the question of religion, especially with regard to Christianity and its topoi, see Eklund et. al. (2022 and 2023).

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