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Vladimir Nabokov’s PNIN

On vacation, I always try to fill a hole in my literary knowledge by bringing along a book I aspired to read. This time it was Nabokov and Alice and Wonderland. The only Nabokov I had was a yellowed, or rather browned, version of a book I’d never heard of, Pnin, 1957 edition. The cover had bitten the dust and the binding was so fragile that the book separated into two even parts shortly after I started reading it. I had no scotch tape with me on vacation, so I held both parts together as I read. I have no idea how this book got on my bookshelf.

By the time I got to Chapter Two, I already felt a niggling undercurrent of laughter, admiring the acute and creative imaginings of Nabokov, but had to stop on page 29 and put the book down after this stunner: “The Clementses felt dejected, apprehensive, and lonely in their nice old drafty house that now seemed to hang about them like the flabby skin and flapping clothes of some fool who had gone and lost a third of his weight.” Original, astute metaphors, even metaphors within metaphors or similes, like this one are strewn unpretentiously through the book. As I write now I am wondering how to create my own metaphor about his metaphors…though it is impossible to compete. The metaphors were “like pearls fallen from a broken necklace,” or “like the errant exhalations of a repressed genius,” or “like lightning on a clear night.” Have at it, see if you can match Nabokov. I can’t.

The story trudges onward, in the manner of its protagonist. There is only the barest outline of a plot; but its dullness is lit by sparks falling mid-sentence: the reappearance of a character you met only briefly 50 pages ago, a memory of a Russian river, a turn of events that only a brave author would think to create. The protagonist Pnin’s ex-wife occasionally floats into view in person, in his memory, in other people’s memories, though her son, in so many guises I can’t remember them all. The events on which the story is strung function as a mystery, yet unlike most great mysteries, the ending is stunningly ordinary.

He plucks powerful adverbs and adjectives from a dictionary that I have the same access to as he does.

At the risk of wandering on too long, I’ll treat you to some gems.

Pnin arrives at a home where he will take a room and announces “I must warn: will have all my teeth pulled out. It is a repulsive operation.” He goes to town and has the repulsive operation and then walks back home. “A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. 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.”

Or “He had a passionate intrigue with Joan’s washing machine.”

Pnin refuses to join his hosts’ offer to look at a magazine together, “I do not want, John. You know I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.” “…a tall, leafless poplar as brown as a broom.” “two young twittering Englishmen,”

Pnin is one of a large company of White Russians who fled first to Paris in the 1920s, then landed in the United States. “I saw Pnin [and his wife] at an evening tea in the apartment of a famous émigré, a social revolutionary, one of those informal gatherings where old-fashioned terrorists, heroic nuns, gifted hedonists, liberals, adventurous young poets, elderly novelists and artists, publishers and publicists, free-minded philosophers and scholars would represent a kind of special knighthood, the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals, for whom the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskiites (whatever those are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, titled ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatsoever.” The indictment of American ignorance could not be more informed, subtle, or thorough.

I could go on, and on, and on. But will leave you with a recommendation to read a hilarious book written by an author who masters every aspect of novel writing: character development, linguistic skill, plot development. Like many authors, I find faint imitations of the style of other authors in my work. The most recent one was Henry James, The Golden Bowl, and afterwards, I had to stop myself from writing sentences half a page long, with digressions and diversions within every sentence so dense that I often had to go back and start at the beginning again. Of course, he introduces the subject of the sentence, and of course, it is correct grammatically to substitute a pronoun for that subject, but with James, I often had to go back and figure out who “he” was—he’d been left so far behind. Yet I learned from James that what goes on in the characters’ minds is the point. Mark Twain encouraged me to be sly and wry; Frank McCourt encouraged me to tell the truth, and so on. But any hope to imitate Nabokov is going to be vain. His powers of visual observation, his productive hunt for perfect but unusual adjectives and adverbs, is beyond my capacity. I think. The mission of every author is to find their own style, and if even a drop of Nabokov’s skill, color, and flair can color my work, I’ll be satisfied.

Next up: Alice in Wonderland.