My Pninian craving is to read Pnin. That line is from page 15 of the Vintage Classics edition. Just now, bibliographing nicole has begun a projected chronological reading of all of the books of Vladimir Nabokov. I don’t know what “all” means, exactly. Or, I do, precisely.
I myself have read “all” of Nabokov. Seventeen novels, a memoir, a fat collected stories, a couple of hilarious plays that never seem to have had much of a reputation. A screenplay, lectures, reviews, interviews, translations, poems. I have not read his chess problems, or the scientific work on the taxonomy of butterflies, or anything extant only in Russian.
Nabokov is a key influence, as they say, on Wuthering Expectations, which is, covertly, my attempt to escape from VN’s Strong Opinions, to develop my own critical views. It would be all too easy, and good fun, to simply indulge in the Writers Nabokov (Dis)Likes, primary among them, Vladimir Nabokov, who for some reason is not on obooki’s list.
There are no bad Nabokov novels, but only major and minor. For the major, I’ll pick two in Russian, The Gift (1938/1952) and Invitation to a Beheading (1936 or so), and three in English, Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), Pale Fire (1962), plus the memoir Speak, Memory (1951 or so). That decade from Speak, Memory to Pale Fire is one of the greatest sustained creative runs in American literature, rivaling the peak periods of Hawthorne and Faulkner. I have no idea why the best Russian novels, among the century’s greats, and the autobiography are not better known. No, I believe I do know. Lolita casts a strange, distorting shadow.
As for the minor novels – but I see I have now put Bend Sinister (1947) and Ada, or Ardor (1969) and Despair (1934) into the “minor” category, which is not what I want. I need a gradation. James Wood calls Nabokov’s fifth novel, Glory (1932), “absolutely ravishing” but “one of the most idea-free novels of its genre in literature,” and he’s right on both counts. That’s a minor novel.
Some of Nabokov’s fiction - The Eye (1930), Pale Fire, the story “The Vane Sisters” - has a puzzle-like element that I know drives some readers nuts, as if that’s not allowed in literature. “The Vane Sisters” contains an actual puzzle, a word game, that really must be solved to understand the story. Nabokov gives the reader clues to the solution, but still. “Signs and Symbols,” his best story, strongly suggests that it has a solution, too, but does not. Reader beware.
A different kind of puzzle: only Ada is genuinely long, that and the enormous Pushkin commentary. Nabokov’s novels are short. His short stories are even shorter. Is this not an encouragement to readers? It is to me. I just re-read Nabokov’s 114 page first novel, Mary (1926), decidedly minor, an exercise in purging influences and ordering memories. It is filled with extraordinary things:
Five hackney droshkies stood on the avenue alongside the huge drumlike shape of a street pissoir: five sleepy, warm, gray worlds in coachman’s livery; and five other worlds on aching hooves, asleep and dreaming of nothing but oats streaming out of a sack with a soft crackly sound. (Mary, Ch. 3, p. 27)
I’m wrong again. Those horses dreaming of the exact sound of falling oats, that is just ordinary Nabokov. He gets better, although he is recognizably himself from the first book. Observe, for example, the way the author, in the first forty pages or so, continually avoids giving the protagonist, and the reader, essential information about the story. Except the reader won’t be able to observe this at all, because he doesn’t know what the missing pieces are, does he now? There is no reading; there is only re-reading. If nicole does not mind, I will soon be re-reading “all” of Nabokov, in chronological order.
Pnin hurled the towel into a corner and, turning away, stood for a moment staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open back door. A quiet, lacy-winged green insect circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin’s glossy bald head. He looked very old, with his toothless mouth half open and a film of tears dimming his blank, unblinking eyes.
Or maybe I should skip straight to Pnin. Anyone who has read it knows where that's from, right? Read too much Nabokov and it's most other writers who begin to look minor.