The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglebooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.
Poor Professor Timofey Pnin! He just can't catch a break! I really enjoyed reading Pnin
, as I enjoy reading just about everything by V. Nabokov, but I feel an inadequacy in reviewing his work, because it feels so reluctant to be reviewed. On the surface, the story is a simple sort of Russian, Saul-Bellovian mid-life crisis; on a character level, Pnin is a sort of lost flotilla at sea, and no one wants him, not his colleagues nor his expatriot friends nor his ex-wife. But in typical Nabokovian fashion all that sympathy is flipped upon it's head when we discover that the narrator is someone from Pnin's past, someone with a bitterness or disdain for the pathetic Pnin, with his bald head, stocky build, and suffocating misfortune. How much of Pnin
can we believe?
I feel strange sometimes reading mid-life crises novels. I feel a sort of detachment because I am only half way to mid-life myself, and I think when I turn the last page "I need to read this again with another 20 years of perspective." But Pnin
is a different animal entirely, sure I will read it again when I'm 40, but I'll likely read it again in a year or two anyway, because it is bliss. Pnin, though middle aged, is almost childlike: physically he strikes no imposing figure, emotionally he is quite immature and inexperienced in the areas of love, friendship, etc., and his clumsiness is irresistibly sympathetic and redolent of playground follies. I don't see myself in 20 years as a Pnin, but rather I see my Pnin-ness 10-15 years back! But Pnin's childlike-ness is not accompanied by a childish-ness, we see in Pnin a cohabitation of youthful esprit
, but a solemnity and remorse of agedness:
Pnin had taught himself...never to remember Mira Belochkin - not because...the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind...but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget - because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past.
I apologize for the extensive quotation, but it is observed here in this remembrance of Mira both his childlike solipsism and also his age-wrought sensitivity. He has taught himself
to ignore reality, to ignore what has happened to him, to live outside the gates of truth in the chaos of fleeting bliss, evading reality's magnetism. This solipsism, this evasion of all which contradicts one's sangfroid and contentment, is something so puerile, so immature, that the reader feels a sympathy and also a condemnation on Pnin. At once it seems that he blocks out Mira's death because his love for her is so strong, but then he reminds us that it was only a brief affair. It is not Mira's death which perturbs Pnin, but death in general. It's not necessarily a fear of his own death creeping towards him, but an aversion to the existence of death. But these concerns over death, Mira's death, are parleyed with such a knowing solemnity, one which speaks from a life lived, and a life not quite buried in the past, but which reaches into the present, which elucidates the present even if involuntarily.
Memory, life-lived and life-past, are very central to this novel of Nabokov's, as with many of his other novels; though the past is cosseted with a softer, if not more serious, touch than, say, Pale Fire
, where past-life is mixed with a question of delusion, or Lolita
where childhood experience is held up as a funhouse mirror excuse for perversion. In Pnin
the past is a solemn, though still humorous, thing. And the beautiful writing radiates with both festivity and ceremony at alternating turns: humor and tragedy commingled.
But that ceremony is reversed, nothing can be taken seriously because the man telling us about Pnin, is perhaps the least qualified to do so. He is the man who replaces him at school, he is the man who replaces him in his wife's affections, he is the man who displaces him, who drives him away. He is the sinister schemer behind Pnin's story, trapping him in at every labyrinthine turn, chasing him off in the direction he pleases. He is a shadowy figure, whispering his modus operandi: "Some people-and I am one of them-hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam," as he ensures that our (and his own) schadenfreudig
appetites are appeased.
Playful Pnin, pathetic Pnin, persnickety Pnin, paunchy Pnin, Pallid Pnin and the Summer Sunburn, philosophic Pnin, philological Pnin, Pnin the picayune, and plenary Pnin and all the panoply of Pnins in the masquerade of tragicomedic Pnin
. Yes, Pnin
is both sentimental ceremony and Bacchic festival of post-modernist games, and it's one I recommend to anyone who has a few hours to devote to logophilic frolicking, tragi-parodic gameplay, and the alliterative altercations between life and logos