Book Review: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

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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. 

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Book Review: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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Re-discovering Muriel Spark

I would probably count Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington amongst my favourite novels. It is at once a brilliant study of human character, a rather neat critique of society, and a great story. It was also the first Spark I ever read, and I was excited by this new literary discovery. Unfortunately, for me, the next couple of her novels that I read didn’t quite live up to the splendour of A Far Cry From Kensington. Symposium was an enjoyable enough read, but the characters, seen only over the course of one evening, failed to make an impact and I quickly forgot it once I had finished. The Public Image, on the other hand, was quite an affecting read, with its themes of insecurity and duplicity. However, I ultimately found it somewhat one-dimensional, almost as though, in choosing to focus on a theme, Spark had overlooked the need for fully developed characters and setting. I know that it was shortlisted for the Booker prize the year after its publication in 1969, though, so I’m quite open to someone telling me I’ve missed something.

And so I left Spark for a while, mainly in favour of Margaret Drabble, who became my go to for what I would probably describe as ‘human experience’ novels.

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There is an online reading group on the Guardian website, which I occasionally dip into. (I am incredibly middle class, I know, for which I can only apologise, in a true middle-class manner.)  The online reading group told me that February 2018 marked the centenary of Spark’s birth, and so one of her novels would be chosen as the group’s book for February. Readers were invited to make suggestions, and a couple of articles were published. The ensuing debate below the line reminded me of how much I loved A Far Cry From Kensington, and how embarrassingly poorly read I was when it came to her other novels, particularly some of the early ones for which she is perhaps best known. And so I went promptly to Waterstones and bought The Girls of Slender Means.

Like many of Spark’s novels, The Girls of Slender Means is short, perhaps little more than a novella, and would be easy to read in the course of a single day. Some novels are great to read like that, others burn more slowly and you need to allow them to sink in. For me, this is one of the latter. I dipped in and out of The Girls of Slender Means over a week, which gave it time to float around and settle in my head.

The story is set in London in 1945, just after the end of the war, although it is framed, flashback-style, by conversations taking place between the characters in the ‘present day’ (presumably some 15 years later, in the early 1960s, when the novel was published).The setting is the May of Teck Club, a tall house providing dormitory accommodation for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. The main characters all reside at the Club, and it is this shared experience which binds them all together, despite their differences.

The novel opens with tragic news being shared between the characters, now scattered in their separate lives, in a brief ‘present-day’ scene. This has little impact on the story, but hangs over it like a dark cloud, encouraging you to look for clues about what is to come. Until the final few pages and the novel’s dramatic denouement, very little action actually comes to pass, but in the characters comings, goings, and dealings with each other you start to feel that you are experiencing the depth of their lives, with all the privations and aspirations almost unique to these few months in British history.

With almost the entirety of the novel being set inside the Club, the house is brought to life through the descriptions of its living conditions and how those who live there adapt to them. Sound is a big part of this experience: the prose is peppered with lines and stanzas from classic poetry, overheard by the characters being recited by the character Joanna, who gives elocution lessons in her room. The sound of the wireless, and the “background echo of voices” also drift frequently through the house, distracting Jane (“fat but intellectually glamorous by virtue of the fact that she worked for a publisher”) who tries to concentrate on her ‘brain-work’. Even detail of the new (and unpopular) brown wallpaper is crammed into less than 150 pages of novel, thanks in no small part to Spark’s sparse yet perfectly precise prose style, which is so easy to read and yet, you suspect, requires quite a skill to actually write.

I really enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means. It’s length is deceptive: there is a lot going on and you are left feeling very close to the characters and intertwined in their lives. Despite its light, straightforward style, there is a dark undertone throughout and the final scenes have left the novel well and truly ingrained in my mind.

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

The Book Pile

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I don’t like to plan ahead too much when it comes to reading: I prefer to just pick up whatever I’m in the mood for when I finish the previous book. But I do usually have a small handful of books that I am quite keen to get to, and this little pile represents the current shape of things to come.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

I bought a copy of this off eBay last month after reading about it in the last issue of my favourite magazine, Oh Comely. It was included in a list of banned books, and although I had never heard of it before the review grabbed my attention. I am not sure it will be a very cheery read(!) but I am looking forward to it all the same.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride 

I read McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, whilst on holiday in Cornwall last month and absolutely loved it. It was about the most alive I had ever felt reading a novel. This is her first novel, and if it’s anything like The Lesser Bohemians then I can’t wait.

Autumn by Ali Smith

I actually got this as a Christmas present last year and intended to devote the Christmas break to it. I always think Ali Smith’s writing benefits from reading in a state of intense devotion. I never got to it in the end though, having picked up The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry on a whim the week before and getting entirely engrossed in that. It seemed seasonally wrong to then pick this up on my subsequent holiday, in warm Spring weather, so I am waiting for this autumn to kick in so I can spend some evenings in with this.

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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In the opening pages of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the novel’s protagonist Sofia describes being stung by medusa jellyfish whilst swimming in the sea off the coast of Almeria in southern Spain. She heads across the beach to the injury hut, where she is asked to complete her details on a form that looked like a petition, “to keep the injury hut open in the Spanish recession”.

He handed me a pencil stub and asked me to please fill in the form.

Name: Sofia Papastergiadis

Age: 25

Country of origin: UK

Occupation:

The jellyfish don’t care about my occupation, so what is the point? It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a cafe in West London – it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi-Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso…so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation’.

Any other purpose Sofia may have in life has been overridden by her role as carer to her mother, Rose, who suffers from a mysterious illness affecting her feet and legs. But she is not just carer, she is also the “main witness” to her mother’s condition and carries out a kind of ongoing study of her inconsistent symptoms.

They are in Spain for Rose to receive treatment from the Gomez Clinic, an institution of unusual and unorthodox medical practice, run by Mr Gomez, a doctor of unclear medical training and specialty.  Rose and Sofia’s experiences at the clinic take on an almost dreamlike experience, with a series of strange consultations in strange surroundings. Occasionally escaping her mother’s oppression, the rest of Sofia’s life in Spain takes a similarly unsettling, dreamlike course. She meets Ingrid Bauer, an unconventional German ex-pat living locally with her boyfriend Matthew, and who earns money by re-modelling and embroidering vintage clothes to sell. Ingrid is mysterious, threatening and exciting, and Sofia struggles to establish her place in their relationship, just as in the rest of her life. She ultimately finds herself in an arrangement which is part love affair, part power struggle, and which remains unpredictable to the end.

Even the most grounded section of the novel, in which Sofia travels to Athens to visit her estranged father and his new young family, caught up in the midst of the greek financial crisis, has its sense of otherworldliness. Her father’s new wife is just four years older than herself, their apartment is covered in framed posters of Donald Duck, and her father seems fixated on ensuring his family is frequently asleep. He is “the anaesthetist of their household”.

This is the first novel by Deborah Levy that I have read, and I absolutely loved the writing style. Told from the point of view of Sofia, the writing tracks the inner workings of her mind as she makes her way through this strange world so simply and so beautifully. Sofia is self-centred but perceptive, and her narration only adds to the somewhat hallucinatory feel of the novel. I very much recommend Hot Milk as a truly immersive read, and I will definitely be looking out for Levy’s other novels in future.

Libraries gave us power

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In Wells-Next-The-Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, in the sunny courtyard of a cafe called Bang!, which is rather lovely and serves a decent coffee.  I am reading this week’s Big Issue, bought from the lady on the High Street in Wells rather than our usual chap on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham (unavoidable disloyalty).

The Big Issue has been running a big literacy campaign recently and as part of that have focused on the importance of libraries in improving access both to books and to other essential services that many people would otherwise be left without.

At the very end of 2016, Nottingham City Council approved plans to sell the site of the Nottingham Central Library to developers. To be turned into new, shiny things but almost certainly not to remain as a library or any other kind of public service. There had been a vocal campaign to save it, with many concerned about the impact the loss of such large resource of help, joy and information would have, not only on the city’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, but on all the library’s users.

This all got me thinking about my own relationship with libraries and why they are so important to me. My local library as a child was Henleaze Library in Bristol, which remains open at present. My mother would take me and my sister on a Saturday, before food shopping at the Waitrose over the road. Many of the books I remember from this age were library books borrowed from Henleaze, and some of them became life-long favourites, such as Lucy Boston’s ‘Green Knowe’ series, which, having never owned them, I have had to buy copies of as an adult. I was also rather partial to the Doctor Who spin-off novelisations, although I recall some of these being better than others!

The best part of two decades later, I found myself back amongst the bookshelves at Henleaze, although this time in the grown-up section. I had just moved back to the UK after three years in Australia, and passed a bewildering seven months trying to rebuild a life in a country which seemed no longer familiar. I worked the same part time job I had had as a student and stayed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. A steady supply of books kept me feeling like I was moving forward, finding new experiences when the real world felt a little like it was moving backwards.

A year or so later, I found myself in Nottingham and Beeston Library became my local. Unemployed, isolated and feeling more than a little bit lost, the library became like a lifeline. It was somewhere that I could go and be a part of despite having no money, and, like Henleaze a year earlier, it gave me the chance to have experiences through reading that were otherwise closed to me. Having access to the latest books despite my sorry state made me feel like I was still living.

Libraries are also great for readers or all ages as they allow you to read outside your usual habits and comfort zone without worrying about having to enjoy it because you have paid eight or nine pounds (or more) for a book. I think carefully about the books I buy, but will borrow books from the library on the basis of cover art or a review quote on the back alone. If it turns out it’s not your thing, you can just take it back for somebody else to try. Because of this, I have had the joy of discovering a wide range of books, their different voices and perspectives, that it is otherwise unlikely I would ever have picked up.

Bromley House

I am now lucky enough to be a member of a beautiful private library in Nottingham (Bromley House, in the photo above), but I still visit my fantastic new local library in West Bridgford. It makes me feel so happy to see how busy it is, particularly with families at the weekend, and seeing children getting the same experience that I did as a child. I hope a library will always be there for them as they become adults, and for their own children, however they use it and whatever role it takes in their lives.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

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I’ve read some brilliant books this year, although one of the few downsides of travelling less for work means I get less time on trains for reading! Here are five favourites from 2016’s reading list.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

After I finished A Little Life back in the Spring, I found it very difficult for a long time to pick up another novel. I read the last 100 or so pages in one intense evening, barely noticing the dusk falling around me, and by the end I felt so entwined in the lives of the characters that the idea of moving on and no longer having them in my life felt almost unbearable.

Such was the press attention on this novel when it was nominated for, and ultimately missed out on, the 2015 Booker Prize, that it is probably unnecessary for me to go into too much detail about its plot, its characters, and its themes. At its heart, the novel is the story of a life: that of Jude, who has survived extreme childhood abuse. More broadly, it is the story of the lives of those close to him, who experience their own ups and downs, but who are in a way bound together by his survival. What I love most about this novel is the sheer amount of feelings it inspires: from peace to sadness, from joy to devastation, from love to disgust.  It really is like reading an entire and incredible life, lived out on its pages.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I read this very quickly in October whilst travelling a lot, so I got deeply engrossed in its eerie gothic atmosphere. The novel tells the story of two young brothers, taken on an Easter retreat by their deeply religious parents to The Loney, a dismal stretch of northern English coastline.

Younger brother Hanny is mute, communicating with his older brother by showing objects he carries in his pockets: a rabbit’s tooth, a toy dinosaur, a gorilla mask. Their parents don’t share this language, and even their names, ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’ add to their sense of distance from the brother’s world.

The family make a religious retreat to the Loney accompanied by an assortment of pious friends and their new vicar, who is struggling to fill the boots of his recently deceased predecessor. Their aim is to lose themselves in Easter prayer, but most importantly to visit a shrine so that Hanny may drink from the holy water. It is believed by all that this will cure his lack of speech.

The landscape at The Loney is desperately bleak, reflecting the mood of the visitors. Despite being spring it is constantly damp: the rain sweeps in from the sea in “huge vaporous curtains”, the beach is “brown sludge”. The locals are a mysterious and threatening presence. Moorings, the oppressive house in which they are forced by the weather to spend most of their time, is damp and full of creepy relics of its former occupants. Even the local church leaks. It is the perfect backdrop for the characters to simmer gently over the heat of religious fervour and repressed emotional turmoil until the book’s feverish and macabre conclusion is reached.

There are occasional hints at the supernatural in the novel. At one point, a hawthorn is found in bloom, well ahead of the season. Only a matter of a few words are given over to this occurrence, and so you could almost blink and miss it, but it’s a hint at another layer in this already richly layered novel. One of the most atmospheric, unnerving and exciting novels I have read in a long time.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

I love Tessa Hadley’s writing, so as soon as I saw this had come out in paperback I picked it up.

I’ve seen a few comments on Goodreads which had described this novel as being one in which nothing happens. OK, so it’s not an action packed war epic or anything like that, but saying ‘nothing happens’ could not be further from the truth. The whole novel simmers with subtle tension, as four siblings, their families and hangers-on gather at the large ramshackle house in the countryside that belonged to their now deceased parents. Ostensibly, they are gathered to spend time together and consider what should be done with the house, but it is not long before their decision-making process becomes muddled and relationships are tested by both the inescapable echoes of the past and the pressures and compulsions of the present.

The Past is a beautiful study of familial relationships, different personalities and the impulses that drive us, and reading it made me feel both reflective and happy to be alive.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Oh how I love Ali Smith. I unwrapped her latest novel Autumn on Christmas Day and it is now at the very top of my reading list for 2017 (just as soon as I have finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

How to be Both was a joyful crash landing into the lives of two wonderfully strong characters, one a modern day teenager (George) dealing with the death of her mother, one a fresco painter (Francesco) living in renaissance Italy, whose worlds cross in unexpected ways despite living centuries apart. The novel is in two separate parts, one for each character, and it is fantastically vibrant. Even though I finished it months ago, some of the images, particularly the descriptions of the colours and details in the frescoes, remain completely clear in my mind.  George’s frequent moments of grief are also incredibly real and moving, especially her struggle to get to grips with how her mother could exist, and then not exist, simply through the passing of time.

My version of the novel had George’s story first, then Francesco’s. Some versions were the other way round (most critics seem to have had Francesco’s first). I wonder how different my experience would have been the other way round. The links between the two parts of the novel become clear in the second part, and its true depth and intelligence become apparent quite suddenly, but I imagine that is the case whichever way round you read them. It’s a supremely clever and original novel, and ultimately just a joy to read.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I picked this up just after the Booker Prize for 2016 was announced (I know, it didn’t win!) and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I absolutely loved this novel, and found it completely and utterly engrossing. It is also very innovative, the story being revealed through in an almost piecemeal fashion, presented as a collection of ‘found’ documents, including a diary account, witness statements, and newspaper reports.

The subject of these documents is the brutal murder of a man and two children in a remote Highlands community, by the son of a crofter whose family have found themselves marginalised from their neighbours through various events. Although the reader knows from the outset what has happened and who is responsible, the detail of the events is revealed slowly and from a number of different perspectives, meaning that your understanding of the characters and your sympathies shift backwards and forwards throughout the novel.

Don’t dismiss this as simply a crime novel. Whilst it is a truly enjoyable story of a crime, it is also much more than that: it is a fantastic literary novel.

Something, like nothing, happens anywhere

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A bit of Larkin for a cold January night.

I went to see the new film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol over Christmas. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and more moving than I had anticipated. I loved how personal it felt: like so much of Bennett’s work, it felt as though I’d spent a couple of hours in his own company, rather than in a cinema watching a projection on a screen.

So I came home and felt like I wanted to spend a bit more time with Alan (I hope he won’t mind if I call him Alan), and the first thing I managed to put my hands on was my audiobook CD of Alan’s Six Poets anthology, which is worth getting in audiobook format simply to listen to his voice.

One of the six poets is Philip Larkin, and Alan expresses his delight (or at least, a quiet note of admiration) at Larkin’s ability to turn the most mundane non-experiences into poetry, and talks about how this inspired and encouraged his own work.

So actually I have ended up reading Larkin, and enjoying the meticulously detailed, beautifully described mundanity of everyday life. I think one of my favourites is Dockery and Son, in which Larkin reflects quite profoundly on life and death during the course of a train journey. And so part way through you get the lines ‘...Yawning, I suppose / I fell asleep, waking at the fumes / And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed, / And ate an awful pie, and walked along / The platform to its end to see the ranged / Joining and parting lines reflect a strong / Unhindered moon.’

Something, be it life, death, or simply an awful pie in Sheffield, happens anywhere.