Friday, July 27, 2012

likely reduces my potential readership

The ending of Nabokov's Pnin, while satisfying to me, probably would baffle many readers. Or some readers, anyway. The narrative shifts focus away from Pnin, the alleged protagonist, to the narrator, another Russian emigre named Vladimir (the implication is strongly made that it's Vladimir Nabokov, of course, and how tricky of the narrator to slip in the name Sirin among a list of Russian expatriate writers). Pnin has lost his post at Waindell College and his old acquaintance Vladimir is being brought in to head the Russian Studies division. Pnin feels betrayed, though none of his courses have ever been popular and the head of the German Language department has carried Pnin for years. Still, Pnin fails to understand the fiscal politics and all he knows is that he's being kicked out into the cold, just when he believes that he can finally, after having been rootless for many decades, settle down. He had planned to buy the tidy brick house he was renting. Alas, we last see Pnin and all his worldly goods crammed into a small older-model car, speeding down the highway as he leaves Waindell College behind. Vladimir has offered to hire Pnin as his assistant, but Pnin refuses the offer.

The last couple of chapters are spent outlining a couple of ideas: how we might think that a shared experience binds us to others and makes them familiars even though that is not necessarily the case (Vladimir recounts vivid memories of his Pninian encounters over the decades, and Pnin denies the veracity of these memories); how reducing others to a stereotype causes us to turn our perceptions of their every act into foolishness (Vladimir is treated to a several-hours-long impression of Pnin by another faculty member, wherein facts are distorted in order to make Pnin look more foolish than he really is; we know that Pnin is no idiot, that he has a sophisticated intellect and he's dazzled us by now with his deep understanding of the structure of Anna Karenina); the thinly-veiled despair and anger of Nabokov (the author, not the fictional Vladimir) at how a generation of Russian intellectuals washed up on the shores of America and were essentially ignored by the American intellectual culture, many of the Russians finding their way into academia where they were treated as curiosities and second-class minds who were all more or less interchangeable. So this is a book of great longing, a story of an entire class of people who migrate forever in foreign lands, their own culture dissolving and marginalized and forgotten, a private population united more by having been expelled from the motherland than by fellow-feeling and shared ideas (do all the Russian emigres cling to each other and grow faster in friendship? No, they do not). It's a complex little book, as I say. Nothing is resolved. Nothing can be resolved. Pnin goes on, into the hopeful morning, and while his particular tale is one of much sadness, Nabokov has not written a tragedy. Or, rather, he has not given us a tragic end to a tragic tale. The story slows, the narrative turns crystalline and still, we're shown a comic tableau and then it's over.

Pnin does not operate like any other novel. It has its own form, its own concerns, its own ideas of what truths need to be shown. It is not the transformative journey of the hero; it is not the five-act Shakespearean tragedy; it is not the comic romance; it is Pnin. I have begun to think that the structures of Nabokov's novels have more in common with the structures of Modernist poems than with the traditional inherited structures of Western literary novels. That inkling of an idea interests me a great deal. A lot of novelists are trying to recreate those inherited ideas of literature, and certainly I've done that in my own work, but lately I find myself moving away from that inheritance, or at least trying to move away from that inheritance. I don't make the argument that it is in any way incumbent upon writers to seek the New, to reject the Old; that's kid stuff and I've got no time for that. What I do think is that there are interesting ways to build narratives, that novels can do more than retell cliche stories in cliche ways and that we can do more than just dream up ways of dressing old tropes in new hats and making them dance in front of brightly-painted new sets. What those "interesting ways" are is vague; all I know is that on some level I have a drive to be honest (whatever I mean by that) in my work, and that particular honesty requires a purging of cliches and stereotypes from my writing. Which, you know, likely reduces my potential readership. Thank Jupiter I don't write for money.

I'm reading Sebald's The Emigrants now. It's interesting and I like the prose. Very very long paragraphs. I don't see that the photographs add anything to the narrative, though. They seem gimmicky. But I like the writing.

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