Saturday, July 12, 2014

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Faithful followers of this here blog will know I am just coming off a long term relationship with Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor, a 600 page novel about horny teenage cousins living on an alternate Earth that was spared the plague of Communists and Nazis which cursed our own world.  Despite the perils of so-called "rebound relationships," the day I returned Ada to the library I checked out a 1960 British printing of Nabokov's 1957 novel Pnin.  Will this be true love, or just a pathetic attempt to fill the V.V.-shaped hole in my heart?

Pnin is set in our own, all too horrible, real world.  The title character, Assistant Professor Timofey Pnin of Waindell College, a Russian intellectual, fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, completed his studies in Prague, and arrived in Paris in 1925, from which he fled to America in 1940.  His childhood sweetheart Mira, from whom he was separated by the 1918-1922 Civil War, escaped from the Communists to settle in Berlin, only to die in a Nazi death camp.

Escape to America did not end poor Pnin's troubles.  During the ocean voyage to the New World his wife Liza, poetess and psychiatrist, abandoned him for one of her psychiatric colleagues.  His academic career is little more than a series of disasters.  Pnin is unable to achieve tenure, unable to afford decent lodgings, and is subordinate to and passed over for promotion by scholars inferior to himself.  (The head of the Waindell French Department doesn't care for literature and doesn't even speak French, and so refuses to hire the francophone Pnin to teach French classes when a more famous scholar is hired to teach the Russian classes.)  His absentmindedness and poor English make him a joke among the college community, and in the climax of the book (in 1954) Pnin is let go and drives off from the college for parts unknown.

Like Ada, Pnin is written primarily in the third person, but is in fact a first person narrative.  The narrator is an acquaintance of Pnin's, a fellow Russian emigre and academic.  Our narrator claims to be a friend of Pnin's, but Pnin himself considers our narrator (whose initials, like those of the narrator of Ada, are V. V.) his enemy.  V. V., back in Paris, seduced Liza and then tossed her aside; Liza only married Pnin after begging V. V. to marry her. V. V. also subtly takes credit for Pnin's few successes.  And, the scholar replacing Pnin at Waindell is none other than V. V.

Appropriately, seeing as it is written by Pnin's enemy, the novel, which tells the tragic story of Pnin's life, is written in a light-hearted tone, at times approaching slapstick comedy, with the hapless and innocent Pnin the butt of almost all the jokes.  As with the V. V. of Ada, we have reason to question the reliability of Pnin's narrator.  In one of the few scenes in which both Pnin and V.V. appear, Pnin vigorously disputes the veracity of a story V. V. tells about him.

Nabokov's style is very good, smooth and studded with fine images.  There are the usual Nabokov touches-- talk of butterflies, and jocular mockery of psychiatry, for example.  Most importantly, Pnin works as both a comedy and a tragedy. I laughed at Pnin's malapropisms and blunders, and I was moved to the point of tears by such scenes as Pnin going to Washington D. C. to investigate exactly how Mira died at Buchenwald, or wailing "I haf nofing left," after his hopes of a reunion with Liza are dashed.  Over the course of the novel Pnin loses his country, his love, his hopes of a home and a career.  "Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?" Pnin asks.  Can we disagree?    

Weighing in at a mere 191 pages Pnin is more of a fling than the long term relationship that Ada became, but it was a satisfying fling.  Highly recommended.  Today I will be back at the library, selecting my next Nabokov experience.

1 comment:

  1. Using your vocabulary, perhaps it is time I visit a library and have my own fling with Nabokov. However, could that lead to feelings of jealousy? And given Nabokov's themes, what could be more appropriate?