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Pnin
by Vladimir Nabokov

 
To: ALL Date: 10/09 From: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Time: 12:10 PM PNIN, by VLADIMIR NABOKOV *** I'll take a stab at starting the discussion of PNIN, though I still have a ways to go in the book--which I'm finding to be delightful, BTW. I think Nabokov is a really stellar stylist, and I'm sure his satire of academia will ring very true for anybody who's been there. To be fair, I think my fondness for Professor Pnin isn't a totally unselfish one. This guy's so hapless, he makes me feel almost suave by comparison. My only quibble, and it's a small one, is that Nabokov occasionally gets so carried away with language that a description turns so cerebral and convoluted (the professor's mysterious seizure in the park, for instance) that I have a hard time figuring out--in the timeless phrase of an old newspaper editor I knew, who had pretensions to sophistication--"exactly what the douche is going on." Funny, funny stuff, though. >>Dale in Ala. =============== Reply 1 of Note 14 ================= To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/13 From: VMMN97A FELIX MILLER Time: 11:18 AM Dale, I finished PNIN last week, and can agree with your comments. I laughed out loud many times, a sure sign that either the author is demented in the same peculiar way I am, or he is very skilled. I think the consensus would be that dementia felix is not the case with Nabokov. He's just good. I, too had problems with the virtuoso use of language in the book. I had to re-read (slowly) numerous passages to figure out what was going on. One good side effect was that my dictionary got a very thorough dusting by the time the book was finished. (and I'm still looking for the defintitions of some of the words) I had the same problem, especially with names, with LOLITA, which I've read several times. Especially the many plays on Clare Quilty's name. Of course, my main problem is that I barely get along in my native tongue, much less acquire other languages like tourist souvenirs, as Nabokov did. He and Conrad always make me feel very un-lettered. Back to Pnin, the hapless accidental professor of Russian. I could really identify with his bumbling progress through his life; things always seemed to be happening to him, rather than because of him. And not happy things, often. A greatly sympathetic character, I thought, and not just to a fellow klutz like myself. As contrasted to the narrator, who began to suspiciously resemble Nabokov himself (I believe Nabokov was a collector of butterflies, like the narrator). And I noticed at least one bit of self-reference, when the narrator listed Russian emigre writers, he cited Sirin, which I believe was Nabokov's pseudonym during his early career. I'll need more time to completely digest this book, which is a comment on the skill of the author, also, considering how short it is. But even without understanding all of the subtle bits, a very enjoyable read. Soon to head for Nashville, Felix Miller (http://pages.prodigy.com/TN/mountaineer/ursus.html) 10/13/95 11:18AM ET =============== Reply 2 of Note 14 ================= To: VMMN97A FELIX MILLER Date: 10/13 From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 6:06 PM Felix, So glad to hear that I am not the only one who needs a dictionary at hand to read this book. I like it very much so far, although I still have most of the book to go. Ann =============== Reply 3 of Note 14 ================= To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/13 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 11:53 PM Dale, thanks for getting the PNIN thread started. I have requested the book via inter-library loan and will make it my first priority to read it once I have it in hand. New Orleans and its aftereffects have rather played havoc with my reading schedule, which was nothing to shout about to begin with, and I want very much to get the book group back on track. I'll be back as soon as I have something useful to add to the discussion! Allen =============== Reply 4 of Note 14 ================= To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 10/14 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:33 PM Pnin's bumbling is comical, of course, but I the book resonates deeper than comedy. I have to avoid spoiling it for anyone, but there are contexts late in the book in which skill and success, as well as tragic depth, occur to Timofey Pavlovich; these are set off well by the comic moments. I am thinking of his weekend in the country, when he deftly fashions his handkerchief into a hat, and a glowing triumph at the end which I shan't divulge. Forgive the long absence, life has been complicated... -Patrick To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/15 From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 5:01 PM I finished PNIN yesterday and would like to thank whoever suggested this book. Never having read any Nabokov, I would never have come to this book on my own. As has already been noted, parts of this book are very funny. I found my self laughing out loud, for example, at Pnin deciding to give a "house-heating soiree"(house warming party). In fact, Nabokov's use of language is one of the most fascinating things about this book. Much of the humor derives from the butchering of English by Pnin and the other emigres in this book. Yet, Nabokov himself, also a Russian emigre, has such an amazing mastery of English. He can write so beautifully, as in the following: "Again, on serene afternoons, huge, amber-brown Monarch butterflies flapped over asphalt and lawn as they lazily drifted south, their incompletely retracted black legs hanging rather low beneath their polka-dotted bodies." However, his use of unusual words, occasionally so unusual that I could not find them in the dictionary, was sometimes disconcerting to this reader. I started to wonder if he used to read the dictionary as a hobby. Speaking of a soccer ball, for example, Nabokov writes that "Pnin disposed of it by defenestration." I couldn't help wondering why he didn't just say Pnin threw it out the window. But this is a minor complaint, because overall I think that this book was beautifully written. As Patrick mentioned, it is not all humorous, by any means. I think that what gives this book its power is that Nabokov has managed to create a character whom he can poke fun of, but who at the same time is very touching. For Pnin is basically displaced, from his country, from his language, and from intimacy with his fellow human beings. The scenes where he is suddenly transported back in time and sees his parents, friends and old sweetheart in pre-Revolutionary Russia are very moving. The narrator recalls Pnin as the "erudite young author of several admirable papers on Russian culture." This indicated to me that, had Pnin not been forced to leave his homeland, his career would not have been such a hopeless failure. As a human being, I think that he was more successful. I am thinking particularly of his kindness to young Eric. Patrick, you mentioned a glowing triumph at the end. I'm afraid that I didn't really see it that way, but I would like to. Please elaborate. Ann To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/16 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 0:21 AM Defenestration is really a popular Balkan sport and seems to be the principal way of getting rid of people. I think it's something to do with the size of the windows and lack of screens. Anyway, I think the word and the concept are much more usual in Nabokov's part of the world than in ours. Cathy To: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Date: 10/16 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 12:08 PM Cathy: Isn't there the Defenestration of Prague, or some such? Of course that's central Europe and not the great Slavic east. Maybe it's the rage east of the Oder-Niese? Dick in Alaska where the passion for defenestration has been cooled by short, stumpy sub-arctic construction To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/17 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 0:33 AM I've read references on this board to the Defenestration of Prague, and I'm just plain going to have to look it up. Seems hard to defenestrate a whole city, but the Balkan gang could undoubtedly find a way if they worked hard enough. The only defenestration in Prague I know anything about is the murder of patriot Jan Masyrk(?) in the late '40s. cathy To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/17 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:27 AM Ann, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, oddly enough, spoke English before mastering Russian. Also, since he had a French governess like most upper-class Russian children, he knew French quite early as well. He notes in STRONG OPINIONS that at age 13 he had read all of Shakespeare in English, all of Flaubert in French and all of Tolstoy in Russian. It is such a shame that he is known far and wide for only one of his 40 or so books, and that it is widely thought to be pornographic - LOLITA. Anyway, my view of Pnin's final triumph is a very selective one. warning, plot spoiler ahead>> Yes, he loses his job at Waindell, but the triumph I am thinking of is the glass bowl Victor has given him. Near the end of the book he drops a nutcracker into the sink where the bowl is sitting, and the bowl doesn't break. To call a non-happening a triumph is a little tendentious on my part, yes, but bear in mind that everything has stubbornly gone wrong for him all along. In CRITICAL ESSAYS ON VLADIMIR NABOKOV there's an interesting essay on PNIN pointing to its realtionship to the "Cinderella" story. The comparison seems strained at best, the sort we excoriate literary critics for coming up with, but it's actually kind of neat, the paralells: Pnin tells the garbled story of how the glass slippers came to be, noting that the original story said "vair" - white squirrel fur - and a bad translator mistook that for "verre" - glass. Squirrels show up several times in PNIN, often with nuts. The bowl is made of glass. Cinderella is a character for whom a lot of things go wrong until suddenly things go right. Even if that's a totally ad-hoc and ridiculous reading, the text is sufficiently complicated to support a large number of interpretations, I think. -Patrick To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/17 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:35 AM A further thought on defenestration: VVN says somewhere when Edmund Wilson has criticized him for using "difficult and obscure words" that "It does not seem to occur to Mr. Wilson that I had something difficult and obscure to say." He does not have Pnin simply "throw the ball out the window" because he _revels in the texture of language_ and believes it is not simply a transparent medium for getting your point across, but a thing in itself. And he thinks people SHOULD be sent to the dictionary every now and then, because like William Safire says it can "awaken a few sleepyheads." -P. To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/17 From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 11:11 PM Patrick, thanks for the information on Nabokov. I wondered as I was reading if perhaps he had an English governess as a child. Certainly, imperial Russia, where Nabokov spent his early years, was a far more cosmopolitan society than the USSR. I taught English as a second language for four years, and I didn't think that anyone could attain Nabokov's mastery of English if he had learned it as an adult. As you have pointed out, being sent to the dictionary now and then is not such a bad thing. The last book I read when this happened was CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, another wonderful book. As you no doubt remember, Shakespeare was also a favorite of Pnin, who, unfortunately could not understand him in the original and missed the comfortable Russian translation he had known in his youth. Even those things about American or English culture which should have been familiar to Pnin were not. Another example was when he wanted to buy Victor a famous Jack London book and discovered he wasn't nearly as popular in the US as in Russia. Once again, I felt that Nabokov was emphasizing the loneliness and alienation of the immigrant experience. The author could not have experienced Pnin's problems with language, but he must have felt it in other ways. I wondered about the Cinderella story. I did notice the squirrel motif and, in fact my Vintage International edition has a squirrel the cover. Equating Pnin with Cinderella seems to be stretching it to me, but it certainly is an interesting interpretation. I must agree with you that the fact that Victor's bowl did not break was very significant and it did leave me with hope that SOMETHING would go right for Pnin in the future. As the author describes Pnin driving off in the distance, he also says "there was simply no saying what miracle might happen." However, he also warns us in chapter 3 that the ending will not be happy. The narrator says, "Some people--and I am one of them--hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm." I identified the narrator with the author, didn't you? Why do you think Pnin was so determined to refuse any help from the narrator? I have never read LOLITA. Is it erotic? What other books by Nabokov would you recommend? Ann To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/18 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 6:46 AM Pnin does not like or trust the narrator because Liza had an affair with the narrator. When Pnin proposes to Liza, she rushes with Pnin's letter to the narrator himself, which is why he is able to reproduce it. He's not meant to be Nabokov exactly, I think, but near enough to set off the wondering. I think "Pnin" is the funniest of VN's books, and "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" - a tragically neglected novel - is the most beautiful. "Pale Fire is very comlplicated and pleasing in a sort of cerebral way. "Lolita" is a clever story, and is prudishly cleanly rendered without a single dirty word. The novel involves an aging European man in raucous young America who, searching for a replica of a childhood sweetheart, undertakes to seduce a preteen girl. It ends up quite the other way round, however, and the results are tragicomic. The taboo surrounding the subject matter is understandable, but it must be understood to be fiction, and fictional constructs can set up temporary moral zones in which a lot of different things can happen. -Patrick To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/18 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 11:16 PM Now you've got me wondering about the origins of the Cinderella story. A squirrel fur slipper? Well, that would be a small foot or an awful lot of squirrels, but somehow you don't think of fur footwear among the Western European nations - which I infer this is because of the French translation. I know Santa Claus was originally from Turkey (Smyrna, I think); now what about Cinderella? Cathy To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/19 From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 8:29 PM Patrick, Yes, I am sure that Pnin would have nothing to do with the narrator because of his prior relationship with the beloved, but worthless, Liza. I wondered if the major complaint against the narrator was the fact that he ruthlessly criticized her poetry, rather than the implied sexual affair. Incidentally, wasn't that letter of proposal that Pnin wrote to Liza priceless? I loved the following: "I am sending you under separate cover a pamphlet published in Prague by my friend Professor Chateau, which brilliantly refutes your Dr. Halp's theory of birth being an act of suicide on the part of the infant." Nabakov certainly got in some good digs at the psychology profession. Thank you for your recommendations regarding Nabokov's other books. I definitely intend to read more and hope that the discussion of the occasionally challenging vocabulary hasn't put off anyone who was thinking about reading this book. It is really very good. Ann To: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Date: 10/20 From: BUYS59A BARBARA HILL Time: 0:54 AM I loved the book and at the end when his little sedan swung boldly past the front truck and spurted up the road I felt despite all his setbacks he was really undefeatible. Barbara Hill in OR To: BUYS59A BARBARA HILL Date: 10/20 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 2:03 AM I enjoyed PNIN tremendously. As the kind of person who always knocks over the wine, or falls up the front steps and who would rather be boiled in purest virgin olio d'olivo than get gussied up and go to a cocktail party to make conversation with people she hardly knows, I can identify. Poor man. Whenever I think I'm looking pretty spiffy and walk into someplace I should have known better than to go to in the first place, like Neiman Marcus, say, and my clothes immediately wrinkle on my body, my hair instantly becomes Medusa with dead snakes and my makeup starts to slip off my face, I know exactly how PNIN felt. But better than that was the pure delight of the language. I adore watching someone who is so seamlessly and smoothly clever. It's writing that makes me laugh over the its every sleight of hand. I had no idea Nabakov could do this. I was glad to learn from someone here that he learned English as a child. I thought I being completely put to shame by someone writing in his second language. No prob with the vocabulary, in fact I thought it was great. God, I love it when someone can write like that. It's like looking at the lace on a Sargeant portrait and realizing it's just flick, flick, flick with the paintbrush. (How did he do that?) This book is about as heavy as a Sargeant portrait, and just as much fun. I read LOLITA when there was first a furor over it way back when. It pains me to admit, but I read it because it was supposed to be a naughty book. I remember being bored out of my skull and perhaps not even finishing the book. I was probably racing through looking for the "dirty" parts. Sigh. What can I say? I was young and foolish. Ruth, in Redlands, where her wrist is much improved and who is putting more Nabakov on her TBR list. To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/20 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:45 AM Ann et al., VN wrote in the preface to "King, Queen, Knave" that "the delegation from Vienna is not invited. My trains and tunnels will remain trains and tunnels." His distaste for Freud and psych. in general is legendary: "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that their personal woes can be solved by the daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care." He calls Freud "the Viennese witch doctor" and "that figure of fun." Cathy, "vair" is translated "white Russian squirrel fur." And ah, Ruth, yes, the comparison to John Singer Sargent is apt. They share that almost-Mannerist attention to making the difficult look easy: "sleight of hand." I've always loved Sargent for just that "flick, flick, flick" quality, especially of his watercolors, which are excellent... -Patrick in Washington, recently march-trampled but doing fine To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/20 From: TQWX67A ANN DAVEY Time: 2:20 PM Barbara, Ruth, Patrick, I was delighted to see your notes on PNIN. I can't resist quoting one more part that impressed me deeply. The following refers to Pnin's old sweetheart who was murdered by the Nazis. "In order to exist rationally, 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 consiousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death was possible. One had to forget--because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, buned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood." There is a quote from Grahm Greene on the cover of my book: "Hilariously funny and of a sadness." It is the combination of humor with depth of feeling that really impressed me about this book. Ann To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/22 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 2:16 AM Patrick: If my downloads don't deceive me, "Pnin" was your recommendation, and it is a wonderful book. I've been lagging, since I decided to go best, two falls out of three with George Elliot, about a week ago, and I'm only half way done so far. Nabokov is funny, but I think the tragic elements are apparent even early on -- think of this man. A survivor of the Russian Revolution, emigre to Paris where he struggles through a devastating marriage and loss, sneaks out one step ahead of the Nazis, is betrayed for a second time by his wife even as they escape, and ends up in America -- a place where he can't understand the advertisements or the cartoons, and where his ex-wife pursues what money and self-respect he has managed to accumulate with a ruthless cynicism that is breathtaking. And yet, he maintains his dignity, his selfness -- he is Pnin, a person and a scholar and the possessor of those lovely new teeth. This story reminds me of the parents of a dear friend of mine, Joseph Chomski, who died a couple of years ago at far too young an age. Joe's father was born in Warsaw, Poland about 1900. He studied medicine in Paris in the 1920's and early 1930's and met the lovely Masha, who was from a Riga trading family and who was studying art at the Sorbonne. They fell in love and married, just in time for the Nazis to take the Paris excursion. Like many Jews, Dr. and Mrs. Chomski fled the occupied zone (only about the northern one-third of France was occupied after the defeat in 1940; the remainder of the country was occupied by the German Army in response to the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942) to live in Marseille. When Marseille was occupied, they and some others fled into Spain, taking over 100 Jewish children with them over Pyranees, and ultimately to Lisbon, where they sailed to the United States as refugees. When Dr. Chomski arrived in New York, he spoke little English and needed to take 2 years of remedial (!) medical education in America before he could practice. Of course, he did take that training, and became a succesful doctor in Manhattan, raising up one son, Joe, who was my good friend for many years. I was fortunate enough to know Dr. and Mrs. Chomski and to visit them in New York when Joe and I were young men, starting our own families. After a huge breakfast of strawberry blintzes at the old Russian Tea Room, Dr. Chomski would walk us up 5th Avenue, each arm linked through one of Joe's and one of mine, talking to us, pointing out the sights, leaning his pink, white-tufted head first to one of us, then to the other. Masha and our wives would walk a few paces behind, because that was how they had learned to do it. Joe used to tell me that, as a boy growing up in Manhattan, they would go to the movie, or be walking down the street, and someone would call out -- "Dr. Chomski, Dr. Chomski!" And they would turn, and the person would come up and say, "Dr. you don't know me, but you delivered my sister on the boat from Lisbon. We have a picture of you at home." Or, "Dr. Chomski, you took care of my Grandmother when she was dying in 1950, and you never charged us -- and we will never forget you." When Joe died in 1993, he had only his mother and a cousin from Israel surviving from both families; Dr. Chomski had died in 1991 and Masha passed away just a few months after Joe. All the rest of both families had disappeared from 1933 to 1945. I think, sometimes, that we in America can only imagine the kind of courage that people like Nabokov and Dr. Chomski exhibited to survive and prevail. Without a doubt, Patrick, "Pnin" is more than a humorous book. Dick in Alaska To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/22 From: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Time: 7:43 AM Dick: I was about to post Graham Greene's great quote about PNIN, "Hilarious and of a sadness," when I saw that Ann had beaten me to it. Right on the money, I think, especially in such wonderful scenes as the visit of his ex-wife and its aftermath. What a piece of work Liza is...getting his emotions all roiled by demanding the mysterious urgent meeting, only to tell him she (a) needs more money and (b) hates his new suit. (I think some of us have been there.) And I love the part where Pnin is going through his landlady's cabinets looking for the whiskey and soda--or "viscous and sawdust," as he puts it. What a remarkable dignity he has, in the face of a cosmically snake-bitten life. >>Dale in Ala. To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/22 From: NMTT86A JAMES HEATH Time: 11:22 AM Re: LOLITA as pornography. I've had this theory for some time that it is hard for a good writer to write a successfully dirty book. The good writer keeps wanting to tell you how sex really is, and the pornographer wants to tell you how sex really isn't. The essence of the pornographic fantasy is that some impossibly attractive person is completely enthralled with you and available to do whatever whenever. This strikes me as sort of the sexual equivalent of the doctrine of unmerited grace (and may explain the attraction of televangelists to loose women, but that's a topic for my next lecture). The serious writer keeps pointing out that nobody looks like a Playmate of the Month, even Playmates of the Month -- it's all makeup and photography. That sort of realism destroys the erotic mood. Or as a friend of mine likes to say, the most effective form of birth control for the middle-aged is leaving the lights on. I am always amused by the reviewers who seeing something intentionally erotic comment either that it isn't a very good book or it isn't erotic. Although a few people may get close (D.H. Lawrence, Nicholson Baker), I am convinced that the two genres are mutually exclusive. -Jim in Oregon (who naturally only has an academic interest in the subject) To: ALL Date: 10/22 From: NMTT86A JAMES HEATH Time: 6:16 PM One aspect of Nabokov that stands out for me is his immersion in seemingly trivial detail. For example, the chapter about the awkward visit between Pnin and his son(?) Victor concludes: Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zig zags. Possibly someone can dig a metaphor out of this, but I'm inclined to believe that Nabokov's response to the tragedies of Pnin's life is to think about something else like patterns in puddles or washing dishes . The hard thing about defeat is that there isn't much you can really do about it except bumble off in your blue sedan to see what might happen next. I think about a comment in the morning paper by a member of Oregon State's perpetually hapless football team (1-6 at the moment with a good chance of being 1-10 at the season's end). In words of football players from decades past, he commented, "We are learning lessons here that will last all our lives." The only lesson I can see is from Garrison Keillor: "When the odds are all against you, chances are you'll lose. That's what the odds mean, isn't it?" Perhaps the lesson from Pnin is that losing isn't as important as is generally supposed. --Jim in Oregon To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/22 From: KGXC73A GAIL SINGER GROSS Time: 6:28 PM greetings PATRICK... thank you for selecting this priceless gem...and for listing some of VN's others works....and A HUGE THANKS for all who have contributed their insights and perceptions...i sit here and sigh...so much food for thought...i am oncemore exhilirated by your literary discussion.... gail..a passionate reader who marvels at the quality of the posts on CR....AS i sit here in sunny and cool SAN FRANCISCO thinking which VN book i want to tackle next...as if i didn't have enough books queuing to be read..... To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/22 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 10:22 PM Dick, you reminded me of another group of Russian emigres, ones who apparently stayed in Paris through the Nazi era without to much problem. This was a large group of White Russians, some noble, who were honest to God taxi drivers. I always thought that stuff about noble Russian taxi drivers and such was just an exaggerated literary fad, but seems there was at least some truth in it. The White Russian Chorus, apparently a volunteer organization, was available for the 1951 recording of BORIS GODONOUV made at the Sale Wagram in Paris. I read that the place was solidly surrounded by taxicabs while these guys recorded. Cathy To: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Date: 10/23 From: EUCR61A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 3:12 PM Cathy: White Russian exiles figured prominently in the early LeCarre books (along with exiled Balts of all varieties). I don't know about Paris, but Washington D.C. maintained a ghostly presence of that sort for many years -- the Lithuanians had a functioning embassy in Washington all the years from 1940 until they liberated themselves in the 80's. It was really spooky -- you could go up to the door and these very old people would let you in; it smelled like furniture polish and dust and god knows what. Of course, we were convinced we were on KGB cameras. Anyway, they would give you all sorts of information about Lithuania, and the "activities" of the government in exile. Very shabby, very rundown and very gentile. Kind of reminds me of Pnin again. I got into this by meeting a friend of a woman friend who (the friend that is) was from Riga, who was very big on liberating the Baltics. He had been a small boy at the time of the Soviet annexation; his family was prominent and wealthy. Anyway, his father signed on with the Germans, big time, in 1941 -- became a judge in the Nazi/Latvian courts. When the Red Army came back through, the mother fled with the children, and the father stayed behind, never to be heard from again (supposedly). Anyway, this got me all interested in the Baltic Republics and related issues. Quite a few years later, I was reading some original material (well, it was translated) on Soviet war crimes investigations and prosecutions in the Baltics. There, big as life was this guy's dad -- accused, tried, convicted and shot for sending 17,000 or so Latvian communists, jews, gays, and library fine scofflaws to the countryside for a permanent vacation. I had long since lost touch with the fellow, and wonder to this day if he knew what his dad was doing for a living. Another possibility is, of course, that it was a different person with the same name -- since the restoration of independence, I've noticed several people in the Latvian government with the same surname as is involved in the story, so perhaps it's all a coincidence. Tend to think not, however. Dick in Alaska, where we are accumulating some world class slush To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/23 From: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Time: 4:14 PM Patrick, let me add my thanks for suggesting this book. When I started reading PNIN I was sitting in the airport. As I came to page 10 "....and languid Eileen Lane, whom somebody had told that by the time one had mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read 'Anna Karamozov'" I laughed aloud. A lady sitting next to me said, "What are you reading? It must be funny." I said yes, but then realized how hard it would have been to try to explain it to someone without sounding patronizing or idiotic. What do you all think the squirrel motif means? During one of Pnin's slippages into the past he visualizes this: "Near his bed was a four-section screen of polished wood, with pyrographic designs representing a bridle path felted with fallen leaves, a lily pond, an old man hunched up on a bench, and a squirrel holding a reddish object in its front paws. Timosha, a methodical child, had often wondered what that object could be (a nut? a pine cone?). . . ." As soon as Pnin awakens from his reverie or "attack" (he had been in a park on a bench) he sees a squirrel with a peach pit. Why a peach pit? Was this the answer to the riddle of his childhood? Even so what does it mean? It's easy to compare Pnin to a squirrel. A simple everyday animal who adapts most easily to any situation--city, country. A toiler, who saves and does not appear remarkable. There are several appearances of the squirrel including once when Pnin serves it water from a fountain. His little animal spirit guide? Somewhere there was a literal translation of the word "squirrel." I couldn't find it. Could someone help me out? Sherry in Milwaukee who is luxuriating in being in my house all by myself To: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Date: 10/23 From: EUCR61A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 6:11 PM Sherry: I think the source of the word squirrel was supposed to be the latin "shadow tail" (my Webster's concurs). What it all means remains a mystery to me -- like the scene where's runs the water fountain for the ungreatful little rodent, while thinking of himself as the "water father". I'm still not done so perhaps the scales will fall from my eyes in the next hundred pages or so. Dick in Alaska To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/23 From: KGXC73A GAIL SINGER GROSS Time: 8:56 PM greetings to all in our COMMUNITY OF CR's..... relating to PNIN...would you believe in this week's TIME MAGAZINE..under the BOOK SECTION...a long awaited collection of short fiction by VLADIMIR NABOKOV....edited by NABOKOV's son Dimitri, the ominibus brings together 65 tales and sketches....most have appeared at least once in previous collections..many are translations of originals written during the 1920's and '30s for Russian emigre publications in BERLIN and Paris... the collection's stunning opener, THE WOOD-SPRITE is a tale in whose mere three pages NABOKOV concentrates of essence of heartache and playfulness that distinguishes the best of his work.... much to anticipate....... gail..a passionate reader who is seeking THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT for my next NABOKOV selection.... To: KGXC73A GAIL SINGER GROSS Date: 10/23 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 9:46 PM Dick/Sherry, My favorite squirrely detail in PNIN is when Timofey is in the Waindell library with a card-catalog drawer, which he takes "like a big nut, to a secluded corner and there make[s] a quiet mental meal of it" (p. 76). I posted a note earlier about the connection between Pnin, the squirrel, and "Cinderella," which I think helps explain the repeated use of the furry little ones. I'll look for that essay and try to clarify its points here soon. Dick, among your splendid posts you mention Riga, which plays a large part in another VN book I've just finished, GLORY. And Gail, do read THE REAL LIFE... it's by far my favorite. -p. To: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Date: 10/23 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 10:32 PM Of course, Riga to me means first and foremost COMMODORE HORNBLOWER, my absolute favorite of that series. The Russian sequences are both action and detail packed. This was the novel in which Hornblower committed the first adultery allowed in the SATURDAY EVENING POST - the beginning of the end for them, undoubtedly. Forester's reason for this breach of etiquette was that he wanted Hornblower to contract typhoid, and that was the easiest way for a man in his position to do it. Cathy To: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Date: 10/23 From: LQYA01B HUNTEROSE SANDMAN Time: 10:32 PM Greetings Sherry, CR's . . . (one and all): Re: this squirrel mystery of Nabakovs . . . I've read a few ancient Celtic myths involving [as translated] our busy friend, the squirrel . . . I interpreted only one consistency in representation : he was a messenger of information. What kind, I do not know -- perhaps, it is more like revelation that he carries? I'll look for the poems(not Irish proper, but the older broader Celtic mythology) No promises since you people are late turning me on to Nabakov. I'm rushing to buy/consume this author on my "never-read" list ( CR gets my mind interested in so many new things that, without my bookstore, a life of crime would be necessary) I hope that Nabakov is as interesting as the posts in CR on him! Morpheus . . . who actually enjoys the oddly epic style of Atlanta journalism during the World Series. Whowhatwhenwhere? No ones worshiping at the "pyramid" this week! {i'm sure dale is laughing over that one.} To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/28 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 10:43 AM I finished "Pnin" day before yesterday, and have spent some time casting about for squirrel information. So far I've come up with an absolute 'zero' -- does anyone have a Russian-English dictionary, to determine the Russian for squirrel? I was thinking maybe Sirin (Nabokov's penname) had some linkage to the name for the species: sciuridae. Then there's checking into Russian folk tales and myths -- why this could take weeks. Dick in Alaska, who has an ENTIRE weekend to mess around with stuff like this To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/28 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 3:56 PM Dick, The Russian for "squirrel" is "byelka, stress on the second syllable. Ruth, who has a Russian-English dictionary which she acquired before her trip a few years back, but who nevertheless, never learned to read the Cyrillic alphabet fast enough to get off at the right Metro stop. =============== Reply 4 of Note 2 =================  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/28 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 6:26 PM correction from Leif, stress goes on the "e". Word has 2 syllables. Ruth =============== Reply 5 of Note 2 =================  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/28 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 10:16 PM Ruth: thanks for the Russian; seems I'm up the wrong creek again, paddle or no. Got to Borders today to crib some Nabokov info, and came across a two-volume ditty by a guy named Brian Boyd. Really meaty stuff; makes Middlemarch look like Reader's Digest material. Anyway, his chapter on PNIN is interesting: the narrator was clearly Nabokov (as in the flesh), according to VN's correspondence with the original publisher. Very autobiographical, which was reasonably apparent. And, as to squirrels, Brian Boyd was as much at sea as the rest of us -- he has at least three pages devoted to the squirrel motif in PNIN, and frankly, they were largely unintelligible. Of course I was skim reading in the stacks once again, staying one step ahead of store security who believe that if you imbibe more than 10 per cent of anything on the shelf, you're a constructive shoplifter. So I may have missed a thing or two. Anyway, the squirrel (ala Boyd) has to do with vital life forces, scampering irrepressibly, ever seeking, woodland imagery from old Russia and what not. Earlier in the day, I had checked my tattered old Bartlett's for squirrel quotations, on the odd chance something might turn up. Turns out that of 5 squirrel quotes, 2 are from Emily Dickinson and one from George Eliot. Given the last few days on this board, I don't think that's a coincidence. Anyway, I think perhaps Miss Emily hit the nail on the rodent skull, when she wrote: Experiment to me Is everyone I meet If it contain a Kernel? The Figure of a Nut Presents upon a Tree Equally plausibly, But Meat within, is requisite To Squirrels, and to Me. (No. 1073, ca. 1865) Seems there is some Pnin in there someplace. Finally, squirrels notwithstanding, VN was going to kill off Pnin at the end of the book, originally. His publisher or agent (I'm not sure which; remember, I'm stealing information here, under the watchful eye of a corporate bookstore) convinced him otherwise, and Pnin sailed away down the road at the end of the book. AND, according to Boyd reappears as a tenured, successful professor of Russian at another university, in PALE FIRE, a book that I think I read 30 years ago, but is now gone except for the title. Dick in Alaska, where he's been cribbing like mad To: FBED59A EDWARD HOUGHTON Date: 10/29 From: YHJK89A CATHERINE HILL Time: 0:39 AM The DAYS was another work altogether, and the article mentioning it stated the thing was pretty well forgotten nowadays. The only reason I ran into a reference to it at all was that it was the source of Puccini's TURANDOT. Puccini was a bold man, but not even he could have made an opera of much of the Burton. Obviously Scheherazade's father didn't censor her reading. Cathy =============== Reply 7 of Note 2 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/29 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 1:14 AM Dear Dick, The mountain and the squirrel Had a quarrel, And the former called the latter 'Little Prig;' Bun replied, 'You are doubtless very big; but all sorts of things and weather Must be taken in together, To make up a year And a sphere. And I think it no disgrace To occupy my place, If I'm not so large as you, You are not so small as I, And not half so spry, I'll not deny you make A very pretty squirreltrack; Talents differ; all is well and wisely put; If I cannot carry forests on my back, Neither can you crack a nut.' Hope this helps, Sincerely, Ralph Waldo Emerson To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/30 From: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Time: 6:31 PM Dick & All Nabokovians, This item just in... On Saturday I'm having dinner with an old high school student of mine, a brilliant kid who went on to major in Russian and teaches it at a college here in town. He's quite a student of Russian lit and has spent a lot of time in that country, so when I see him on Saturday I'm hoping to get to the bottom of this Nabokov/squirrel question once and for all. >>Dale in Ala. =============== Reply 9 of Note 2 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 10/30 From: EUCR61A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 7:38 PM Dale: When you find out, e-mail that Brian Boyd who wrote the two volumes on Nabokov -- he needs to know too. Dick in Alaska, where TSSP is next up after I finish gail singer gross' recommended Sixteen Pleasures (I think that's it) by Hellenga. Remarkable book in that a man tried to write a story from the perspective of a 29 year old woman.  
To: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Date: 10/31 From: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Time: 0:30 AM Ruth: Your Emerson poem on squirrels got me looking through the odd book on this end, and I came up not only with the Emerson, but a William Cowper, a W. B. Yeats and two "anon." This was in the Child's Treasury of Animal Verse, which usually does me better than some of the other collections. Unfortunately, none of these authors seems to have been acquainted with either Nabokov or Pnin, and vice-versa. I have high hopes for Dale's former student, however. And, I forgotten Fowles completely, but that's a good one. Dick in Alaska, where we have a sick pup =============== Reply 12 of Note 2 =================  
To: ZRPD32A RICHARD HAGGART Date: 10/31 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:40 AM Ruth/Dick/Dale, Coincidentally, I read THE COLLECTOR just last month. I was very fond of THE MAGUS and sort of enjoyed THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN and DANIEL MARTIN. I thought "Ferdinand" a very odd bug indeed: a specimen to be examined through the mesh of his fictional net and released. I see no real connnection betwixt him and V.N., who studied entomology at Harvard and discovered a new species of butterfly, now named after him: Lycidae sublivens nabokov. A neat piece, Updike on Nabokov, is the cover story in this week's New York Times Book Review, by the whale. -Patrick To: ALL Date: 11/08 From: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Time: 9:35 AM PNIN, by NABOKOV *** Dick & All: The powers at *P won't let me reply to the PNIN thread, punishment no doubt for my long absence of late, so I had to start a new note. I had a wonderful visit last weekend with my old writing student the Russian major. He's a great fan of Nabokov, and of PNIN in particular, and says he's even more in awe of the man's genius after reading him in both languages. Moreover, as David says, "Just to further disabuse ourselves of the notion that life is in any way fair, we should keep in mind that Nabokov didn't even begin studying English until he was well into his 20s." Amazing. Like any scholar worth his/her salt, David promised to do further research on the squirrel question and get back to me. But he did have the following observations to make: --The Russian word for squirrel is "byelka," as someone here has pointed out, and in Russian a "ka" ending in nearly always diminutive. In fact, two of the earliest Soviet "cosmonauts" were a pair of dogs named Byelka and Strelka. The latter word means "Little Arrow," which is especially ironic considering that there were no plans to recover the space capsule upon re-entry. --Russians admire the squirrel not for its physical cuteness, as Americans do, but because it's canny, unpretentious, sturdy, and industrious--in short, a survivor, as Russians have had to be throughout their difficult history. (That makes me see in a somewhat different light the great scene where Pnin gives a drink of water to the ungrateful squirrel.) --Nabokov's pseudonym, Sirin, translates as "The Grey One" and could well be a squirrel reference. (An interesting sidelight: Translating Cyrillic characters into English is problematic, David says, because Russian vowels--unlike ours--have only one pronunciation each, no possibilities for long, short, etc. Therefore "Sirin," in English without the Cyrillic version to verify, could also be translated as "The Cheese." Not quite the same ring, somehow.) >>Dale in Ala., who continues to learn more from his students than vice versa =============== Reply 1 of Note 21 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 11/09 From: SFKX01A PATRICK WILCOX Time: 7:14 AM Dale, "If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught." I enjoyed your note on the squirrels but I'm afraid there are some biographical bits that seem in need of clarification, in the interest of accuracy. I don't have VN's memoir at hand but I do have STRONG OPINIONS, in which he says (p. 5) that he spoke English before age 5, and that at age ten he was reading Poe, Browning, and Wells in English (p. 43). In any case he must have been more than fluent in English in his 20's, or else he would have had a very difficult time studying literature at Cambridge at age 19. And as for "Sirin," I have read several places that it was his father's pseudonym as well and means "bird of paradise," (see The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 29, p. 7, as well as SPEAK, MEMORY). There's a character in VN's last Russian novel, THE GIFT, named "Shirin," which, my girlfriend tells me, may be either "the grey one" or "the cheese." -Patrick Who doesn't like to rain on parades but thinks VN has a right to accurate representation =============== Reply 6 of Note 12 =================  
To: MXDD10A DALE SHORT Date: 11/14 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 0:05 AM If I might interrupt the moral philosophy symposium for a bit, I'd like to *finally* talk about the original sub- ject of this thread, PNIN, which I at last finished yester- day evening -- a mere month after the discussion began. (I bet some of you were thinking, "I knew this was the slow- motion reading group, but I didn't think you meant THAT slow!") I immediately called up and read the notes that had accumulated in the Pnin thread, and found that I'd had many of the same reactions -- in fact there were some passages I'd meant to quote that you folks had beaten me to. Like all of you I had revelled in Nabokov's masterly use of the English language, particularly his original and apt meta- phors ("two lumpy old ladies in semitransparent raincoats, like potatoes in cellophane"). I found the reading slow going but smooth; it demands one's attention but richly repays the effort one invests. Convinced that he must have been speaking and reading English from an early age to be able to use it with such skill, and was astonished at what turned out to be an incorrect statement that he'd only started with this tongue in his 20s. This has all been so thoroughly gone over that I won't elaborate any further at this late juncture. (I will note that I completely missed the squirrel motif, possibly because I read the second half of the book three weeks after beginning it; possibly because this kind of detail rarely interests me anyway.) I did note a couple of things that I'd like to mention, though. For one: I had, not long before starting PNIN, seen it described somewhere as a collection of connected stories rather than a novel. I know if I would describe it as such, but it's true that there's little by way of a continuous plot thread holding the narrative together. I noted that some of the chapters had been published separately in the New Yorker. Perhaps you could label PNIN, if you had to have a label, an episodic character portrait and =============== Note 1 Something else that piqued my interest is the unusual narrative voice that VN uses here. Ostensibly the story is told by someone who knew Pnin personally, and who enters the novel himself in the last chapter. But through most of the book, events and descriptions are being related as if by the accustomed omniscient narrator who stands outside the action entirely -- for example, we get certain visual details of scenes where no one is around, or when Pnin is alone. This struck me as rather odd; certainly it's some- thing I've never run into in fiction anywhere else. Has anyone seen this peculiar mixing of narrative voices elsewhere, or can you enlighten at all as to what Nabakov is up to here? I truly regret that I wasn't able to get in the thick of things when the discussion was at it peak; there's so much we could talk about here. However, it's time to get cracking on THE STRANGER so I at least won't be so far behind my own theoretical schedule; I hope to have read it by next Monday. Let me close by adding my own thanks to Patrick for recommending PNIN to us; it's highly unlikely that I'd have otherwise encountered it, and am grateful for this introduction to an author I've obviously been neglecting for far too long. Allen

 

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Vladimir Nabokov

 
What a piece of work Liza is...getting his emotions all roiled by demanding the mysterious urgent meeting, only to tell him she (a) needs more money and (b) hates his new suit. (I think some of us have been there.) And I love the part where Pnin is going through his landlady's cabinets looking for the whiskey and soda--or "viscous and sawdust," as he puts it. What a remarkable dignity he has, in the face of a cosmically snake-bitten life.
Dale in Ala.
 
Nabokov is funny, but I think the tragic elements are apparent even early on -- think of this man. A survivor of the Russian Revolution, emigre to Paris where he struggles through a devastating marriage and loss, sneaks out one step ahead of the Nazis, is betrayed for a second time by his wife even as they escape, and ends up in America -- a place where he can't understand the advertisements or the cartoons, and where his ex-wife pursues what money and self-respect he has managed to accumulate with a ruthless cynicism that is breathtaking. And yet, he maintains his dignity, his selfness -- he is Pnin, a person and a scholar and the possessor of those lovely new teeth.
Dick in Alaska
 

 
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