Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin was published in March of 1957. Though mostly written after the completion of Lolita, it was published one year before that volume would be available in America, though two years after its publication in France. Americans were aware of Lolita but generally not able to obtain it, so when Pnin was released by the same author, many people took notice and Nabokov enjoyed his greatest success yet, though it would be nothing compared to the American reception of Lolita.

I can't imagine there being a shorter Nabokov novel than this, so if one wants a little dose of him without the heavy committment of a few weeks, Pnin is for you. I like it better than anything else except for Pale Fire and Lolita. It's significantly more engaging than Bend Sinister and more pleasant and enjoyable than Laughter in the Dark. It's not Pale Fire, but Pnin does appear briefly as a character in that book. It's not Lolita; Nabokov is in much safer territory here. But I imagine it is one of the best--and it won't be possible to verify that for a long time, so intimidating is his oeuvre--alongside perhaps Ada, which is his longest and which I hope I can review one day.

Like Pale Fire, Pnin resists categorization. In the first place, it appeared in pseudo-serial form in The New Yorker prior to publication, with several revisions made in the interim. In the second place, there are seven relatively short chapters which are barely connected by transition and blur the line between short story and novel chapter. It's fair to say Pnin is definitely a novel--not a collection of short stories--but it will be a different novel than you have ever read.

Chapter 1 details Professor Timofey Pnin's miscalculated train voyage to deliver a lecture to a Woman's Club, in which he has apparently brought the wrong lecture, but which is not really revealed in the text until the last words of the final chapter. Weird. Fantastic opening.

Chapter 2 is the story of Pnin's family life. The love of his life, Liza, who has married several other men besides him, often under random chaotic circumstances including a suicide attempt and revolutionary psychiatric practice, and her son (with the man who made a cuckold of him, Dr. Eric Wind) and Pnin's surrogate son, the high-school aged extraordinarily talented artist Victor. In Chapter 2, Liza comes to visit Pnin at his new home, which is in a room sublet by another professor and his wife at the college they both teach at, Waindell. Their daughter has gotten married and Pnin has taken her room. Liza comes to visit and he is overjoyed and he waits with baited breath for her to reveal the reason she came, what she had to tell him. When she reveals her purpose, it is both mundane and heartbreaking.

Chapter 3 is "a day in the life" of Pnin, lecturing at class, going to his office, returning a book to the library because somebody else wants it, which he can't believe, and hearing a random utterance which will later greatly affect his circumstances. I am trying to remove spoilers.

Chapter 4 is like a mini "portrait of the artist as a young man" starring Victor. Indeed you almost forget this book is about Pnin, until you realize the real subject of the chapter is Victor's first visit with Pnin, where he is meant to meet him at a train station, which results in a funny little mistake. Most of Pnin is comic and gets most of its laughs from Pnin's poor use of English and surprisingly confusing accent. Pnin gets Victor a couple of gifts, which don't go over that well, but which is still heartwarming in a way.

Chapter 5 is the story of where Pnin vacations in the summer, and his first attempts at learning how to drive. Here he falls into a nostalgic reverie which is one of the more enjoyable departures of the novel.

Chapter 6 is the most famous part of the book--where Pnin throws a "house-heating" party in the home he has recently rented entirely for himself. He is at his happiest here, though he is about to receive some unfortunate news--though it is only because of his stubbornness that it will affect his life.

In what may be the most inventive part of the book, Chapter 7 reveals the narrator's relationship with Pnin. The narrator who has made sly reference to himself at a few points finally enters the narrative and becomes a character. It is not Nabokov himself, but it would be easy to make that mistake. Some of the autobiographical elements of this novel are probably more revealing than in any other book by Nabokov excepting his autobiography, and gives a very realistic portrait of the life of a college professor, and campus life in general. As the introduction by David Lodge states, it is one of the first examples of the "campus novel" genre, after Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe in 1952. (I take some issue with this claim--This Side of Paradise doesn't take place entirely on a campus, but couldn't it be considered that?)

To my chagrin, Nabokov cannot resist besmirching the reputation of a certain then-recently-departed German author:

"Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers." (102)

To that I have to reply, "What do you want, Vladimir?" In all of my years of reading, I have never had to choose between two authors because I knew one author thought the other one's work was terrible. Nabokov is a literary genius and also a genius when it comes to cutting other authors down to size. In this case, it is traumatic for me. I will continue to love them both, and continue to point out every instance I find of Vladimir speaking badly of Thomas. Though Mann was 24 years older than Nabokov, and did not write in English, they are representative of their era in that one left Nazi Germany and one left Communist Russia, both emigrated to America, and both have contributed a few of the major works to the canon of Great Books--though Nabokov would probably disagree. Still, I wish we could leave this superiority-complex and arrogance out of books and all get along nicely, but that isn't Nabokov's style. Regardless, one is able to forget about it when Liza reveals a letter to the narrator in the final chapter:

"The letter has by chance remained among my papers. Here it is:
'I am afraid you will be pained by my confession, my dear Lise' (the writer, though using Russian, called her throughout by this French form of her name, in order, I presume, to avoid both the too familiar 'Liza' and the too formal 'Elizaveta Innokentievna'). 'It is always painful for a sensitive (chutkiy) person to see another in an awkward position. And I am definitely in an awkward position.
'You, Lise, are surrounded by poets, scientists, artists, dandies. The celebrated painter who made your portrait last year is now, it is said, drinking himself to death (govoryat, spilsya) in the wilds of Massachusetts. Rumor proclaims many other things. And here I am, daring to write to you.
'I am not handsome. I am not interesting. I am not talented. I am not even rich. But Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy. I want you to write poems. I want you to go on with your psychotherapeutic research--in which I do not understand much, while questioning the validity of what I can understand. Incidentally, I am sending you under separate cover a pamphlet published in Prague by my friend Professor Chateau, which brilliantly refutes your Dr. Halp's theory of birth being an act of suicide on the part of the infant. I have permitted myself to correct an obvious misprint on page 48 of Chateau's excellent paper. I await your' (probably 'decision', the bottom of the page with signature had been cut off by Liza)." (136-137)

These and other small emotional, comic, linguistic asides like--
"Chateau, who looked so jaunty, with one hand in the pocket of his white flannel trousers and his lustring coat rather rakishly opened on a flannel waistcoat, cheerfully said that in the near future he would have to undergo an exploratory operation of the abdomen, and Pnin said, laughing, that every time he was X-rayed, doctors vainly tried to puzzle out what they termed 'a shadow behind the heart'.
'Good title for a bad novel,' remarked Chateau." (93)
--make up the majority of the pleasures of the text. This is "light entertainment" for Nabokov, but a more serious novel than anything being published today anyways. When you've read the two more "important" books by Nabokov, Pnin will be an enjoyable palate cleanser.


Sycamore said...

Check out this issue of The Believer for its article on Nabakov, Kafka, and Amerikas (http://www.believermag.com/issues/200810/?read=article_thirlwell). You'd have to buy the issue to get the best parts of the piece, but it's worth it. I might be able to send you my copy if I can dig it out.

You writing is getting better and better, Jack, more sharp. Thanks for this.

JK said...

No, thank you for the compliment!

Interesting article. Perhaps now I know the real source of the Deerhunter song "Adorno." It would be nice to see the rest of the essay, but I don't want to take your whole magazine. Is it possible to xerox? People that publish in the Believer make me jealous.

Your letter is taking shape and is already 3000 words long. Will be sent early next week.