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I thought Pnin a delightful tale of someone who is a wit in his own language, yet a clown in another’s.
Our eponymous hero is an exiled assistant professor of Russian in a middling American university, where the head of French literature dislikes literature, and has no French (appointed, no doubt, like British cabinet ministers): “If his Russian was music, his English was murder.” He is much mimicked by his fellow pedagogues. He does cut quite a comical figure, and his numerous scrapes are humourously described: boarding the wrong train, giving the wrong lecture, and worrying if Professor Wynn is Professor Wynn, or his “Twynn”. Pnin, with his “bright foreigners’ fondness for puns,” can be compared to Nabokov himself, dishing up puns with obvious relish, with subtle gradations that would take a smarter reader than I to get them all.
Amongst the deft daftery are some of Pnin’s scholarly insights into time in Anna Karenina, and how the words for glass in French (verre), and squirrel fur in Russian (vair), have been substituted in the Cinderella story. But the thing I dig most about Nabokov is his beautiful descriptive prose. (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert Humbert says in the opening of Lolita.) Some examples of his prose in Pnin are: “trembling trickle in its avid truckling to gravity”; and, “It’s a pity nobody saw as the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle.” There are many such passages.
Pnin moves from noisy lodgings every year, until his seeking of silence is realised with a perfect place: “a leetle breek house”. Yet there is no happy ending for Pnin. “I hate…happy ends” says the unnamed narrator at the beginning of the book. And so it proves to be, leaving Pnin to say of himself, “He has gone, quite gone.”
I loved this book for its prose and its characters, but I think a lot of it went over my head, not least the Russian references. I feel similar to how Borges felt about Joyce; he cites Lope de Vega’s respectful words on Gongora (an old Spanish poet), to describe his respect for the writer of Ulysses: “I will always esteem and adore the divine genius of this gentleman, taking from him what I understand with humility, and admire with veneration what I am unable to understand.”
Review written by Joseph Mattey of Byte the Book, Book Club in Kentish Town