Sunday, July 10, 2016

PninPnin by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] his attitude accentuated his striking resemblance, somewhat en jeune, to Jan van Eyck's ample-jowled, fluff-haloed Canon van der Paele, seized by a bit of abstraction in the presence of a puzzled Virgin to whom a super, rigged up as St. George, is directing the good Canon's attention."

For some strange reason I have never read Lolita so Pnin (1957) has become my first book by Vladimir Nabokov. This Russian-born author, who had emigrated to Germany and France and then - in 1941 - to the United States, and who first wrote in Russian, became one of the most famous writers in the English language. His works are included in the canon of the 20th century literature. Pnin, perhaps not as well known as some other novels, is Nabokov's fourth book written in English.

Timofey Pnin is a Russian-born literature professor who, via Germany and France, emigrates to the United States, and obtains the position of an untenured assistant professor of Russian at a fictional Waindell College. The parallels to the author's life are abundant: Mr. Nabokov had the same emigration path and then taught at Wellesley and at Cornell. The plot follows events happening to the professor at his college and in his personal affairs and sheds light on the story of his life, told in retrospections. In a word, we learn about "all things Pninian." Some deeper themes are present in Pnin as well: for instance, the intriguing relationship between the narrator and professor Pnin has an almost postmodern quality in that it inserts the author into the plot.

While some darker accents are present Pnin is mostly a hilarious read, a rich satire on the life in academia. Being a university faculty myself I can vouch for the accurateness of the college life observations: various silly rituals of social behavior that the usual menagerie of academic characters participate in are incisively portrayed. Some of the humor is based on Pnin's difficulties with the English language:
"[...] his verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are oracular. He calls my wife John."
Literary references abound, for instance the hilarious:
"the languid Ellen Lane, whom somebody had told that by the time one had mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read 'Anna Karamazov' in the original."
Yet the two aspects of the novel that resonate with me the strongest are not satirical: Professor Pnin is prone to a sort of seizures or episodes during which he experiences extremely vivid recollections of events and images from the past. How seamlessly his memories merge with the present! Then, of course, there are the squirrels! They appear several times in the novel, and the first time it happens the Professor helps a squirrel drink from a fountain - a memorable passage.

Mr. Nabokov clearly has extreme fun with English. The virtually unsurpassed command of his acquired language reminds me of Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, and who had also achieved world fame as a writer in English. And although I certainly prefer Nabokov's prose to that of Conrad's, there is an aspect of it, at least in Pnin, that bothers me. It is arrogant of me to criticize the style of a "master stylist of English language", but there are too many words in his prose: the sentences tend to contain thirteen words where nine would suffice.

To end with a positive accent, here is a best passage that I have ever read about a pencil sharpener:
"With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener - that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.
Three and a half stars.

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