If you ask me my favourite author, I would probably give you two names: Will Self and Vladimir Nabokov. This has been a constant since I was 17, when I discovered both almost simultaneously. Self I came across quite by accident, picking up My Idea of Fun from the bookshelves in a holiday bolt-hole in Whitby. Nabokov, on the other hand, I sought out quite intentionally, starting, as many do, with the (in)famous Lolita.
In Lolita, I found a beauty and emotion that I had never seen in a novel before, and have rarely seen matched since. To reduce it to simply a lewd story of paedophilic lust is to overlook the exquisite lyricism of the novel’s style and its power as an explosive account of obsession by one of literature’s most fascinatingly devious narrators. There are paragraphs in Lolita that give me butterflies, no matter how many times I read them.
As Lolita’s fame perhaps eclipses that of its author, I perhaps would have read no further had it not been for a conversation with one of the English teachers at my school, who noticed me reading Lolita whilst waiting for a lesson to start, struck up a conversation, and recommended I try Ada.
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, to give it its full title, is a novel about the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister, set in an alternate reality. What’s not to love? It is broader in scope and more complex than Lolita, and probably Nabokov’s greatest masterpiece of style, depth and story. It is mad, and wonderful, and it’s my favourite. But I’m not here to talk about Ada. I am here to talk about Pnin.
Finally, Pnin. Over the years, I made my way through everything else Nabokov had written, the English novels, the Russian novels, Speak Memory, and I completely ignored Pnin. In some ways I was loathe to read it: the work of a deceased novelist being finite, it was a comfort knowing there was one more work waiting to be discovered. Otherwise, I just became used to not having it within my Nabokovian terms of reference. And so things went on, until Penguin brought out their beautiful new paperback modern classics editions, and eventually I saw Pnin and could no longer ignore it.
Although there are comic elements in Nabokov’s other novels (Pale Fire in particular, and Lolita too has its surprising moments) Pnin is more overtly funny. It is a perfect comic novel, tinged with sadness. Set almost entirely on the campus of a fictional American university, the novel relates the misadventures of the eponymous Professor Timofey Pnin, a Russian emigre who is struggling to adapt to the life and language of the new world around him.
The novel opens with Pnin on the wrong train to deliver a lecture, the reader discovering this mishap some pages ahead of Pnin himself. There are two sentences in this opening scene which, to me, perfectly exemplify Nabokov’s wonderful command of language, ever present in his works:
When inviting him to deliver a Friday-evening lecture at Cremona – some two hundred versts west of Waindell, Pnin’s academic perch since 1945 – the vice-president of the Cremona Women’s Club, a Miss Judith Clyde, had advised our friend that the most convenient train left Waindell at 1.52 p.m., reaching Cremona at 4.17; but Pnin – who like so many Russians, was inordinately fond of everything in the line of timetables, maps, catalogues, collected them, helped himself freely to them with the bracing pleasure of getting something for nothing, and took especial pride in puzzling out schedules for himself – had discovered, after some study, an inconspicuous reference mark against a still more convenient train (Lv. Waindell 2.19 p.m., Ar. Cremona 4.32 p.m.); the mark indicated that Fridays, and Fridays only, the two-nineteen stopped at Cremona on its way to a distant and much larger city, graced likewise with a mellow Italian name. Unfortunately for Pnin, his timetable was five years old and in part obsolete.
As the novel develops, so does the character, and although Pnin’s escapades are narrated with comic perfection, a greater depth emerges as Pnin struggles to maintain composure in the face of finding lodgings, a visit from his ex-wife, Liza, awkward interactions with his ex-wife’s son and ongoing linguistic difficulties. It is language which most isolates Pnin and renders him incapable of fully settling into his life in America, and a motif repeated throughout the novel is Pnin’s inability to pronounce his colleagues’ names, as well as their own difficulties pronouncing his.
When around other Russians, Pnin is much more at ease. In a chapter which tells of a visit to the house of some fellow Russians, we get a glimpse of a different side of Pnin, astute and dignified, as well as some wider context to his circumstances: sitting in the garden, he is struck by the memory of Mira, a lover from his youth, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. It is one of the most moving moments in the novel:
In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened the peace of his mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.
It is impossible not to see something of Nabokov himself in Pnin, in particular his nostalgia as an emigre and his experiences in America. One particularly clear link between author and character is their shared experience of American dentistry: Pnin has his decayed teeth pulled and replaced with a gleaming set of dentures, as did Nabokov himself. But Pnin is not Nabokov. With a family around him and a total command of the English language, Nabokov avoided Pnin’s fate. After the events of the final chapters, we leave Pnin seemingly destined to remain an outsider. However, he has become so much more than just a figurehead for a series of comic escapades: in Pnin, Nabokov has created a multi-dimensional character who, despite the laughs, is intensely human. He will stay with me for a long time.