Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

Nabokov: Pnin

September 26, 2017

Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage, 1989) [1957]
191 p.

Nabokov began Pnin, a novel about a Russian professor emigrated to the United States, as he was in the final stages of writing Lolita. As that book had some trouble finding a publisher, it was Pnin that hit the shelves first. Unfortuately for Pnin, and for its character Pnin, Lolita appeared the following year and thoroughly eclipsed Pnin. But it’s an excellent book all the same, of course; no-one who can write like Nabokov could write something wholly unworthy of attention, and Pnin is very far from being that.

We first meet Pnin as he is en route, in a fairly disorganized fashion, to deliver an evening address to a women’s group in a town some distance from Waindell College, where he teaches. Later we encounter him switching residences, only to find himself beseiged by the noisy antics of schoolchildren. Later still he is hosting a dinner party for academic colleagues. Nabokov is on record as not particularly caring for plot as an element in fiction, and though the cunningly constructed masterpiece that was to be his next book, Pale Fire, might seem to belie that claim, Pnin shows No-Plot Nabokov at his considerable best. To be sure, we get to know Pnin, and we learn quite a lot about his history and his present hopes, his family and his friends, but the half-dozen chapters of the book might, it seems to me, be shuffled around without great impairment to the effect, and each might stand on its own as a masterclass in miniature.

For Nabokov is a master of prose, and that, for me, is the principal attraction. His humour is sharp, his diction impeccable, his tone elegant and erudite. When, for instance, Pnin has his remaining teeth removed in order to make way for dentures, Nabokov gives us this delightful passage:

It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

Later we learn that as a young man Pnin had been in love with a woman, Mira, from whom he was separated by the Russian Civil War, but whom he encountered again, a decade later, in Germany:

…one night, at a Russian restaurant on the Kurfürstendamm, he saw Mira again. They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all — but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.

And I, at any rate, can sense the vibrating outline of those verses too.

Given the similarities between Pnin’s history and Nabokov’s own, it is tempting to see the novel as partially autobiographical. In support of this we might cite Pnin’s numerous careful sotto voce lepidopteric observations, but then Nabokov put such material into many of his books. Certainly Pnin has not the linguistic gifts of his author, a good portion of the novel’s broad comedy deriving from his manful but unavailing wrestling with the English tongue. In the end, I know of no particular reason to think the book particularly autobiographical in substance.

Though I enjoyed this and that aspect of the book, I suppose that on balance I am mildly disappointed with Pnin. For me the summit of Nabokov’s art, insofar as I know it, is Pale Fire, and naturally I approach each new Nabokovian novel in the hope of scaling another such summit. It’s a self-defeating recipe for disappointment. But on its own terms Pnin is funny, entertaining, sometimes touching, and technically virtuosic. A good read.

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[Academic life]
And still the College creaked on. Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoyevsky and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still laboured under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Word plastics like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue. As usual, sterile instructors successfully endeavoured to ‘produce’ by reviewing the books of more fertile colleagues, and, as usual, a crop of lucky faculty members were enjoying or about to enjoy various awards received earlier in the year. Thus, an amusing little grant was affording the versatile Starr couple – baby-faced Christopher Starr and his child-wife Louise – of the Fine Arts Department the unique opportunity of recording post-war folk-songs in East Germany, into which these amazing young people had somehow obtained permission to penetrate. Tristram W. Thomas (‘Tom’ to his friends), Professor of Anthropology, had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandoville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers. Another charitable institution had come to the assistance of Dr Bodo von Falternfels, to enable him to complete “a bibliography concerned with such published and manuscript material as has been devoted in recent years to a critical appraisal of the influence of Nietzsche’s disciples on Modern Thought”. And, last but not least, the bestowal of a particularly generous grant was allowing the renowned Waindell psychiatrist, Dr Rudolph Aura, to apply to ten thousand elementary school pupils the so-called Fingerbowl Test, in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of coloured fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.

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If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.

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Happy New Year!