Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pnin in the meantime had yielded to the satisfaction of a special Pninian craving - Nabokov's temptations

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.


  1. There ought to be some psychological test that classifies people by which writer they, with no good reason, don't "get."

    I have never gotten Nabokov.

  2. Dear Shelley,

    Don't despair, neither have I. But the blogmaster here sure makes it sound appealing.



  3. Go straight for Pnin - you know you should. It is easily the sweetest of the novels, in my opinion, and always puts one in a good mood. Of course its chapters at times betray their residence in the New Yorker, yet is the whole much greater than the sum of its parts (and the parts are pretty darn good). Of course, I'm rereading it myself at the moment, so all its wonders have the added strength of immediacy - and it's also a favorite.

  4. The thing about Nabokov is that he's so aware of how much brighter than his readers he is, and he can't help but point it out. I can only allow myself one Nabokov per year (this year it's a re-read of Invitation to a Beheading and last year it was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) because, while I love the way he dazzles and shows you just how much he can do with all the elements from word-choice up to narrative form, Nabokov also loved what he could do and had to point to it. Like he was a brilliant little boy showing off. His notes to A Hero of Our Time gradually take over the reading experience and Lermontov's text becomes a stage upon which Nabokov dances for his own pleasure, inviting us to watch. Amazing and infuriating and I keep coming back for more.

  5. Nicole's also inspired me to read all Nabokov's novels. I may just tackle the Russian translations this year. I am looking forward to Mary.

  6. If Pnin is so sweet, why is the title character forced to flee the book? Skeptics and doubters will appreciate that Prof. Pnin is trying to escape from the insufferable Vladimir Nabokov.

    Shelley, since your writing has such a strong sense of home and place, I have an approach for you. VN lost his home to the Soviets. The loss was irreparable. He saw art as a substitute - a way to preserve or re-create that past, to keep it alive somehow. Thus, the themes of exile and return, memory and loss. Thus the need to observe carefully, to be precise, to keep every detail, to construct the memory palace.

    In this regard, Speak, Memory is the key text. I recommend it to any skeptic. But perhaps you know it. There is so much more to Nabokov than Lolita.

    Scott - how would a brilliant adult showing off be different? Note that I am granting most of your claim. But there's a reason VN is often described as a magician. How should a magician display his tricks?

    In this regard, is VN much different than Joyce, or Proust, or, going back, Goethe or Hugo? The difference is that the last two are not magicians but sages. But they are not humble writers. DO we wish they were?

    Anthony - outstanding. I'm sure nicole won't mind the company. I don't know how fast she's planning to move. Not too fast, I hope.

  7. Pnin will probably be my next Nabokov-I have one of his collections of lectures also-so far I have read the lectures on Kakfa and on Stephenson-both of which are very illuminating-Imagine studying with Nabakov and FMF!

  8. mel - fine choice. As the eudaimonist says, it's a kind-hearted, even sweet, book, and also unusual in that it's a genuine serial.

    As for VN's teaching, Stacey Schiff wrote a first-rate New Yorker piece about it. Heck if I can find it, though. The piece is also a chapter in her 2000 biography of Véra Nabokov.

  9. It does not seem to me that sweetness is incompatible with cruelty - though that is perhaps a personal idiosyncrasy. I did not mean that Nabokov (or the narrator) was sweet to Pnin, but that the experience, for a reader, was one of sweetness or tenderness, as after having a tooth (or all one's teeth) pulled.

    One of the things I like especially about Pnin is that although Nabokov (or the narrator) indulges in his usual cape-swishing and showing off, in Pnin it does not feel as though it were always at the reader's expense, or for some purpose beyond the reader. Pnin feels - to me, a reader - as though it were meant to be read and enjoyed and comprehended by people other than Vladimir Vladimirovich; perhaps that sensation is a result of laziness on my part.

  10. Great commentary. I have wanted to read Lolita but you have given me options.

  11. It does not seem to me that sweetness is incompatible with cruelty

    Absolutely - that's one of VN's great themes. The sweetness is perhaps never so explicit as in Pnin. The subtlety of the turn against the cruel, bullying narrator is a marvel, a great use of the serial form. The book is sort of an anti-Lolita.

    Nana - that's just it - there are many options, great variety. One book, even Lolita, does not give us anything like the whole of Nabokov.

  12. "how would a brilliant adult showing off be different?"

    I have no idea. I'm clearly out of my intellectual depth in this discussion, but I'll hazard an answer anyway. When I read Nabokov, I am aware not only of his magic, but also of his awareness of my awareness. There is an smugness seeping through the narrative and I get the feeling that a lot of the humor is at my expense as a reader. So it's not just "look at this;" it's also a lot of "look at me doing this," if you take my meaning. The brilliant text is not what VN points you to; he points you to himself as brilliant creator of the text. Though the pleasure he takes in his own magic is sincere, I still see a message--often subtle but often more direct--that there's no way a mere reader could be smart enough to fully appreciate just how cool VN's magic tricks really are.

    Oddly enough, before I began writing fiction, I never felt this way about Nabokov. My relationship with texts changed as I began to produce my own. I admit the possibility that what I perceive as a "pearls before swine" attitude running through VN's work is all in my head and I'm just intimidated and envious. I'll have to think about that.

  13. out of my intellectual depth - oh, we're all amateurs here.

    Nabokov's last novel, Look at the Harlequins, is a career-spanning self-parody that is presumably gibberish to readers not familiar with most of his work. It's a book for particular readers. Sometimes in Ada, particularly, references appear to be for one particular reader. I don't see, though, how a passage written for the benefit of Véra Nabokov is at my expense.

    But I at least have a sense of what you see, although the difficulty of finding that smugness is that the narrators are often smug egomaniacs.

    And I have trouble seeing how Joyce or Proust, to stay up at Nabokov's stylistic level, draw less attention to their best writing. The attentive reader says something like "Oh, now that was good!" - "(picnic, lightning)," right? Please, authors, do not turn down the dazzle. Show me the good stuff!

    How did you read Nabokov before you wrote? Honestly, I always read with the writer, the implied writer (Emily Brontë is the example at the link). I'm trying to figure out what the author is doing. Every great writer is a show off. I want them to be.

    I very much doubt that you are either intimidated or envious. When one dismantles a complex work of art, the tricks and techniques become visible. Is it that Nabokov is deliberately showing them to you, or that you are now looking for them?

    1. Myself being such a contrarian, you've put me in the difficult position of trying to find writers of Nabokovian level who are not show-offs.
      Uhmmm... Let's see... Uhmmm... Please hold on....
      Okay. Perez Galdos; for example, during the first two hundred pages of La de Bringas you have no idea what that novel is going to be about, and yet, the book seems straightforward and simple, so carefully has Galdos hidden his scaffolding.
      Oh! and Kafka, whose short parables like Odradek or A Crossbreed or Jackals and Arabs could seemingly be written by any good writer, style-wise.
      Hawthorne, perhaps?
      And then it hits me: this is stupid stuff. All of them, great writers and magicians, show-offs or modest ones, worked hard to bring joy into our world. All I can feel is gratitude for the graffiti they left on the passing walls as we, together with the immortal Alice in Wonderland, crash towards (well, you know the rest).

  14. I do not get the same sense of "look at what I can do" from either Proust or Joyce, though both of them are certainly high-wire artists of the first rank. Maybe you're hitting close to the mark when you ask, "Is it that Nabokov is deliberately showing them to you, or that you are now looking for them?" I remember being nothing but delighted years ago by the games in Pale Fire and Transparent Things. When I lately read Sebastian Knight and realized that the form of the narrative was changing and taking on the shape of whichever of Knight's novels was being discussed at the time, and that the novel itself may have been one of the novels in question and that the narrator ("V") may have been Knight himself, something happened to my relationship with old Vladimir. Possibly I saw him behind the curtain, nodding with glee, and maybe I wasn't meant to look. Maybe it's that I am more aware of Nabokov's technique and I am awed by his relentless courage and inventiveness. Or maybe I'm just shaking my fist at a dead author and vowing to show him up someday.

    I don't recall clearly how I used to read novels, but I think I treated the reading act as more-or-less simply an experience I was having; I was less aware of the text as a machine some craftsman had designed and assembled by hand.

  15. Also--and I'll be brief--I just read your "implied writer" post and a) it's a great piece, and b) Proust, Nabokov and Joyce are all folks I'd willingly knock a few back with.

  16. How lovely that I have inspired so many! I figure it's going to take me about a year to read precisely, pretty much, what you outline. I'm in no rush.

    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.

    It's funny how true this is. "Ordinary," yes, it is ordinary Nabokov, and he is so recognizably himself. Not that anything else would be possible, I don't think. He sprang fully formed from the soil of Russia, no?

  17. maybe I'm just shaking my fist at a dead author and vowing to show him up someday.

    Yes! Outstanding! I'm all for that. I have your blog in the ol' RSS reader, so I can keep track of your progress.

    I agree, too, with the potential of Proust and Joyce and VN over drinks. Nabokov and Joyce met at a lecture; Proust and Joyce met at a dinner. Both meetings seem to have been uninspired. Oh well. All three are probably getting along sparklingly now.

    Thanks for the nice words.

    nicole - if you read the VN's Stories of straight through, which I do not recommend, you will see that the first - oh, I don't remember - six or eight or ten stories, very early ones, really do not sound much like Nabokov. They're period pieces, good but like many things written at the time. My understanding is that his earliest Russian poems are also derivative. So he was not quite fully-formed at birth.

    What a mystery, the way a voice coalesces, the way a weak voice becomes strong.

    I love that cab horse passage. "Soft crackly sound" is good; that the horses are dreaming of the sound is better.

  18. Oh, aiee, I've had Pnin on my list for ages and now I see I have another whole corridor of rooms opening up past that one. Oh. Thank you sir may I have another. What a thing it is to be almost well-read.

  19. As a senior in college I read "Pnin", Lolita", and "Pale Fire" back-to-back-to-back. Man, was that fun! I was always afraid to read anymore Nabokov after that (except for the occasional short story) because I was afraid it might be a let down.

  20. I was afraid it might be a let down... whole corridors of rooms

    At the sentence level, actually, there is no possibility of a let down. If I were a true Nabokovian, that would be sufficient. But there are, I suppose, other valuable aspects of fiction.

    I'm going to revisit the "ingenuity" issue, what I was discussing with Scott Bailey up above, soon. It's got me thinkin'.

  21. I just finished Pnin last night, so naturally I visit here this morning.

    I've read the biggies - Lolita; Speak, Memory and Pale Fire - before, but I am quite giddy at the prospect that every one of VN's books will offer at least some of the same rewards. I'd never really considered them (the "minors") of interest, more fool me.

    Pnin itself I thought a marvellous piece of celebration and mockery. There is a very sweet moment of redemption just after the quote you end with. The effortlessness of the pen-pics of the vast array of named (or mentioned) characters is something quite remarkable. And the continued trope of things seen through windows, images that merge into visions and (physical) reflections. Wonderful.

  22. Wonderful, "At least some of the same rewards" - exactly.

    Who would have thought that such poignancy could be wrung from a dish-washing scene?

  23. God you don't know what you're talking about Mr. Bailey. .

    What a bore Nabokov would be if he were continually saying "hey look how clever!" or "did you see me notice that thing?"

  24. Ad hominen on a six year-old post; why, why?

  25. Just came across it - Mr.Tom and the comments and another page( gave me a bout of hiccups..

    Call it home remedy

  26. First, Mr. Bailey's voice, his honesty and his insight are things that I, for one, greatly admire. And yes, Nabokov is smug, just look at him explaining some of his tricks:
    "Stéphane Mallarmé has left three or four immortal bagatelles, and among these is L'Après-Midi d'un Faune. Krug is haunted by a passage from this voluptuous eclogue where the faun accuses the nymph of disengaging herself from his embrace 'sans pitié du sanglot dont j'étais encore ivre' ('spurning the spasm with which I still was drunk'). Fractured parts of this line re-echo through the book, cropping up for instance in the malarma ne donje of Dr Azureus' wail of rue, and in the donje te zankoriv of apologetic Krug." Or "that Pankrat Tzikutin, the shabby old pogromystic is Socrates Hemlocker" or "that the 'other rivermaid's father' is James Joyce who wrote Winnipeg Lake" (Finnegans Wake).
    "Most people will not even mind having missed all this; well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party. In the long run, however, it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts. I reread my books rarely, but when I do go through them again, what pleases me most is the wayside murmur of this or that hidden theme."

    The antidote to this smugness is, of course, to follow Borges' advise and to bring your own radio to Nabokov's little party. Be Pierre Menard's to Nabokov's Cervantian cruelty and brilliance (how much old VN would have hated that comparison).