NABOKV-L post 0023889, Wed, 10 Apr 2013 08:44:00 -0700

Re: QUERY: VN on compassion in PNIN

It is a fascinating question now that you discuss it - I'll admit I was stumped
by the question. Pnin has alway struck me as a comic tragedy and the narrator,
like Don Giovanni or Don Juan, is the anti-hero/antagonist of the piece (first
reading I didn't even notice him much). But it's also true that the narrator has
a lot in common with the author himself. It occurs to me that VN was working out
some sense of guilt that he had in relation to someone. Could be his younger
brother, but most likely, as Galya Diment discovered many years ago, that
academic he displaced at Wellseley. She wrote a book, can't recall the title.

So 'compassionate' might have struck VN as a complete misunderstanding of his
real intent of expiation, and thus an insult. The narrator/author is not
compassionate, is he? He is dispassionate, selfish and capable of cruelty. The
subject of this darker side of VN has been discussed on the List before, but
it's been a while. It was kind of the author, though, in Pale Fire, to let us
see that Pnin himself survived his author's best intentions to do away with him.


From: Nabokv-L <nabokv-l@UTK.EDU>
Sent: Wed, April 10, 2013 6:36:50 AM
Subject: Re: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: VN on compassion in PNIN

I think this is a fascinating question and topic. Having thought a lot
about Pnin lately, my own sense of it is that VN might have felt that
"compassion" as a general first impression of Pnin ignored so many levels
(and details) of what he was doing in the novel that he could not even
engage in a discussion after such an opening. The things he wrote to the
New Yorker's Katharine White (if my memory is correct) about the
unpleasantness of the narrator, what many have called his cruelty and his
condescension towards Pnin, was probably much more important to him than
the feeling of compassion--what may be a false compassion, or at any rate
is a very complicated intertwining of compassion and mocking
condescension. I'm sure also that the answer "compassion" uttered this
way would have struck him as one of those "general ideas" that he
loathed--or, put more modestly and accurately, that he felt were
pernicious because antithetical to careful thought and attention.
"Compassion" would also have signaled that his novel was perceived as a
"human interest" novel, another pet peeve of his. I can imagine dozens or
hundreds of responses to the question that would have pleased him, but
"compassion", like "simplicity" and "sincerity" (see intro to Lectures on
Don Quixote, I think) is one that was automatically out-of-bounds. I
wonder if the word "tenderness" would have worked better for him, in an
answer like: "I love it for the tenderness it makes the reader feel for
its hero"---to which might be added: "almost in spite of itself". Other
answers he would have valued might have been---for the variety of colors
it describes, or for any specifically recalled passage's precision, for
any particular minor detail that reader valued.

It's interesting that the quoted anecdote resembles almost exactly in
structure the recent NYRB piece by Jay Epstein, discussed on-list. In
both, VN receives a hopelessly general response, and simply turns away.
Is it because he wanted to teach precision of perception, thought, and
expression only by example in his writings and in the classroom? Is it
that he felt that turning away was itself a pedagogical answer--"You are
so wrong I can't even reply; you must go back to the drawing board"? I

Stephen Blackwell

On 4/9/2013 10:39 PM, NABOKV-L, English wrote:

Dennis Kelly writes:

[. . .]

Why did Nabokov abruptly turn away upon hearing McConkey say, at a
noisy party, that he liked Pnin for its compassion? Did Nabokov think
otherwise? If so, why?

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