When the Red Room web page invited Red Roomers to write about a lesser-known novel by a great writer this week, I first thought of Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, two constantly blinking buoys on those ever-roiling lists of greatest novels ever written).
But it’s been a few years since I experienced the hair-raising magic of Laughter, its whirls of whimsy and thrilling, heartbreaking turns.
It so happens that, a week ago, I closed the covers on another lesser-known Nabokov, his short and funny gem Pnin, a novel written after Lolita, but often overlooked in Nabokov discussions. It’s a novel that readers who may feel too intimidated—or disturbed—by other Nabokov classics, are much more likely to take into their hearts.
Timofey Pnin (pronounced p-neen) is an emigrant Russian scholar and lecturer at Waindell, a small university in New York state (modeled on Cornell University where Nabokov taught in the 1950s).
There’s no plot per se in Pnin, but a series of picaresque incidents. We meet Pnin as he’s traveling to deliver a lecture at a far off town and learn early on that he’s on the wrong train. Clearly, we have a man adrift, a homely and homeless exile. Nabokov describes him as:
“Ideally bald . . . with that great brown dome of his, his tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck and strong man torso in a tightish tweed coat . . . ”
He almost sounds like a space alien. Or an odd, misshapen species captured in a distant jungle and then set loose to fend for himself.
But Pnin is very human and very much alone: his ex-wife dumped him on the boat over from Europe (as surely as if she’d thrown him overboard). He doesn’t understand his son; he comprehends the English language barely better than the strange inhospitable land he so wants to call his new home, America. On campus, he’s a figure of fun, an object of contempt, his intelligence and sensitivity obscured and ignored. Still, though he’s lost so much, he seems imbued with indomitable innocence and hope.
Pnin’s world is always crumpling like thin ice under his “frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” It’s like he’s seeing through two glasses darkly, with each glass set at a different angle, fracturing his vision and leading to a long chain of misunderstandings and near-calamities.
It’s not that Pnin gets off on the wrong foot wherever he goes. For him, there is no right foot to start from, not in America. It’s only when he returns to the Russia of his memories, or the one he finds in the stacks at the school library, and, in one beautiful episode, during a weekend he spends with some fellow Russian expats, that he finds comfort in his own skin. But these moments slip away, becoming like memories laid over memories. Soon Pnin is back to flailing in his alien adopted land, a place sometimes friendly and generous, sometimes mean and threatening.
Nabokov has been sometimes called a cold, unfeeling writer, but after five years or so of reading through his work, book-by-book, I cannot agree (though cruelties do lurk about, like snakes under a bright flowerbed.) For one, Bend Sinister, his version on the world portrayed in1984, may not be as artistically successful as Orwell’s book, but it nevertheless lifted tears in me more than once.
I find Pnin to be the most touching and kindly of his stories that I’ve read so far. Despite Pnin’s near-constant mishaps, some of his own making, Nabokov’s astounding lyricism captures Pnin’s experience and blossoms into a rare and amazing empathy.
It’s often a big mistake to impute autobiographical intent to a writer’s work—especially Nabokov’s. The author steers the reader away from seeing Pnin as a Nabokov self-portrait with the surprising emergence of a familiar character from Pnin’s Russian past, another exile, one who, instead being overwhelmed and consumed by this new land, has embraced it in his own way.
If there’s a “message” at the center of this bittersweet novel, it’s there but for the grace of God goes Nabokov.
As for the writing, it’s Nabokov prose as it always is--lovely. Delightful imagery and amusing insights alight in the mind’s eye like a butterfly. Pnin’s voice is described as “a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.” At one point, he becomes enchanted by his landlady’s washing machine “. . . watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.”
This isn’t merely the joy of writing. This is the joy of seeing things in a unique way, the way Nabokov sees them.
While Pnin may not strike a major chord like Lolita and other Nabokov books, its bright, charming lyricism and tender regard for the hapless soul at its center, has a way of sticking with you.