Thursday, February 24, 2011

PNIN by Vladimir Nabokov

Near the middle of Pnin, Nabokov pulls out of his stylistic hat a gorgeously lyrical sentence that proves there's nothing necessarily fallacious about imitative form:

The brook in the gully behind the garden, a trembling trickle most of the time, was tonight a loud torrent that tumbled over itself in its avid truckling to gravity, as it carried through corridors of beech and spruce last year's leaves, and some leafless twigs, and a brand-new, unwanted soccer ball that had recently rolled into the water from the sloping lawn after Pnin had disposed of it by defenestration. (108)

Look beyond the alliterative music of this lovely line and notice that it's an overloaded, 'flooded' sentence that flows meanderingly down the page in a formal parallel to the swollen stream it describes. This is writing and wit of a very high order.

Unfortunately, the novel is not as good as its best moments. Pnin contains beautiful, unexpected passages on painting (94-98) and an equally unexpected, moving digression on the Nazi genocide (133-135), but as a whole it's an oddly disjointed novel, a loose collection of academic episodes that can be read as a more traditional precursor to that academic novel to end all academic novels, Pale Fire. Pnin's most important relationship, that between Pnin and the unnamed, Nabokov-like narrator who is 'unmasked' in the last chapter as Pnin's erotic and professional rival and who is possibly--or even probably--Nabokovianly mad, is a distant but distinct pre-echo of the relationship between Pale Fire's John Shade and his mad annotator, Kinbote. To better understand Pnin, however, we should perhaps ignore this precursorial significance and think more deeply about the relationship itself. For it seems that Pnin's narrator, a shadowy and almost purely grammatical presence until he usurps Pnin's story and academic position in the surprising final chapter, significantly changes over the course of the novel. (And this change itself might be Nabokov's sly, subtle parody of the obligatorily altering 'round' characters prescribed by E. M. Forster and his followers.) In the beginning, the narrator is a cruel caricaturist of his central character, inadvertently constructing a case study in the cruelty of the comic. But just as we the readers begin to settle comfortably into this interpretation, this appreciation of the narrator's ironic unreliability, that narrator becomes more sympathetic toward his antihero, even as he vanquishes him. (It's easy and costs nothing, of course, to sentimentalize those we have destroyed, but the narrator in the novel's latter half exhibits sympathy toward Pnin, not sentimentality.) The turning point may be the aforementioned passage on the Holocaust near the end of chapter five: these pages mark the narrator's unwritten realization that he's telling a tale more tragic than comic, that his caricatural project is foredoomed because his real subject is the impossibility of comedy in a world of genocide, death camps and the Gulag... But I hesitate to push this idea any further. Like all Nabokovian word-worlds, Pnin is a place of irony abounding. It is a realm where all interpretations are but castles built on quicksand. A deconstructive reading might find the novel issuing in an aporia (what a surprise!) between Pnin's and the narrator's versions of Pnin, but this attempt comes quickly and obviously to shipwreck on the fact that we only have 'Pnin's version' as mediated through the narrator, a character who knows Pnin, for the most part, at second- and third-hand--who doesn't really, in short, know Pnin at all. So if this text does in fact vanish into a postmodern fog, it's not the De Manian pea soup of undecidability but the more immediately troubling ground-cloud of individual unknowability. And aren't we all lost in that fog? this novel finally asks. Forced to know the characters of our world through the mediation of others, we muddle through a life that's half-mystery, half-conjecture, only to find ourselves at the end of it in thrall to that ultimately unsettling other, memory, that unreliable narrator inside our heads. Yes, we too are such stuff as Nabokovian novels are made on. And our little lives are rounded with copyright pages.

3 comments:

plechazunga said...

Nice post!

"but as a whole it's an oddly disjointed novel, a loose collection of academic episodes"

I've heard it was modelled after Lermontov's The Hero of our Time. It's looseness might be deliberate (which would not be surprising -- after all it's a Nabokov!) ... but I've yet to read it.

Krust said...

Definetely, it's not a good novel. I agree with you that it's an oddly disjointed novel... Too much charachters around for this singular Pnin.
(Excuse me for my english. I'd like to say more but...)

Regards fom Barcelona.-

Di said...

"In the beginning, the narrator is a cruel caricaturist of his central character, inadvertently constructing a case study in the cruelty of the comic. [...] The turning point may be the aforementioned passage on the Holocaust near the end of chapter five: these pages mark the narrator's unwritten realization that he's telling a tale more tragic than comic, that his caricatural project is foredoomed because his real subject is the impossibility of comedy in a world of genocide, death camps and the Gulag..."

I disagree.
Seeing Pnin as a comic figure is simplistic not because of the Holocaust, but because you have to juxtapose the scenes of Pnin being with his American colleagues and being among his Russian friends. Pnin is erudite, witty and respectable; his American colleagues simply fail to see anything beyond the superficialities, beyond the laughable, clumsy appearance. That's why the novel is deeply sad; we may laugh at 1st at Pnin's clumsiness or ridiculousness or heavy accent, but after a while it's no longer funny.