BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
1957 (Originally serialized in The New Yorker)
Filed Under Literary
For all my harping about Lolita being the best book ever, and Nabokov being the best author of the 20th century, I actually haven’t read that many of his works. Besides Pale Fire and a smattering of his short stories (I’m not counting The Original of Laura), I’m largely ignorant of most of one of my favorite author’s books. So I got my hands on a bunch of them and I’m going to read his whole oeuvre, slowly. My first pick: Pnin.
I chose Pnin mostly because it was short and I wanted a book to read on the subway. However I quickly found it to be an excellent example of Nabokov’s mastery of the English language—and it was his third language. Nabokov’s writing is thick and textured. That is not to say it is dense or laborious, but rather syrupy, slowly oozing sweet globules of sentence. He really likes uncommon adjectives and metaphors and uses a lot of alliteration (the bane of many a writer), and for the most part this works for him. Here is an excerpt I pulled completely at random, just opened the book and pointed a finger:
Half an hour later, Joan glanced over the moribund cactuses in the sun-porch window and saw a raincoated, hatless man, with a head like a polished globe of copper, optimistically ringing at the front door of her neighbor’s beautiful brick house. The old Scotty stood beside him in much the same candid attitude as he. Miss Dingwall came out with a mop, let the slowpoke, dignified dog in, and directed Pnin to the Clementses’ clapboard residence.
Pnin is full of great wordplay and description, with Nabokov flitting in and out of and around his characters adding layer upon layer. This layering builds one of the strongest and most acutely defined characters I’ve read to date. That can be hard to maintain for a whole novel. Pnin is short and was originally serialized, but it is a novel, and it’s a wonderful snapshot of Nabokov expanding his skill as a novelist in English.
Timofey Pnin speaks broken English and seems to wander about in a confused haze. He teaches Russian in a small liberal arts college. That is pretty much the whole plot. The story arc follows a simple A to B plotting. He comes to the school, he teaches, he eventually must leave. The End. If you’re looking for a winding yarn full of twists and turns and dipsy-dos, look elsewhere. However, despite nothing really happening, I never once found myself bored.
This is certainly due to the strength of the characterization. The way Nabokov renders him, it is impossible not to become completely immersed in empathy for the protagonist. You just want to hug him, or pick his brain over a cup of tea. I know it sounds sappy, and probably boring, but it’s not. He is quirky and enimagic. He is prone to outbursts and misunderstandings. He is kind and aloof and moves slowly. Pnin feels real, more like a breathing human than most characters I’ve read.
Most authors who try something similar tend to come across like they are tossing in the entire kitchen sink–this happens a lot in mediocre short stories especially. But not here. Nabokov’s language allows him to form something brilliant, complex, and tidy.
As a character study, Pnin is second to none. It certainly worth reading. But as a novel, this book is clearly a test bed for the brilliant techniques and styling to come from Nabokov’s later masterpieces, and not a masterful story itself.