Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Pnin by Any Other Name

I'm past the halfway point of Nabokov's short novel Pnin, and I pause to be dazzled by the growing complexity of so abbreviated a narrative. Just what's this book about, anyway? At this point, I'm not sure (though one must always be careful with Nabokov). Things that have been brought up so far include expatriate Russians (who are shown as absurd when viewed by their new American friends but also sometimes brilliant and sympathetic when viewed from their own perspective but also sometimes crass and selfish when viewed from any perspective and Nabokov is careful to make it clear that not all expat Russians hold the same values and/or political leanings), Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Sophocles' "Theban" plays, Jungian and Freudian psychologies, college politics, art teachers, parenthood, the role of children, perceptions of others and selves, chess, variability of texts from different translators, and God knows what else. Love, of course. Nabokov is always writing about love. In about 110 pages so far. Pnin is driving an old car out into the country to visit another Russian emigre right now. Pnin is not a good driver, despite what he thinks.

Nabokov's narrator also keeps sliding off into emotions that have, on the surface, nothing to do with the story. A boy looks out at the rain and the narrator (the doctor friend of Pnin, if you recall) briefly invokes a distant land where love is impossible. Shades of Kinbote, almost, the way cracks appear around the edges of exposition. Great stuff, though I have no idea to what end. I won't know until I get there, I suppose.

The Shakespeare aspect of Pnin reminds me to mention that I'll get to talk about Shakespeare in my next novel, and that excites me more than it should. It turns out that during the 18th century, Shakespeare was all the rage, translated into every European language and performed constantly everywhere, splitting critical opinion right down the middle (the classicists--especially the Germans--called Shakespeare a failure, while everyone else called him a genius of brilliant originality) in much the same way critical opinion was split about the works of our Mr Haydn. So that'll be fun. I will also invoke the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and possibly some bits about pastries and rats. We'll see.


  1. After having read chapter 5 of Pnin over lunch, I have to rethink my opinion of the novel. I can no longer call it "highly entertaining." Now I should call it extraordinary. Nabokov works amazing magic, and I don't mean in the typical Nabokovian formalist sense: in fewer than four pages he introduces a minor character, sketches the outlines of her relationship with Pnin, tells us of her death and how impossible it is to live in a world where such things are possible so Pnin is forced to pretend he never knew the woman at all, leaving the reader afraid to breathe lest the spell be broken. Of course Nabokov prepares the moment from page one of the book and I see his structural work (all very impressive) to make the moment possible, but even while I admire the sheer craft of it, I'm still deeply moved. Like I said, Nabokov was always writing about love.

  2. Sorry for posting so late in the game. By now it's well known that the person whose death is so terrible is linked to the squirrel motive in the book. Notice how often there are squirrels around Pnin, the analysis of the glass slippers that turn out to have been made of squirrel skin (not unlike how some germans in the 1940's made lampshades, soap and shoes out of a different kind of skin) and finally how Pnin used to call Mira Belochkina (which is a tender way of calling a Bielka or squirrel, like kitten is to a cat).