Thursday, November 15, 2012

On "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov *****

Pnin was my introduction to Nabokov, in an interpretation of fiction class my freshman year of college. I enjoyed the book enough that I would, over the course of the next six years or so, read many more books by him. (Alas, I don't as often read books by the same author now, unless I set out a plan to do so--something that in certain cases, like Nabokov, is a bit of a sad thing.) At the time, I must have been amazed by his command of the English language. It's something that I still am amazed at. Yes, at times his prose can be purple, but mostly, he's a true commander of the perfect adjective, which is unusual. Most strong writers I know really work at the verbs and nouns, but somehow Nabokov was able to make his nouns sing with the odd adjectival addition. I remain jealous.

I remember not picking up on something in this novel that seem utterly obvious now. Perhaps it was my age; perhaps it was the fact that I was coming to this book for a second time and so knew what to look for. That something was the identity of the narrator--or certain details about the narrator's life. For Pnin is an incredible example of the use of the unreliable narrator. This is a man who is a known liar, a man who apparently gets most of his story about Pnin's life from an acquaintance who spends time imitating Pnin for laughs, a man who drives Pnin's future wife to near suicide, a former lover of Pnin's future wife, a man who gets his jollies from belittling others. As such, Pnin, at the heart of the tail, comes off much like a fool--but a pitiful and sad one, one we feel for on not just the level of plot, of discovering Pnin's poor life, but on the level of the telling of that plot. By the end of the book, we detest what the narrator has done to Pnin, not just in action but in the telling.

Made of seven chapters, some of the chapters in this text are brilliant little stories of their own. In fact, I would not say that this is a book heavy on rising conflict--it is more episodic. I much like chapter 6, about Pnin's hosting of a party, just before a terrible knowledge is about to be pushed onto him. But my favorite chapter is almost certain the second. It is the story of Pnin's former wife coming to visit him. Excited by the prospect of seeing her again, he sets about elaborate preparations only to be sacked with a request that seems unfathomably ridiculous. And yet, Pnin, dutiful man that he is, we come to believe, will likely go about fulfilling it.

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