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.

Revisioning Nabokov’s Lolita

March 9, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Since its publication in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, one of Western literature’s undisputed masterpieces, has provoked no end of controversy, veneration, outrage, and analysis. On an interpretive level, the novel appears virtually inexhaustible; it is perhaps no wonder that it also serves as a bountiful fount of inspiration for graphic designers. (The image at left is from the 2011 Finnish edition, with cover art by Jenni Noponen.) The online Covering Lolita project gathers together “185 book and media covers from 37 countries and 56 years,” along with information about each edition’s country of origin, publication date, publisher, and translator(s).

After viewing this gallery in 2009, architect and blogger John Bertram, author of the blog Venus Febrisculosa, issued an open challenge to designers to come up with their own covers for the iconic work. Bertram received 155 entries from 105 designers spread out across thirty-four countries. Judging the submissions, Bertram writes, was “an extremely difficult exercise”:

In judging the submissions I tended to avoid lingerie, lollipops, roses, hearts, lipstick prints, butterflies, heart shaped sunglasses, and overtly sexual poses (as well as the unexpected recurring themes of swings and Rorschach blots) which by now have been indelibly linked to the cultural concept “Lolita” if not the novel itself. It’s important to keep in mind that the novel may be considered a love story, but it’s not Lolita who is in love.  And, of course, well beyond that one can explore the brutality and humor of the novel, the beauty of the prose and the cleverness of the wordplay. This is a tall order for a book cover, and of necessity draconian choices must be made.

Bertram chose a cover by Bulgarian designer Lyuba Haleva as the winner, and that might have been the end of it, except for the fact that in 2010 Bertram was approached by New Zealand translator and professor Marco Sonzogni about including the contest entries in a book, which would be augmented by essays and other commissioned designs.

An article on the imprint website has more information about the upcoming volume, which is set to appear in June, and will be

coedited by Yuri Leving, with essays on historical cover treatments along with new versions by 60 well-known designers, two-thirds of them women: Barbara deWilde, Jessica Helfand, Peter Mendelsund, and Jennifer Daniel, to name a few. They don’t shy away from frank sexuality, but they add layers of darkness and complication. And like Jamie Keenan’s cover – a claustrophobic room that morphs into a girl in her underwear – they provoke without asking readers to abdicate their responsibility.

One of the participants in the project is David A. Gee, who is in the front rank of Canadian book cover designers. His contribution, pictured at right, is fabulously subtle and provocative. (It’s the dot above the “i” that pushes this over the edge of creepily clever into the realm of scarily brilliant.) In Gee’s own words: “I wanted to pay tribute to the sex (Lolita), the violence (Humbert), and the carefully clinical, yet florid, inner workings of the text itself (Nabokov) all at once.”

Other Canadian designers attached to the project include Ingrid Paulson and Michel Vrana. This is definitely a book worth keeping an eye out for.

Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous 1955 novel Lolita is one of the most frequently banned books in the Western canon. It was placed on the Canada Customs list of banned books in 1958, although shipments from the U.S. were eventually allowed into the country. It has also been banned as obscene in countries as diverse as France, England, South Africa, Argentina, and New Zealand. Told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, unrepentant pedophile and murderer, it is one of the most distinctly uncomfortable novels ever written. It is also a stylistic masterpiece, and a showcase for Nabokov’s mordant humour. In his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov directly addresses the charges of lewdness and immorality that sprang up almost instantly upon the novel’s publication:

I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

There are not many such books. Lolita is undoubtedly one of them.


From Lolita:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

A G20 reading list

June 25, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

If you’re like me, you’re likely reading the morning news these days with a mixture of horror, disgust, and sinking despair. The past two weeks have seen Toronto – a safe, clean, happily multicultural city – turned into a fortress-like police state. Fences have gone up downtown. Military helicopters have been buzzing the skies continuously. Toronto police, OPP, RCMP, and police from forces across the country – armed with riot gear, plastic bands to handcuff troublemakers, long-range acoustic devices (so called “sound cannons”), water cannons, and other weaponry – have converged on the south end of the city and seem determined to flex their newly acquired muscle. This includes a bylaw, quietly passed by the Ontario provincial government – without debate – on June 2, that allows police to detain and arrest anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence and refusing to provide ID or submit to a body search. (The bylaw will expire on June 28, but won’t be officially published until July 3: this is what “democracy” looks like in Ontario these days.) Across the downtown core, windows have been boarded up, offices and streets abandoned, schools closed, and the homeless have been forced out of their regular neighbourhoods. All in the service of a contingent of capitalist leaders descending on the city to enjoy a specially constructed fake lake while they hold financial discussions that are guaranteed to be more beneficial to BP than to you and me.

You may be so sickened by the way in which downtown Toronto has been transformed into a militarized zone that you are compelled to join one of the many mass protests that are scheduled for the next three days in the city. Or, you may feel compelled to hole yourself up in your room until the whole thing blows over. Either way, you may want to do some G20-related reading this weekend; TSR has put together the following list of texts that recent events have called (sometimes uncomfortably) to mind. If you do go down to protest, you could do worse than taking one of these books with you. If nothing else, it will provide some reading material when the cops haul you into their makeshift Gitmo on Eastern Avenue for, you know, just walking around your own city.

Fight the power. But, please be safe this weekend. With luck, we’ll all make it through this relatively unscathed. To this point, I’m not hopeful.

A G20 Reading List

Animal Farm by George Orwell – Orwell’s 1945 dystopian allegory about Stalin’s rise in Russia and the concomitant crackdown on individual rights and freedoms seems scarily appropriate in the face of the draconian security measures that have been invoked for the G20 weekend in Toronto. The well-meaning “Seven Commandments of Animalism” that are instituted for the good of all eventually get reduced to just one edict: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Indeed.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller – The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, Müller is a Romanian by birth who ran afoul of Ceausescu’s government when she refused to cooperate with the Romanian secret police. Her 1993 novel tells the story of a group of young people living under the thumb of the Ceausescu regime and the way in which the totalitarian government influences each of them, either forcing them to bend to its will or perish.

The Rebel by Albert Camus – Published in 1951, Camus’ book examines the nature and genesis of rebellion, synthesizing the thought of figures such as Lucretius, de Sade, Nietzsche, and Breton. Camus suggests that humanity turns to revolution when it becomes sufficiently disenchanted with the justice that has been meted out to it, when a quest for order and clarity abuts the essential absurdity of life. However, Camus also drafts a moral framework that makes clear the idea that the impulse toward revolution implies a value system that opposes murder and suppression of others. An essential text for any would-be protester.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – The terrifying story of Josef K., who “without having done anything wrong … was arrested one fine morning.” A horrifying allegory of an individual subsumed and ultimately destroyed by a faceless bureaucracy.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov – A surrealistic story about Cincinnatus C., a man imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” His crime, and the accompanying sentence, make no sense; although Nabokov’s book is ultimately more hopeful than Kafka’s, it carries with it the same force of creeping terror brought about by an individual’s enslavement to a shadowy political system that he neither understands nor is responsible for.

Germinal by Émile Zola – One of his best-known works, Zola’s 1885 novel about the horrific conditions suffered by miners in 1860s France became such a sensation in the author’s home country that when he died, his funeral cortege was followed through the streets by 50,000 people, including a group of miners chanting, “Germinal! Germinal!” One of the great workers’ novels.

Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph E. Stiglitz – “[R]ecent advances in economic theory – ironically occurring precisely during the period of the most relentless pursuit of the Washington Consensus policies – have shown that whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always, and especially in developing countries, then the invisible hand works most imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market.” Nobel winner Stiglitz lucidly explains where globalization goes wrong; he provides G20 antagonists with the bedrock for a cogent argument and could provide the delegates with a roadmap forward, were they to pay him any attention.

The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy by Linda McQuaig – The woman who Conrad Black famously said “should be horsewhipped” provides a compelling argument in favour of financial regulation that could benefit humanity as a collective rather than simply making a few fat cats even fatter. Jumping off from the Chrétien government’s deficit-slashing program of the mid-1990s, McQuaig argues that we have the tools at our disposal to create jobs and a viable social safety net if only we would recognize them.

(With thanks to Oliver Pocknell.)