Michael Wood
The Magician's Doubts

A child is brought in, 'a thin frightened boy of twelve or thirteen'. His head is 'newly bandaged', hurt in some unknown but presumably clumsy and ugly act of violence for which the following grotesque excuse is offered: 'nobody was to blame, they said, he had slipped on a highly polished floor and hit his forehead against a model of Stevenson's [sic] engine in the Children's Museum'. This image is worth pausing over because of its crazy ingenuity—Nabokov's villains are often stupid but they share their author's concern for details—and because of the compassion which must creep into our reconstruction of the action behind the excuse. Children do slip on polished floors, they do hit their heads, Stephenson's Rocket, for a certain generation, was what (male) children were supposed to dream of. But this very generality, the murmur of the stereotype, shows us what is wrong. These notions concern children, not this child. He might have slipped in the Museum but he was probably beaten in a cell. Stephenson's Rocket represents an eerie attempt to evoke a conventional childhood and to borrow its innocent violence for an entirely different universe. In any case this unfortunate child is the wrong age and the wrong boy: he is Arvid Krug, son of Professor Martin Krug, not David Krug son of Professor Adam Krug. Near enough, one might think, for a brutal regime dedicated to the abolition of difference. But even the officials are embarrassed by this mistake, and there is more blundering under way.

David, it seems, has been taken to the wrong building. He was supposed to have gone to 'the best State Rest House' but has instead been delivered to a location even an icy official hesitates in describing, 'a kind of—well, Institute for Abnormal Children'. We learn of what happens in this place—it is not exactly an Institute for Abnormal Children—and Krug is finally shown a ragged amateurish film in which David appears. This is the last time Krug sees him alive, a small boy in overcoat and slippers, gazing out from the screen, meeting his father's desperate eyes, but unable to recognize them or any help or comfort, because he is only a photographed figure and cannot see beyond the flat world which contains him. He is alive because he moves, because he was alive when the film was taken; but also dead, as Barthes says photographed people always are, already a memory, since an 'accident' has occurred. Soon after this Krug is shown the dead boy lying in the infirmary, his face gruesomely prettified, his body hidden, a vision of harm turned into a kind of sickly art.
The murdered child had a crimson and gold turban around its head; its face was skilfully painted and powdered: a mauve blanket, exquisitely smooth, came up to its chin.
Its head, its face, its chin. This is not David, it is a statue in Kitsch; all our horror rushes back to the live boy in his last moments, to the ghastly breaking and bruising now covered up by paint and powder, turban and blanket. As so often in Nabokov, we have to imagine the worst; to use the specifics he gives us to divine the ones he withholds.

Let us return to what we see before Krug sees the film. The whole sequence is masterly, and could I think have been written by no one but Nabokov. This is style rather than signature, and we need to see how delicate and oblique and powerful the style is: it works through indirection, horror, anger, grim and hilarious burlesque and an intimate if parodic understanding of what was soon to be called the banality of evil. Nabokov said the 'main theme' of the novel was 'the beating of Krug's loving heart, the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to—and it is for the sake of the pages about David and his father that the book was written and should be read'. Critics have been unusually reluctant to follow the author in this case, and have concentrated on the philosophy and the politics of the novel. I think the philosophy is interesting, although not in obvious ways. The politics are surely trivial, not because the questions they address don't matter or because Nabokov is a mere aesthete, but because his overtly political formulations are always too broad and easy, have none of the interest and intricacy of a fully imagined political world. I'm inclined to go even further than Nabokov with regard to this book. It is some pages about David and his father, specifically the father's imagining of David's pain and fear, which lift this novel from the brilliant but rather brittle and excessively fussy realm in which it appeared to be stuck. The American philosopher Richard Rorty says 'the death of a child is Nabokov's standard example of ultimate pain', and we can refine this suggestion further: the pain of a child is Nabokov's dominant image of moral horror, even more unbearable than a child's death, and an emblem of everything that threatens to wreck whatever meaning and coherence life may seem to have. More specifically still, we can say that the suffering of the innocent is what unsettles all comforts for Nabokov, endlessly torments conscience and consciousness—I am thinking of the reported death of Pnin's friend Mira Beloshkin in Buchenwald, but also of the exclusion and suicide of Lucette in Ada, a title which among other things evokes the idea of hell. The child in Bend Sinister and elsewhere is both an immediate victim and the delegate of other innocents. The child's pain—our awareness of the child's pain—is where our moral world ends.

Krug learns about the atrocious mistake regarding David from one Crystalsen, 'Second Secretary of the Council of Elders', and initially identified only as possessing a 'red face, blue eyes, tall starched collar'. They are walking towards a police car which will take them to the place where David is being kept. The passage begins in innocuous-seeming indirect speech, but very soon modulates into other modes, particularly, abruptly, that of a direct address from the speaker which registers Krug's distraught responses without actually reporting them. Even when Krug hits Crystalsen we are told not about the blow but about Crystalsen's activities with his handkerchief.
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. You are hurting my wrist, sir. 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-and we are not here to discuss its worth, and you shall pay for my cuff if you tear it—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, to 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 speak, 'effundated', and eventually they would become good citizens.
The smooth flow of Crystalsen's patter is reflected in the reported speech—'unfortunately', 'as who would not'—but he also relays what must be the language and point of view of the authors and students of the 'theory'-they are the ones who speak of 'the most interesting inmates' and 'the really difficult patients'; enact government policy about what is 'evil', and what is and is not of 'value to the community'. They are also quoted (by Crystalsen) and spoofed (by Nabokov) as their vocabulary proceeds from the technical ('release-instrument') to the ludicrous ('effundated'). Deeper still in this textual trap, the language gives other games away: 'benefit', 'enjoy', 'yearnings', the implication that rape and murder are only 'so-called' crimes, that the urge to hurt and destroy is not a problem as long as it's not 'exaggerated'-all this suggests the real sadism entangled in the travesty of social theory. 'Wanton destruction of State property' seems to be a rather different sort of offence: probably just as much fun as rape and murder but more reprehensible, perhaps not even 'so-called' at all but the real thing, because socially so much more undesirable. The offhand 'now and then', almost hidden in the movement of the prose, adds its own little touch of horror.

We may sense that Crystalsen is enjoying himself, that he knows that this conversation is Krug's inferno, the ideal torment, that the idea of David caught up in such activities is worse than anything Krug has imagined. The bland abstraction of the theory functions as a kind of insolence, trivial in itself, but helping to degrade the very notion of suffering. It is at this moment that Krug hits Crystalsen.
The experiment might be criticized, of course, but that was not the point (Crystalsen carefully wiped the blood from his mouth and offered his none too clean handkerchief to Krug—to wipe Krug's knuckles; Krug refused; they entered the car; several soldiers joined them). Well, the enclosure where the 'release games' took place was so situated that the director from his window and the other doctors and research workers, male and female (Doktor Amalia von Wytwyl, for instance, one of the most fascinating personalities you have ever met, an aristocrat, you would enjoy meeting her under happier circumstances, sure you would) from other gemutlich points of vantage, could watch the proceedings and take notes.
'Well' mimes the storyteller settling back into his stride, getting on with the good old tale. Is this man mad, or merely diabolical? Crystalsen is enjoying himself, surely, in spite of his bloody mouth, perhaps now because of his 'bloody mouth.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.