I’ve been making the mistake lately of reading professional reviews after reading the book rather than before. This despite knowing that reading reviews in advance of the book gives me insight that enhances my appreciation of the book—which is one reason for publishing reviews in the first place. The main reason, of course, the one directly related to publishers sending reviewers free “review copies,” is to help sell the book. So what in hell am I doing writing this review sixty-six years after Pnin, was published? Did the publisher’s free review copy get lost in the mail for more than half a century? Well now waitaminute, weren’t those the Pony Express days? Maybe the damned thing’s still bouncing around in a saddlebag out on a prairie somewhere in Nebraska. I mean, if so, it shouldn’t be held against me if I couldn’t wait any longer. I’m a patient man, but...there are limits! So I downloaded the Kindle version, costing me, btw, probly six times what I’d have had to pay had I bought it back in those Bill Codyish days of yore. Was I what? Alive that long ago? Well now hey, some cards a reviewer’s allowed to keep face down, n’est-ce-pas? [rhetorical question--move along, please!]
Anyway, not all is lost. There are advantages to reading a review by a reviewer who’s literally been left in the dust. Same as there are, say, to buying a road-gripping Armstrong tire, created eons after the original log wheel rolled away from its inventor’s flint adze. In the situation of Pnin, the reader has instant online access to the insights of top-line literary critics, which, by my failing to deepen my appreciation of this short, classic novel by first reading them, and which, by my coming to them after the fact, humiliated my intention of doing a proper review for you here, have unwittingly freed me to narrow my focus to only one facet of Vladimir Nabokov’s break-out American literary achievement. That one facet, which counterbalanced the ungainly, gentle, laughingstock persona of Timofey Pnin—pronounced Pun-in by Pnin in the novel, but which one reviewer has insisted is P’neen--the, Soviet Union escapee-cum-teacher of Russian literature. The one saving grace: tragic romance. Yes, that resonantly soulful Russian literary tradition. Pnin’s Mira plucks the balalaika heartstrings with a poignancy on a par with Zhivago’s Lara.
“In order to exist rationally,” our anonymous narrator tells us, “Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin—not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”
The slightest reminder of his long-lost Mira, in the midst of giving a speech, for example, can divert him into a split-second reverie of a past encounter.
Our narrator, who incrementally reveals his acquaintance with Pnin from childhood, mentions his first sighting of Mira at an amateur play some youngsters, including Pnin, held in an old barn. Without naming her then, he remembers her as a “pretty, slender-necked, velvet-eyed girl,” the sister of a mutual acquaintance.
Pnin last saw her in a Berlin restaurant after she escaped the Soviet Union and before her arrest by Nazis. “They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all—but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.”
He learned years later, after escaping to the United States, that Mira had been murdered at Buchenwald.
More recently, in one of his unbidden remembrances, musing at night alone on a porch, “...again the clumsy, shy, obstinate, eighteen-year-old boy, waiting in the dark for Mira—and despite the fact that logical thought put electric bulbs into the kerosene lamps and reshuffled the people, turning them into aging émigrés and securely, hopelessly, forever wire-netting the lighted porch, my poor Pnin, with hallucinatory sharpness, imagined Mira slipping out of there into the garden and coming toward him among tall tobacco flowers whose dull white mingled in the dark with that of her frock...
“Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”
While Mira lives in his heart, Pnin marries Liza, a restless temptress who doesn’t hang around long. His sense of her as he watches her leave is a mixture of reluctant acceptance and relief:
“He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her—just as she was—with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in Heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—“
He breaks down when his friend Joan, hoping to console him, asks softly, “Doesn’t she want to come back?”
“Pnin, his head on his arm, started to beat the table with his loosely clenched fist. ‘I haf nofing,’ [he] wailed...between loud, damp sniffs, ‘I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!’”
What we have is something marvelous. An all-too-human character brought alive for us in all his dimensions by an enchanting writer, with the bonus of an intimate look at a small college community of Russian émigrés in the early 1950s portrayed with precision, fictionally, by one of their own. Nabokov is best known for Lolita, his startling, controversial novel about a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Pnin, however, was his break-out in U.S. literary circles, initially appearing as a series of individual stories in The New Yorker. Its success, establishing his reputation as a writer of uncommon brilliance, helped persuade publishers to take a chance with the more risky Lolita.
Below are links to a couple of comprehensive reviews of Pnin:
Charles Poore, The New York Times
David Lodge, The Guardian
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]