Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Weird, weirdo . . . weirdy weirdo. Weird! "Pnin" -- well, what the hell is it? It's by Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly that's good. That's a good thing for a book.

But before I get ahead of myself . . .

Consistency on the blog has been difficult lately. This is in part because, believe it or not, I'm student teaching presently. Student teaching is a challenging thing, I've discovered. I'm doing the best I can, but it's odd how try as I might, high school students feel no immediate need to read and enjoy the works of well-known authors and playwrights like Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare. I mean, c'mon, obviously those guys had something to say, and shouldn't it be self-evident? Shouldn't they virtually teach themselves? Well, the answer is that, no, not necessarily on any of those counts, according to high school sophomores.

Don't ask the average high school sophomore what (s)he thinks of most literature if you want to be heartened by where the future of literary appreciation is headed. They won't have an answer, typically.

Don't worry, I'm not naive. I already knew there'd be likely . . . resistance, resistance to being taught. I have ways of making them talk, though, so don't worry. I'm also not jaded, perhaps inclined to cynicism but not jaded.

And just because I'm working harder than I ever have in my life to date, that doesn't mean I haven't had time for some recreational reading. How could I put off some recreational reading? I couldn't and I haven't! "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov is just one of those books that I couldn't put off. Sorry to you who might have thought I could have put "Pnin" and other such books off. I will not be foiled. To say that I will is not a true fact.

[So some spoilers will no doubt follow this point.]

One of the things that I noticed about "Pnin" is it's like all ascent story arch. There's no climactic summit, and there's not a "coming down" descent. You just keep learning about the Russian professor, Timofey Pnin, and his exploits first in Europe and then at Waindell College stateside. No tortured souls, no monomania of a telltale variety, no justification or apology of those sorts of things already listed. This is a different kind of Nabokovian tale.

Here's this to get started:

Roy Thayer avoided talking of his subject, avoided, in fact, talking of any subject, had squandered a decade of gray life on an erudite work dealing with a forgotten group of unnecessary poetasters, and kept a detailed diary, in cryptogrammed verse, which he hoped posterity would someday decipher and, in sober backcast, proclaim the greatest literary achievement of our time -- and for all i know, Roy Thayer, you might be right.
And while that quote might not be terribly good for summing up Pnin the character, it does a nice job of articulating the academic setting in which he finds himself. This is good in part for the fact that we don't learn much about Pnin the character. He's certainly given to his many tics and idiosyncrasies; he's an academic of many years and middling esteem, regarded by his colleagues as something of a laughingstock; he's bogged down by an inescapable lack of coherency given the deep-seated quality of his heavy Russian accent (a fact for which Nabokov himself may well have felt some affinity when you hear interviews of the man available on youtube, or consider Thomas Pynchon's recollection of his erstwhile instructor while Pynchon was a student at Cornell University: plainly, that he couldn't make out what Nabokov was saying because of his thick Russian accent); he's a Pollyanna to the extent that he imagines good things could conceivably come his way (facts set forth by the narrator repeatedly seem stacked against good outcomes).

Still the narrative turns strangely, asking you as reader to appreciate the life and times of someone ostensibly insignificant as Pnin appears to be. The unnamed narrator would seem insignificant, almost objectively third-person, were it not for the fact that throughout the story this individual speckles various pronouns such as "I" in reference to itself (or more like himself), which struck me as important. It struck me as a metafictional turn by Nabokov, though I'm inclined to think he'd flatly deny it. Either way, whether he meant to or not, the narrator begins to seem like the voice of Nabokov himself, recalling this Pnin character with strange, obsessive clarity.

And as I say, the narrator whoever he is, makes various references to the fact that he doesn't know Pnin firsthand much at all. He supposedly first came across the youthful Pnin while a child himself, needing to see Pnin's father, Dr. Pavel Pnin, after having a granule of debris become lodged in his eye somehow. "One of those silly incidents that remain forever in a child's receptive mind marked the spaec of time my tutor and I spent in Dr. Pnin's sundust-and-plush waiting room . . ." After the granule was extracted by Dr. Pnin, the narrator reported, ". . . the tender doctor removed from my eyeball the offending black atom! I wonder where that speck is now? The dull, mad fact is that it does exist somewhere." This last line especially impressed me, because you immediately run the idea parallel to the narrator's perception of Pnin himself, a man he acknowledges knowing so very little of personally, as said.

Pnin is the narrator's (or Nabokov's) black speck. A human speck that he wonders about existing someplace. Everything of the narration, with notable exceptions (exceptions for which we need to take the narrator's and thus Nabokov's (either tangentially or at the fore) word), is left up to the great probability of being untrue, of being something the narrator has conjured to fill in the blanks of Pnin's life, the things the narrator couldn't possibly be certain of.

So thanks for that, Nabokov, what another very subtle and sly mind game you weave. How'm I supposed to sleep easy with my own wondering, wondering and wonderment over that.


  1. Funny thing, I have wrestled with the idea of buying Pnin, like...last week. From what you're saying, the book seems to be animated with the same Kinbote/Shade dynamic then Pale Fire. The looking-to-somebody-through-somebody-else's-eyes-where-is-the-truth, kind of mind games Nabokov loves to use. And I happen to love reading those.

    This review is the best argument for reading Pnin (and Nabokov) I have read in a while (maybe ever). I do wish that you could gather more posts like this. You have a dedicated reader.

  2. Thanks Ben! Appreciate the praise, certainly. And I would definitely agree that there are aspects of Pale Fire to Pnin, although Pnin is far more subtle in this way.

    I will try to post more (and read Nabokov more, too). I should have at least one more post before the month is out. Should be able to finish one or more of these books I'm in the middle of before then.

  3. Pale Fire is as subtle as a garbage truck. I mean, I admire what he tried to do there, as soon as Kinbote starts talking about his buddy, you know something's going on. I'd appreciate more subtlety, so I think Pnin and I are due for a date.