Sunday, 17 August 2014

The sadness of Pnin

"The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.[...] Prior to the 1940s, during the staid European era of his life, he had always worn long underwear, its terminals tucked into the tops of neat silk socks, which were clocked, soberly coloured, and held up on his cotton-clad calves by garters. In those days, to reveal a glimpse of that white underwear by pulling up a trouser leg too high would have seemed to Pnin as indecent as showing himself to ladies minus collar and tie; for even when decayed Mme Roux, the concierge of the squalid apartment house in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris where Pnin, after escaping from Leninized Russia and completing his college education in Prague, had spent fifteen years - happened to come up for the rent while he was without his faux col, prim Pnin would cover his front stud with a chaste hand. All this underwent a change in the heady atmosphere of the New World. Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sunbathing, wore sport shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin..." 
Pnin is hilarious, from the 1st paragraphs. 
Or, this one: 
"A special danger area in Pnin's case was the English language. Except for such not very helpful odds and ends as 'the rest is silence', 'nevermore', 'week-end', 'who's who', and a few ordinary words like 'eat', 'street', 'fountain pen', 'gangster', 'Charleston', 'marginal utility', he had had no English at all at the time he left France for the States. [...] That autumn he supplemented his Russian courses by delivering a weekly lecture in a so-called symposium ('Wingless Europe: A Survey of Contemporary Continental Culture') directed by Dr Hagen. All our friend's lectures, including sundry ones he gave out of town, were edited by one of the younger members of the German Department. The procedure was somewhat complicated. Professor Pnin laboriously translated his own Russian verbal flow, teeming with idiomatic proverbs, into patchy English. This was revised by young Miller. Then Dr Hagen's secretary, a Miss Eisenbohr, typed it out. Then Pnin deleted the passages he could not understand. Then he read it to his weekly audience. He was utterly helpless without the prepared text, nor could he use the ancient system of dissimulating his infirmity by moving his eyes up and down - snapping up an eyeful of words, reeling them off to his audience, and drawing out the end of the sentence while diving for the next. Pnin's worried eye would be bound to lose its bearings. Therefore he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators."
Pnin, apparently not liked by the narrator, is described as ridiculous, comical and pathetic, who speaks English with bad grammar and a heavy Russian accent. He's constantly made fun of. We laugh at him, at his "quittance", at his pronunciation of Thayer as Fire, at his CV "in a coconut shell", at his naivete and seriousness, at his pronunciation of Joan as John...
However, let's examine the passage when Pnin gets a visit from his former wife Liza. The narrative goes back to the past, tells us about him and his treacherous wife with her lover and later husband Dr Wind, then goes to the present where Pnin delightedly expects Liza only to realise that she comes for the only purpose of asking for his help. All of this is narrated coldly, even mockingly. Now, look at the next scene:
"She put her bag and parcels down on the sideboard in the kitchen and asked in the direction of the pantry: 
'What are you looking for, Timofey?'
He came out of there, darkly flushed, wild-eyed, and she was shocked to see that his face was a mess of unwiped tears. 
'I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust,' he said tragically. 
'I am afraid there is no soda,' she answered with her lucid Anglo-Saxon restraint. 'But there is plenty of whisky in the dining-room cabinet. However, I suggest we both have some nice hot tea instead.'"
It is both comic and tragic, and it's because the line is so comic, Pnin so pathetic, that the whole scene is so tragic. Even while we laugh at "viscous and sawdust", and later at "I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!", the scene brings profound sadness.
More importantly, it shows that seeing Pnin as a comic figure would be too simplistic. Nabokov's more well-known work, Lolita, is narrated by the manipulative, calculating paedophile Humbert Humbert and often praised for its language and wordplay, yet it's a heartbreaking novel. Nabokov touches us, moves us, makes us deeply sad. The same goes for Pnin. On the surface, the narrator mocks Pnin, makes fun of Pnin, but now and then there are some little details that give us a glimpse of the true Pnin, his alienation and aloneness, his attempt to adjust to the new life, his sorrows, his longing for the past. Take another scene:
"Directing his memory, with all the lights on and all the masks of the mind a-miming, toward the days of his fervid and receptive youth (in a brilliant cosmos that seemed all the fresher for having been abolished by one blow of history), Pnin would get drunk on his private wines as he produced sample after sample of what his listeners politely surmised was Russian humour. Presently the fun would become too much for him; pear-shaped tears would trickle down his tanned cheeks. Not only his shocking teeth but also an astonishing amount of pink upper-gum tissue would suddenly pop out, as if a jack-in-the-box had been sprung, and his hand would fly to his mouth, while his big shoulders shook and rolled. And although the speech he smothered behind his dancing hand was now doubly unintelligible to the class, his complete surrender to his own merriment would prove irresistible. By the time he was helpless with it he would have his students in stitches, with abrupt barks of clockwork hilarity coming from Charles and a dazzling flow of unsuspected lovely laughter transfiguring Josephine, who was not pretty, while Eileen, who was, dissolved in a jelly of unbecoming giggles."
He's constantly misunderstood, constantly thought to be a clown. By other characters in the book. By the narrator.
However, the part about Pnin and his former wife Liza marks a shift in the book, the 2nd half of which becomes sadder, even painful. The narrator describes Pnin's meeting with his Russian friends, where Mira Belochkin is mentioned, who turns out to be an early love of his that was killed in a concentration camp.
"... He remembered the fads of his and Mira's youth, the amateur theatricals, the gipsy ballads, the passion she had for photography. Where were they now, those artistic snapshots she used to take - pets, clouds, flowers, an April glade with shadows of birches on wet-sugar snow, soldiers posturing on the roof of a box-car, a sunset skyline, a hand holding a book? He remembered the last day they had met, on the Neva embankment in Petrograd, and the tears, and the stars, and the warm rose-red silk lining of her karakul muff. The Civil War of 1918-22 separated them: history broke their engagement. Timofey wandered southward, to join briefly the ranks of Denikin's army, while Mira's family escaped from the Bolsheviks to Sweden and then settled down in Germany, where eventually she married a fur dealer of Russian extraction. Sometime in the early thirties, Pnin, by then married too, accompanied his wife to Berlin, where she wished to attend a congress of psychotherapists, and one night, at a Russian restaurant on the Kurfurstendamm, he saw Mira again. 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. 
What chatty Madam Shpolyanski mentioned had conjured up Mira's image with unusual force. This was disturbing. Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment. 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 consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were 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, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood..."
Beautifully poignant as this scene is, it isn't as heartrending as the way Nabokov juxtaposes the description of Pnin among his Russian friends with the party of Pnin and his American colleagues in the next chapter. With other Russian expatriates, he's witty, erudite and respectable; when he's with the American acquaintances, he's ridiculous, but his ridiculousness is no longer funny, for in English he's as erudite as in Russian but the people around him fail to see beyond the superficialities, beyond the laughable, clumsy appearance.
In the end, is he forced to leave, or does he escape? Where does he go? 


I've finished reading Pnin, and feel drained, as I always did after reading a Nabokov novel. May write more later. 

Photo from weheartit

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