BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 6, 1957
By Vladimir Nabokov
When some of these sketches appeared in The New Yorker, it was clear that an extraordinarily memorable figure had been created, an individual so appealing and telling and plausible that he would not easily be forgotten. And now that we have seen Pnin even more distinctly, his idiosyncracies and above all the charm and the melancholy of his life still more touchingly illuminated, we recognize in him, as in Oblmov or Gregor Samsa, the superb fictional embodiment of a particular yet universal human situation. Pnin, the assistant professor of Russian at Waindell College, on his way (and in the wrong train) to address the Cremona Women’s Club; Pnin, an odd member of the Waindell faculty, immensely and wonderfully burdened with the memories of his Russian childhood and his years of exile in France and now America, the lonely and the sociable, the myopic and the clear-sighted, the victor and the victim—all these we knew, or thought we knew.
What we now learn from the expanded book adds a new dimension to our understand of Timofey Pnin: we can now piece together the story of his pathetic marriage, we meet his wife’s son at St. Bart’s and on a brief and taciturn visit to Waindellville. We see Pnin in the company of his fellow emigres and we hear above all, more distinctly than before, the voice of Pnin’s biographer himself, who arrives at Waindell to take on a professorship just as his old acquaintance and now, ironically, his predecessor, is about to leave the law. Pnin’s little sedan
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...free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one
could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after
hill made beauty of distance, and, where there was simply no saying what
miracle might happen.
Pnin’s career is altogether a chain of miraculous events and his ways of justifying himself are nothing short of saintly. For this eccentric refugee is most of all a man of unyielding faith in the integrity of heart and deed and speech. His life, suspended between poignant memory and frustration, between the sudden vision of clarity and the shock of defeat, can never come to terms with the stubborn realities of malevolent objects and of disappointing fellow creatures. Yet, his English, superimposed upon and abstracted from his own deeply experienced Russian, and awkward and incorrect, assumes an astonishing poetic force; and the immediacy of his relationship to the treacherous or exhilarating but never indifferent world of things sets in significant relief the dullness and monotony of the surrounding in which he performs. The disjointed and platitudinous routine of the society and the institutions in which he must maneuver is made grotesque and pathetic by the steady flow of Pnin’s recollections and the continuity of his own judgments.
In the saint’s life, the discrepancy between faith and reality takes on a solemn and heroic aspect. But Pnin is a saint of the comic, the quixotic, that is to say, of the modern persuasion. By the absurdities of his life by his laughable preoccupation with the patently irrelevant, he persuades us to readjust our focus and to revise our own sight.
This theme of an eccentric life is, in our day, common enough, but I doubt whether it has been elaborated with equal brilliance and, more important by far, with equal humanity. For Pnin is not an “outsider,” his perspicacity is not due to those prerogatives of psychological aberration or disease or violence which lend to so much contemporary fiction a fashionable plausibility. He is not a mind hopelessly apart from all community but, rather, a mind who has wandered away, who ahs been driven from the native grounds of his experience into a baffling world where, by habit and resolution, he must assert his heritage no matter at what cost to himself and at the inevitable risk of exposing the obtuseness of those among whom—as something like a poltergeist—he is for a while allowed to exist.
It is of course not as a piece of social criticism that Pnin should be read, although there are few observers of American life so clear-sighted and brilliant and understanding as Nabokov. But his relentless eye upon the precise topical incident identifies rather than deprecates the social setting against which Pnin becomes alive. Nabokov’s sense of details, this is to say, is never naturalistic but effectively poetic: it involves a subtle, vigorous and often ingenious grasp of cultural alternatives. The rooms Pnin inhabits have, we are told, one general characteristic in common:
“In their parlor or stair landing bookcases Hendrik Willem van Loon and Dr. Cronin were inevitably present: they might be separated by a flock of magazines or by some glazed and buxom historical romance, or even by Mrs. Garnett impersonating somebody (and in such houses there would be sure to hang somewhere a Toulouse-Lautrec poster), but you found the pair without fail, exchanging looks of tender recognition, like two old friends at a crowded party.”
Pnin himself, the Russian ?migr?, is by no means at a loss in this curiously fascinating–American—world of things; he lives, not as an absent-minded professor part from it, not as its resigned victim:
“… on the contrary, he was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered his sphere of existence.”
This passage establishes not merely the energy and vigilance of Pnin’s character, but reflects upon his view of the relationship between actuality and imagination. He is invited, at one point, to look at a cartoon in a magazine. “I do not want, John,” he replies—he mispronounces Joan’s name—“You know I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement.”
Whether he watches the fascinating tumble of clothes in the washing machine or reads the latest issue of the Russian language daily published in Chicago, whether we see him happily settled in the wrong train or eagerly preparing what turns out to be his final party at Waindell, Pnin emerges as a figure of uncompromising alertness vis-?-vis the objective world. But his alertness is not merely, indeed not even primarily, intellectual. America, his adopted country, is seen without irritation, his lost Russia without sentimentality—the one world illuminates the other. He lives at Waindell,
“… a somewhat provincial institution characterized by an artificial lake in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries connecting the various halls, by murals displaying recognizable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Pasteur to a lot of monstrously built farm boys and farm girls.”
The American world, however hospitable, is not easily digested; one of the first adjustments which he must make in this hygienic country is the pulling of all his teeth and the fitting of a shiny new bite. It is his memories that give him courage. Again and again he is enveloped by the recollection of moments of his earlier life, memories that seem like epiphanies, to lend reality and poignancy to his present. And it is, always, the underlying pulse of his native language that remains the best guarantee, the true test of his vitality of heart.
Pnin’s own personal substance, his objective presence itself, lends credibility enough to the world of which he is such a curious member. But the resonance of this world is immeasurably extended and enhanced by the discrete yet delicious strategy by which Mr. Nabokov, through a gradually more implicated narrator, reports on Pnin.
Mr. Nabokov’s craftsmanship is admirable; he shows us each element of his invented world in a succession of ironic variations: with his astonishing resources of language and his quicksilvery perception of associations, he keeps us endlessly delighted, and forever compels us to test the palpably firm surface of his tale for its infinite crevices of meaning. The plainest, most “single-minded” object is given a sudden and unforgettable animation: Mr. Nabokov, we remind ourselves, after all, translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian.
Like the word he inhabits, Pnin cannot be grasped in a single image. To his fellow citizens of Waindellville he may appear to be plainly absurd; to us and to the narrator—and indeed to himself—he is a figure of almost inexhaustible paradox. If he seems himself mimicked, he does not and cannot and perhaps, must not recognize the truth:
“In two-three years,” said Pnin, missing one bus but boarding the next, “I will also be taken for an American.”
Pnin’s vita, though its essence is saintliness, is yet a work of brilliant magic and fabulous laughter. That ill-fated journey to Cremona where Pnin was to address the Women’s Club and during which he is so sadly worried about his manuscript is an earnest of his life to come. We do not learn until the end of the book that on that occasion Pnin, not listening to the introduction by Miss Clyde, “an ageless blonde in aqua rayon, with large, flat cheeks stained a beautiful candy pink and two bright eyes basking in the blue lunacy behind a rimless pince-nez,” and rising to address the ladies, discovered that he had brought the wrong lecture.
By Victor Lange