A campus novel or “a collection of sketches”: the “dzeefeecooltsee” in classifying Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin

March 6, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Pnin_NabokovWhat to make of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin? First published in book form in 1957, it is sandwiched between the author’s two most famous works – Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Perhaps this helps account for its somewhat less-heralded status. Add to that its dominant tone, which is comic, and its relative brevity (the Vintage paperback edition runs just under 200 pages).

Then there is the vexing question of the book’s genre: is it a novel, or a collection of linked stories? Segments of the book were serialized in The New Yorker, in part, as David Lodge points out, as “insurance” against the criticism and lack of sales the author felt sure would accrue to Lolita from a reading public scandalized by the book’s salacious subject matter. When Pnin first appeared, some critics suggested that it consists of a series of sketches about a fanciful character who teaches Russian at a minor American college; this prompted the famously tetchy author to sniff in a letter, “it certainly is not a collection of sketches.”

Nabokov had the ability to elevate indignation into an art, but he had a point: notwithstanding the self-contained nature of certain chapters in Pnin, there is an overarching structure to the work, made clear in the final section, which serves as a kind of recapitulation of all that has gone before. Explanations and elaborations are withheld until the closing chapter, which makes explicit the carefully constructed nature of the book. The second chapter, for example, makes glancing reference to “a tremendous love letter” Pnin wrote to his ex-wife, Liza; the letter itself appears in the second part of chapter seven. (The novel has seven chapters, the last of which is broken down into seven sections: it’s hard to get more programmatic than that.)

And then there is the novel’s style. Free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness that recalls Proust, a writer Nabokov admired, but also, as Lodge asserts, shares in common aspects of the 19th-century Russian realists, in particular Tolstoy, of whom the eponymous central character is enamoured. One early joke has the hapless professor appear for a lecture before a women’s group, where he is mistakenly introduced as the son of Dostoyevsky’s doctor. (Back in Russia, Pnin’s father, “an eye specialist of considerable repute,” had treated Tolstoy for conjunctivitis.)

The writing itself is florid and rococo, which will not appeal to a 21st-century readership in thrall to sound bites and instantaneous comprehension (Nabokov is not a writer whose work can be read quickly or cursorily). Pnin was only the fourth novel Nabokov wrote in his adopted language of English; like Conrad before him, the author seemed to feel a need to display mastery over a language he came to only as an adult. Here, for example, is an early description of Liza:

There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark. Whatever eyes Liza Pnin, now Wind, had, they seemed to reveal their essence, their precious-stone water, only when you evoked them in thought, and then a blank, blind, moist aquamarine blaze shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea had got between your own eyelids. Actually her eyes were of a light transparent blue with contrasting black lashes and bright pink canthus, and they slightly stretched up templeward, where a set of feline little lines fanned out from each. She had a sweep of dark brown hair above a lustrous forehead, and a snow-and-rose complexion, and she used a very light red lipstick, and save for a certain thickness of ankle and wrist, there was hardly a flaw to her full-blown, animated, elemental, not particularly well groomed beauty.

The long sentences, with their cascading series of subordinate clauses, may sound odd or difficult to readers more comfortable with a declarative, journalistic style of presentation, and Nabokov’s delight in insouciant alliteration (“shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea”) and other wordplay seems almost designed to throw casual readers off. A staggering number of proper names proliferate throughout the novel, many of them also characterized by playfulness and allusive meaning. Liza’s new husband, for instance, is called Eric Wind. His graduate student, “a plump maternal girl of some twenty-nine summers” and “a soft thorn in Pnin’s aging flesh” is Betty Bliss. And Liza’s therapist, “one of the most destructive psychiatrists of the day,” is Dr. Rosetta Stone.

Pnin shares with his creator a detestation of therapy and therapists, and a love of the Russian masters – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. But Nabokov frequently renders his protagonist as a figure of ridicule, a bumbling oaf prone to falling down staircases backward and speaking in a kind of broken English dubbed “Pninian English” by those around him. “If his Russian was music,” Nabokov writes, “his English was murder. He had enormous difficulty (‘dzeefeecooltsee’ in Pninian English) with depalatization, never managing to remove the extra Russian moisture from t‘s and d‘s before the vowels he so quaintly softened.”

This may provide another impediment for modern readers who demand a sympathetic protagonist, since Nabokov’s preferred tone is one of haughty sarcasm, even in a novel that is notably less cold and unsparing than the scabrous Lolita. The choice of narration helps in this regard: Pnin’s story is filtered through the sensibility of a first-person narrator, allowing readers to distance themselves from the professor and ascribe the crueler elements of the characterization to the anonymous figure relating the story.

And it is not as though Pnin is presented entirely without empathy. The description of his youthful affection for Mira, a Jewish woman killed in a Nazi death camp during the Second World War, is enormously affecting, as is the very real sadness that befalls Pnin upon learning, near the end of the book, that not only is he being denied tenure, but he is being forced out of his job by petty and antagonistic members of the college faculty. The scene following this revelation finds Pnin alone in his rented home – the first in a series of residences he seems to find truly liveable – cleaning up after hosting a party for his colleagues. Here Nabokov dispenses with his rhetorical flourishes and opts instead for an unadorned presentation, which is heartbreaking in its directness and candour:

He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.

The loneliness and frustration in this scene is palpable, and gives the lie to anyone wanting to accuse Nabokov of being a heartless writer.

Lodge characterizes Pnin as an early example of the subgenre that has come to be known as the “campus novel,” despite the fact that Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise predates it by some thirty-seven years. But there is no doubt that Nabokov takes the opportunity to skewer some of the more galling and pretentious aspects of the academy – what is surprising is how recognizable his portrait remains.

The new fall term sees “in the margins of library books earnest freshmen [inscribe] such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature,’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poems an especially able scholiast [has] already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it ‘birds.'” The college’s earnest attachment to outmoded ideas is savagely ridiculed: “Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoevski and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Words like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue.” And granting bodies give money to vapid projects, such at the one run by Dr. Rudolph Aura (those names again), a “renowned Waindell psychiatrist” who has come up with the Fingerbowl Test, “in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of colored fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.”

However one wants to position it – campus novel, collection of linked stories, comedy of manners, immigrant character study – Pnin offers plentiful literary interest densely packed into a very brief volume. That it resists attempts at classification is likely part of its author’s design for the novel, but may also account for its relative lack of recognition as compared to the other volumes in the writer’s oeuvre. In any case, the novel remains an object of abiding interest, and more than a mere curiosity by a writer forever associated with his better-known, iconic text.

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One Response to “A campus novel or “a collection of sketches”: the “dzeefeecooltsee” in classifying Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin”
  1. I just read Pnin for the first time last year and adored it — hilarious and sad, a fabulous novel — for sure it’s a novel. That said, so tired of these tired arguments about novel versus stories. Why not just call it all fiction?