NABOKV-L post 0026719, Mon, 21 Dec 2015 20:24:26 +0100

THOUGHTS - Pnin and intentional cruelty SET NABOKV-L REPRO
re: Pnin

I feel certain, amateur Nabokovian though I am, that, just for knowing
something about VN’s total oeuvre, I can claim with confidence that in
*Pnin* he did not indulge in gratuitous cruelty or sadism. At the end of
Chapter One, the first line of section 3, VN both tips us off and
taunts/tempts us to believe in his 'sadism':

"Some people - and I am one of them - hate happy ends. We feel cheated.
Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam."

The alert reader should ask herself, "But who is this guy, who can both
predict what's gonna happen, sees even things only a god could know, and
yet is in the novel too?"

With Timofey Pavlovich, as he did with Dolores Haze, VN lures readers into
forgetfulness and tempts them, with exquisitely crafted humour, to guffaw
mindlessly at the expense of poor Pnin. This indeed appears sadistic. But
that is exactly the point - later, when the whole work has been well
digested, he literary intricacy, pleasure/sadness and ultimate vindication
hinge upon a realization. The good reader clearly sees the suffering
protagonists for what they are: victims who did not deserve their fate, and
who were decent individuals .

One of my favourite parts of *Pnin* occurs precisely when he is mentally
sizing up just how INdecent is the morality of his treacherous ex lover
Liza. He muses,

To hold her, to keep her - just as she was - with her cruelty, with her
vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her
fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he
thought: If people are reunited in Heaven (I don’t believe it, but
suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that
shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul?

This is simultaneously so hilarious, profound and bleak. I get a little
shiver each time I reread it.

As for the identity of the narrator, it is Nabokov himself, or a composite
of VN and a very similar personage: another Russian intellectual in exile,
the “fascinating lecturer” who is in fact Pnin’s rival in the novel, both
in love and labor. Yet he is also quite fond of Pnin, appreciates his
qualities, calls him “my friend”, and, as also author of the novel, is
therefore also Pnin’s creator (even “his physician, for the nonce”, if I
quote correctly). This creator/doctor *seems* - again I must stress this
verb - to delight in placing his hero on the wrong train, getting him stuck
for two weeks on Ellis Island, scaring the devil out of him with faux heart
attacks, or parsing his endless errors in adopting the English language.
But that’s again just the point, to deceive or tempt the reader. This
marvellous fusion of the real author and the literary narrator is perhaps
the filament of the novel’s brilliance.

According to some, this revelation of the narrator’s identity is usually
obtained “too late” by most, or all first time readers. I’m not sure I can
grasp that, but for my two cents’ worth, while *Pnin* is not the sprawling
masterpiece that Lolita and Pale Fire exemplify; it’s a delightful read
(and re-read), rich with Nabokovian detail, beauty, and, of course, pity -
the latter to be fully appreciated, naturally, only after one has well
imbibed all of the former. A fully satisfying work.

(On a different note, one very interesting recurring motif in *Pnin* is
what I call the “miniature” or “little echo”, of which I’ve counted four
clear examples. If anyone is curious, I’ll detail them in another post.)

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