Adam Krug's Parrot
by Michael H. Begnal

The overt and almost startling appearance of the Joycean artist paring his finger nails at the end of Bend Sinister has led some critics to deny Adam Krug any true novelistic selfhood at all. "Our perceptions of reality are being carefully limited and directed by an overseeing stage manager. We are not to believe that the characters have any reality beyond the mind of their creator."1 It is certainly true that Krug is delivered from the horror of having to face his own shattered reality in a blatantly artificial stroke of authorial invention: "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."2 But this does not necessarily mean that the professor has been a puppet bounced on Nabokov's strings throughout the course of the narrative. Krug is observed by the author-Nabokov, but he exists in a state of freedom. He attempts to transform reality into a novel that he writes in his own mind, while the artist presence looks on.

Krug is on his own for most of the novel, as Nabokov himself points out in his Introduction, where he makes it clear that the authorial figure does not make an appearance until events are moving well along: "in the second paragraph of Chapter Five comes the first intimation that 'someone is in the know' . . . an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me" (xii). There we learn that this presence has more the characteristics of an onlooker, or even a voyeur, than of an author: "Some intruder has been there, has tiptoed upstairs, has opened closets and very slightly disarranged the order of things" (64). This deity acknowledges Krug's fictionalizing in an almost patronizing way, but he does not actually interfere or reshape occurrences. He is aloof, as when he comments on Krug's presentation of the professor's conversation with the dictator Paduk: "No, it did not go on quite like that. . . . Photographed from above, they would have come out in Chinese perspective, doll like . . . and the secret spectator (some anthropomorphic deity, for example) surely would be amused by the shape of human heads seen from above" (147). This speaker can more aptly be described as a member of the audience, rather than a player in the drama, until the final chapter.

Such a sense of distance is reinforced by the abrupt shift in levels of reality when Krug ultimately disappears, and the author figure surges to the fore: "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" (240). Padukgrad has become Cambridge, Massachusetts. Krug and his novel exist independently within the pages of this overlying novelistic frame, one co-existing within the other, much as a puddle on one level of reality is but a mirror of yet another on another. "I could also distinguish 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" (241).

Here the author narrator is accepting the separateness and independence of Krug's fictional existence, paralleling it with his own, rather than controlling and superseding it. Nabokov intimates in his Introduction that his author narrator intervenes only when Krug can face no longer the necessity of continuing the fictionalizing: "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" (viii). Krug has struggled with his concerns with death and loss, concerns which are certainly Nabokov's own, and he has given a good account of himself as a first time fictionalist. It is only when Krug has finished that: "this deity experiences a pang of pity for his creature and hastens to take over [italics mine]" (xii). Krug has been allowed as much latitude as he can desire.3

If it becomes clear that Krug is enjoying a relatively free hand, however, the next concern is what he does with it. What sort of fictionalist is this Adam Krug? One of the most salient and puzzling characteristics of his narrative is the slippage between the first person and omniscient third person points of view, which occurs at many times and places throughout the novel. As Krug prepares to cross the sentry manned bridge in the first few pages, for example, he fumbles for his pass: "He had thick (let me see) clumsy (there) fingers which always trembled slightly" (6). While there might be a temptation to identify the "I" perspectives with the author narrator, it is soon revealed that Krug himself is a duality composed of the man who experiences emotion directly and the man who stands back, observes, and then formally composes. Both these narrative voices intertwine, with the more logical voice doing its best to maintain a firm grip upon the emotional. In other words, it is the calmer half of the persona which attempts to keep control, and it does so by transforming the pain of experience into fiction.4

As Krug describes this situation, with the typical pronoun slippage:

As usual he discriminated between the throbbing one and the one that looked on: looked on with concern, with sympathy, with a sigh, or with bland surprise. This was the last stronghold of the dualism he abhorred. The square root of I is I. Footnotes, forget me nots. The stranger quietly watching the torrents of local grief from an abstract bank. A familiar figure, albeit anonymous and aloof. He saw me crying when I was ten and led me to a looking glass in an unused room (with an empty parrot cage in the corner) so that I might study my dissolving face. He has listened to me with raised eyebrows when I said things which I had no business to say. In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes. Even at the very moment when I was rocked by the convulsion men value most. My saviour. My witness. (7).
It is this split in Krug himself that explains the title Bend Sinister, since, as Nabokov explains, the heraldic bar which splits his escutcheon in two from left to right has nothing to do with bastardy. Instead: "This choice of title was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being" (vi). The Krug narrator is two voices striving to speak as one.

This "he" half of the writing persona, whose mask might recall V.'s meeting with Mr. Goodman in The Real Life of Sebastain Knight, can become Krug's savior because he or it can objectify the heights and the depths of human emotion. Thus he can make them understandable, as well as bearable. The tension between the "he" and the "I" can be explained by Krug's inability to maintain the desired authorial distance when emotion rises uncontrollably to the surface of the narrative line. As, for example, here, when Mac and Linda arrive to arrest David and Krug: "he frantically signalled to her [Marietta] to run, to run to the nursery and see that my child, my child, my child--" (200) .

It is at these times that the "I" pops out, since, try as he might, Adam Krug is not as accomplished a fictionalist as the author narrator, since the former has everything at stake. (When he must acknowledge Olga's death, in a telephone call to Ember, the Krug narrator again cannot keep his pronouns straight: "The telephone might not work. But from the feel of the receiver as he took it up he knew the faithful instrument was alive. I could never remember Ember's number" [27].) Krug has lived his life in this way, as the fictionalist who objectifies, but now he is faced with anguish assailing him from all sides. Bend Sinister is his attempt to turn the fictional trick just one more time. "When (some fifteen years before) both his parents had been killed in a railway accident, he had managed to alleviate the pain and the panic by writing Chapter III (Chapter IV in later editions) of his Mirokonzepsia wherein he looked straight into the eyesockets of death and called him a dog and an abomination. . . . But could he do it again?" (137). (Note the scholarly voice which interjects the chapter renumbering in the midst of the turmoil.)

If V. plundered Sebastian Knight's novels for his subjects and his techniques, Krug looks to the past (memory) and to dream (imagination). As he observes: "we start afresh now combining dim dreams with the scholarly precision of memory" (65), but he is well aware of the necessity of consciously imposing artistic structure on his material. He realizes a bit later that: "it takes something better than a paintbrush to create the sense of compact reality backed by a plausible past, of logical continuity, of picking up the thread of life at the exact point where it was dropped. The subtlety of the trick is nothing short of marvellous, considering the immense number of details to be taken into account, arranged in such a way as to suggest [italics mine] the action of memory" (84). In short, it takes art, and Krug has set out on the path of the fictionalist, rather than that of the autobiographer, much more overtly than did V. Earlier, Krug had described himself as a circus acrobat, performing his feats to the amazement of the audience, but afterwards retrieving a handkerchief: "so that he may wipe the palms of his aching weakening hands" (61). The strain of maintaining artistic distance is thus self evident, especially given the fact that in rapid order he has just lost his wife Olga, his friends the Maximovs, Ember, and Hedron, and that David is increasingly in jeopardy. Equanimity is something that Krug will wrestle with throughout the novel.

This desire to fuse the vagaries of memory and imagination results in the dreamlike, almost surreal, atmosphere of much of Krug's narrative, almost as if actual reality has become so unreal that it can only be recounted in the slippery images of the dream. Thus, in his interview with Paduk, Krug wears ice skates with the blades removed, hears the booming of the dictator's heart over some sort of monitoring device, and is constantly interrupted by telephone calls from an unseen observer who comments on Krug's deportment. Even more bizarre, in the middle of the conversation, is the appearance of a parrot: "The door opened slightly and a fat grey parrot with a note in its beak walked in. It waddled towards the desk on clumsy hoary legs and its claws made the kind of sound that unmanicured dogs make on varnished floors. Paduk jumped out of his chair, walked rapidly towards the old bird and kicked it like a football out of the room" (145-146). No further comment is made on this apparition, and, as we have seen, the author narrator says that none of this actually happened at all.

Yet the parrot football is an amalgam of Krug's memories and dreams, recalling the unused parrot cage mentioned earlier when he acknowledged his alter ego, the observer, and his dream memories of schooldays with the Toad. "Krug played football [vooter], Paduk did not [nekht]" (66). In this dream the football is exhibited in three museum cases: "first the new one, so clean as to be almost white the white of a shark's belly; then the dirty grey adult with grains of gravel adhering to its weather beaten cheek; then a flabby and formless corpse" (65). The parrot and the football come together as a kind of objective correlative which incorporates the feelings of threat and impending doom which Krug experiences during the meeting, exacerbated by his saying things which he has no business to say. (The parrot is grey and hoary; the football is grey and weather beaten. Both Adam and David will become corpses.) Krug's parrot is an artistic device which brings together all of the emotions and fears he must restrain, and here the structuring works.5

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Notes

1. Page Stegner, Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: William Morrow, 1969), p. 80.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 233. Further references will be drawn from this edition and included in the text.

3. Two critics have affinities with my position on this novel. Though H. Grabes finds that in Bend Sinister: "for the most part the narrator reports from his omniscient vantage point," Fictitious Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov's English Novels (The Hague: Mouton, 1977), p. 21, and he does not see Krug as the writer, Grabes later states that: "The presence of a character that has written or would like to write the very novel he appears in, is a recurrent element in Nabokov's narrative technique," p. 27. Julia Bader notices: "a repeated, teasing suggestion that Krug is not only the main character of the novel but also its author," Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 101, though she suspects another author is standing behind him. Yet she wonders, if Krug is the novelist, perhaps his is the only narrational voice, and he: "has deliberately designed his madness as part of the fabric of his work . . . and that here we see him looking back at the finished structure," p. 107. I would not go that far.

4. Richard F. Patteson sees things differently. To him, the narrator is a god-like creature who: "manipulates point of view, for instance, alternating his own detached, third person voice with Krug's first person reflections," "Nabokov's Bend Sinister," Studies in American Fiction, 5 (1977), 243. Pekka Tammi notes that the novel: "presents us with the case of a narrative starting as an auctorial construction, but evolving by degrees towards an ever greater individuation of the teller," Problems of Nabokov's Poetics: A Narratological Analysis (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Finnica, 1985), p. 115.

5. Ellen Pifer says that: "The superfluous parrot represents the aimlessness of bureaucratic involution, which the narrator must try to depict," Nabokov and the Novel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 74.

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