Ever since the news came out this year that the last Nabokov novel/stack of 138 index cards roughly equalling a novel, The Original of Laura, was officially coming out on November 3, I’ve been wanting to get back to, or get to more of, Nabokov’s work. So, here we are: I’m reading one Nabokov novel a month.
(Previously in BookNerd: Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading.)
Before I get into discussing Nabokov's "ideally bald," barrel-chested, spindly legged professor of Old Russia, here's a prescient comic interlude regarding Professor Pnin's esteemed colleague, Laurence G. Clements, and his "damned EOS" course:
This stood for the Evolution of Sense, his greatest course (with an enrollment of twelve, none even remotely apostolic) which had opened and would close with the phrase destined to be overquoted one day: The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.
Pnin, Nabokov's 14th novel, was first published in serial form in The New Yorker between November 1953 and November 1955. One of the joys of reading Pnin is that it reads like a serial. In fact, reading it is a bit like sitting and watching back-to-back episodes of Ricky Gervais' sad comic foibles in Extras.
On the surface, Pnin seems like a comedy of manners, with (Assistant) Professor Timofey Pnin (pronounced "P-neen") as its central clown, mispronouncing and misunderstanding his way through a variety of mishaps. He's like the Monsieur Hulot of the campus novel:
It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as they entered the sphere of his existence."
The traditional form of character development in a novel is that the character goes through change. But Professor Pnin is anti-change. Doggedly holding on to the remnants of his intellectual youth in Russia and Paris, he walks around the campus of fictional Waindell College as an anachronism. The unnamed narrator even refers to Pnin's credentials—a 1925 degree in sociology and political economy from the University of Prague—as a "doctorate in desuetude."
He was beloved not for any essential ability but for those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lens of the present."
Behind the hilariously inept Pnin is the Pnin that has been repeatedly forced to leave (first Russia, during the revolution, and later Paris, to get away from "the Hitler war"), and—as a teacher of Russian in the anti-Soviet world of the mid-1950s—always on the verge of being exiled again.
Another comic interlude, lest we get too serious, on the purview of Pnin's colleagues in the Department of English (in which Nabokov lays out his disdain for the boring overstock of English lit on campus):
Outwardly, Roy was an obvious figure. If you drew a pair of old brown loafers, two beige elbow patches, a black pipe, and two baggy eyes under heavy eyebrows, the rest was easy to fill out. Somewhere in the middle distance hung an obscure liver ailment, and somewhere in the background there was Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Roy's particular field, an overgrazed pasture, with the trickle of a brook and a clump of initialed trees; a barbed-wire arrangement on either side of the field separated it from Professor Stowe's domain, the preceding century, where the lambs were whiter, the turf softer, the rill purlier, and from Dr. Shapiro's early nineteenth century, with its glen mists, sea fogs, and imported grapes.
Lolita is a novel for writers, and Pnin is a novel for readers. Through Pnin's anecdotes and reflections, Nabokov conjures Pushkin, Turgenev, Akhmatov, Lermontov, Doestoevsky, and Tolstoy. Reading a Russian-language newspaper, Pnin refers to a mortician's ad as "Gogolian."
One of my favorite scenes happens at a mountain resort, where Pnin is talking with a Russian professor from another college who says that he is on his seventh reading of Anna Karenina and still can't figure out what day it starts.
"Who on earth wants to know the exact day?" says Varvara, a buxom, sunbathing guest.
"I can tell you the exact day," says Pnin, "The action of the novel starts in the beginning of 1872, namely on Friday, February the twenty-third..."
And he lays out the exact date based on the details of Oblonsky reading the morning paper.
Like readers frequently absorbed in fiction, Pnin walks around with all this arcane knowledge that people could care less about. It is as much of a reality to him, or maybe even more, than daily life.
In this sense, Pnin is more than a reminder of the lost world of old Russia, and more than the comic patron saint of the ne'er-promoted assistant professor, he's the patron saint of readers, of all of us who spend so much of our lives in books.
A bit of news: Playboy has secured the rights to publish a 5,000-word excerpt from The Original of Laura in its December issue, which hits stands about a week before the novel comes out. It's so late-'60s, when people bought the mag "for the articles," or for the Nabokov (an excerpt ofAda also appeared there in 1969.)
Previous Nabokov posts:
Invitation to a Beheading