November 12, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin

Posted in Nabokov Vladimir, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Many writers have one book which is much better known than anything else they have written, and which overshadows all their other work. Often, to me – say, with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller or Evelyn Waugh – it’s the wrong book which is best known. Not so, though, with Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita outshines anything else I’ve read by him, until finally I decided (via the likes of Despair, Laughter in the Dark, and King, Queen, Knave) that anything pre-Lolita was an apprentice work unworthy of consideration. That’s going too far, but it led me to concentrate on his few post-Lolita novels when exploring him further.

Pnin was published two years after Lolita, in 1957. (Next, in 1962, would come Pale Fire, the only Nabokov I’ve read which comes close to Lolita.) The first question to consider is whether it’s a novel at all. Four chapters of the book – more than half its length – were published as individual stories in The New Yorker, and Nabokov – astonishing to think of it – had trouble placing it with publishers, who considered a mere “collection of sketches”. Nabokov denied this, though was unsure whether he could assert it to be a novel (“I do not know whether it is or not”), settling only on its being “a complete work, whatever label be attached to it.”

That we can agree on. Pnin is a complete work, with unity of character provided by its sympathetic comic protagonist, Professor Timofey Pnin.

He taught Russian at Waindell College, a somewhat provincial institution characterized by an artificial lake in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries connecting the various halls [and] by murals displaying the recognisable members of the faculty in the act of passing on the torch of knowledge from Aristotle, Shakespeare and Pasteur to a lot of monstrously built farm boys and girls.

Like Nabokov, he has come to America via Russia (“his father, Dr Pavel Pnin, an eye specialist of considerable repute, had once had the honour of treating Leo Tolstoy for a case of conjunctivitis”) and Germany; unlike Nabokov, his English is poor (“if his Russian was music, his English was murder”), and he has a habit of getting into humorous scrapes. Like many Nabokov characters, he is a martyr to insomnia. “He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying to the two he has.”

We are treated to episodes in the life of Pnin and those around him, in which Pnin appears well-meaning but misled, intuitive but confused, trying to fit in to the American way of life.

In the beginning Pnin was greatly embarrassed by the ease with which first names were bandied about in America: after a single party, with an iceberg in a drop of whisky to start and with a lot of whisky in a little tap water to finish, you were supposed to call a grey-templed stranger ‘Jim’, while he called you ‘Tim’ for ever and ever. If you forgot and called him the next morning Professor Everett (his real name to you) it was (for him) a terrible insult.

In the course of these vignettes, Pnin takes the wrong train and rents a room in a colleague’s home, and encounters his ex-wife (whose son’s story provides one of the most satisfying chapters). It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written (with plenty of Nabokov’s speciality of what we might call portmanteau sentences, packing more in than should really be possible). At the same time I wondered if that was all there was to it. I needn’t have worried. Like Lolita and Pale Fire, Pnin turns out to be as much about its narrator as about its subject. An early clue comes when one of the beautifully written sentences is so ‘beautifully written’ that it’s downright ugly:

An elliptical flock of pigeons, in circular volitation, soaring grey, flapping white, then grey again, wheeled across the limpid, pale sky, above the College Library.

Surely Nabokov would never stoop to such lazy ornamentation? Then we notice times when the ostensibly omniscient narrative pauses to offer opinions on characters (“…Dr Eric Wind, a completely humourless pedant…”) and that the word I crops up more and more often.

This turns the narrative on its head. The book is still about the same things – belonging, fitting in – but now from a different viewpoint, with more hostility than hospitality. The narrator – who comes into full view in the last chapter – bears certain similarities to our author. The reader is left to determine what reliance can be placed on his portrait of Pnin, and to tussle with the usual problems of a narrator with a vested interest. We must accept some of what he says, otherwise we are playing tennis without a net. But is it brilliance or convenience when Nabokov – known for his coolness of style, of lording it over his people (“My characters are galley slaves”) – creates a narrator who coolly lords it over his people? Or when we trust that the overwrought prose was consciously so, and not attributed thus after the event? In the end it is a question of trust, and we give the benefit of the doubt to those writers in whom we have faith. Nabokov for me is still one of those. The author remains reliable, even when the narrator is not.

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47 Comments »

  1. Paul said,

    Delightful novel, delightful reading of it.

  2. Pnin should be as well-known, or at least as often read, as Lolita. It may not quite be up to that novel’s level, but I think many readers who are spooked by Lolita would actually enjoy Pnin more. I mean, it’s amazing, in passage after passage. The punch bowl in the sink!

    A protest: The Gift is one of the greatest 20th century Russian novels. Invitation to a Beheading is almost as good. These are the culmination of Nabokov’s Russian period. When he switched to English, he had to start over (e.g., Bend Sinister).

  3. Tony S. said,

    I really liked “Pnin”, but my favorite Nabokov is “Pale Fire” which I found much superior to “Lolita” To me, “Lolita” is not as good as many of his later novels. I think the problem with Nabokov’s early Russian work is that it has never been translated well. He had his son Dmitri translate them, and I can’t believe a writer as good as Nabokov would not have written some wonderful early work. I suspect the problem is that Dmitri was not very good at translating them. I’d like to see new translations of at least one of the early novels by a really good Russian translator.

    • Bart said,

      Nabokov’s son may be a competent enough translator, especially since he often had his father’s support, and his translation sof works such as The Defense are excellent, in my opinion, but Nabokov’s Russian is so remarkable that no translation, even by a genius, can do it justice. Some of Nabokov’s Russian works are masterpieces of Russian literature and language, even if not all of them display the same eccentricity and what critics call “richness” (in relation to Ada) as his late american works. I place The Invitation to a Beheading above The Gift (I am talking about the original russian texts), though both are wonderful and most original, virtuoso works. The Gift, I think, is indeed “an apprentice” novel, in a sense, because in it Nabokov seems to be reevaluating his idea of Russian literature and working towards his own style, as it were. The Invitation is an inspired and complete vision.
      Nabokov’s russian short fiction must not be left out either, though few seem to mention it at all: he wrote some of the most beautiful stories in the russian language, such as Music and Terror.
      The russian original of The Defense is, again, not as complicated as The Gift, but it is another wonderful masterpiece, even if in relation to Nabokov’s ouevre it is not his greatest (like some of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction overshadowed by his novels).

      In relation to his English work, I find it difficult to compare his three best know major works: Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Because despite the fact that they are definitely Nabokovian, they are great departures from each other. In terms of stylistic devices, Nabokov does not try to repeat Lolita in any of his later works. The likenesses are very general and superficial: the erotic extravagance, the narration in the form of a text (confession, critical commentary, diary).
      In each of the works he was trying to do something so different that but for these provocative Nabokovianisms one can hardly recognize Nabokov. If only he had finished The Original Of Laura, the result would have been probably the same.
      To sum up, each of these novels, including Lolita and Pnin, are great achievements in their own right; each has much of what the other don’t have, so that it is impossible to place any one objectively above the other. Bulk itself is not a criterion: some of the lyric poems in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhyvago are in a sense greater than the epic novel which contains them.

  4. Stewart said,

    I’d like to see new translations of at least one of the early novels by a really good Russian translator.

    Okay, it’s an apprentice novel, but Mary was translated by Michael Glenny with Nabokov, no doubt, hanging over his shoulder.

  5. Sam said,

    I’ve only tried two by Nabokov (this and ‘Ada’) and I don’t think I finished either. I remember thinking ‘Pnin’ was very stop-start and disconnected, which made sense when I later learned it was written as a serialization. But, mostly, I just felt tired while reading it, just as I do whenever I’ve tried to read Martin Amis. The sentences are so determined to impress, so dismissive of character, that, like listening to a tiresome self-important bore, they just wear me out.

  6. John Self said,

    Well, Amis is a big Nabokov-head, Sam, and yes, there is a preening quality to both of them – though I’m quite partial to a bit of that. Perhaps when I said above that Nabokov typically lords it over his characters, I should have added his readers too. Certainly his style has an imperious quality to it, so that it’s not surprising that he apparently wrote (as Nick Cave put it) “on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks”. (The index cards, and the fact that he lived in a hotel in Montreux for the last 16 years of his life, are essential Nabokov tools in any pub quizzer’s armoury.) Oh, and apparently Ada is a complete bloody nightmare, so probably not a good place to start.

    Tony, I’d been given to understand that Nabokov collaborated with Dmitri on the translations of his Russian novels. But that could be mere puff, put about by his estate to give the translations added credibility. And Stewart’s comment reminds me that I have that edition of Mary still to read, along with his penultimate completed novel, Transparent Things. The latter is only a tiny wee thing, not much over 100 pages, but I’ve tried it a few times and never got very far.

    Amateur Reader, I’m truly grateful for the recommendations – for some reason I had Invitation to a Beheading stowed away in my memory as one of his last English novels. Where I got that erroneous notion from I have no idea, except that, for no good reason at all, I believe I conflated it with Look at the Harlequins! I will look for The Gift.

  7. obooki said,

    I love Nabokov but I really, really hated Pnin. I have this recollection that Nabokov also said he thought it was his worst novel and he hadn’t been sure he should have published it – I was trying to find a reference on the internet only the other day, but I couldn’t come up with it (so take it with a pinch of salt).

    I did discover though (perhaps you already know this) that the reason only some of the chapters were published in The New Yorker is that the others were rejected: one (chapter 2), for being too cruel; and the other (not sure which), because Nabokov refused to remove a condemnatory reference to Stalin (or maybe Lenin) – though why The New Yorker should have required this of him is anyone’s guess.

    The Gift is my favourite (so far), as wonderfully translated by Dmitry – one of my favourite books generally in fact. (Though beware ch.4).

  8. Paul said,

    I’m a Nabokov completist, and I struggled through Ada.

    Pnin is a total breeze for me. I’m not sure that Nabokov said that it was his worst novel, obooki, in fact I’m quite sure he didn’t. I think Nabokov spoke in terms of relative success and personal affection for his novels and characters. I’ll have to dig out Brian Boyd’s biography, which I read a couple of years ago, which gives all the story about the gestation and formation of the work and its reception and Nabokov’s feelings about it.

    I remember seeing a paperback copy from the 1960’s, a garish piece of marketing in which Pnin ogles a trio of voluptuous college girl nymphets, and the blurb was quite tittilating and ‘from the author of LOLITA’ was written in lettering almost as big as the title of the novel itself. They really knew how to catch the eye and market a book off the frisson of an authors other work back then.

  9. I have read a few of his short stories. Only way I can read him, I think.

  10. John Self said,

    Paul, I think this is the cover you’re referring to!

    Obooki, thanks for the background info, and I will definitely seek out The Gift with all due dispatch.

    Gautami, I have his Collected Stories but haven’t read any of them. I keep meaning to try ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’, inspired by the web address of nicknick, who has commented here recently.

  11. Paul said,

    That’s the one John. I don’t know why, but it just tickled me because of the brazen way of how they tried to sell it.

    You might have seen this already John, but for anyone who has not, David Lodge wrote a nice piece on Pnin in the Guardian a few years back.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/may/08/classics.vladimirnabokov

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul, I hadn’t seen that. Interesting to see that Pnin was something of a commercial success for Nabokov in the US before Lolita was published there.

    I meant to ask you Paul, as a Nabokov completist, what your own recommendations would be?

  13. Paul said,

    John, I get pleasure out of everything he wrote, including his most difficult work. I really enjoyed ‘The Real Life of Sebastian Knight’, his first English language novel, but the people I reccomended it to didn’t appreciate it very much.

    So for a first time, general reader, I would tell them to touch base with ‘Invitation to a Beheading’, (to place themselves in at least one of his Russian works), ‘Pnin’, his memoir ‘Speak, Memory’, and his greatest novels; ‘Lolita’ and ‘Pale Fire’. If you are intruiged by Lolita, it’s fun to re-read it in Alfred Appel’s annotated edition, to get a further insight into the gameplay and architecture of it all. Appel was a former student of Nabokov’s and annotated his work in consultation with the master.

    He also wrote a book called ‘Nabokov’s Dark Cinema’, a wonderful illustrated study of the influence of movies on Nabokov’s writing. The German expressionists, film noir, screwball comedy, amongst other things. It is utterly compelling to an amateur Nabokovphile like me. I think I got it off abebooks for about thirty quid so it’s not for everyone. He consulted Nabokov whilst writing this book as well, and one of the fascinating insights is that Hitchcock and Nabokov had a brief discussion about collaborating on a film script. They were both admirers of one another. Nabokov said he shared with Hitchcock a certain ‘humour noir’.

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul. I do have Appel’s Annotated Lolita, a valuable volume. I must admit though that some of his annotations seemed superfluous – such as explanations for well-known cultural phenomena, though I can’t recall any examples. (He was probably trying to future-proof it.) These reminded me a little of the (possibly apocryphal) story of a book about the Beatles aimed at a US audience, which wildly over-annotated, including where one Beatle made a reference to liking toast* which was footnoted thus:

    * a Liverpool snack made of cooked bread

  15. Paul said,

    Ah yes, that delicious old Scouse delicacy, toast. I believe it was brought to Liverpool by the Welsh and Irish immigrants and first eaten with butter in a Victorian tenement in Bootle, or was it Toxteth.

    If anyone reads Pale Fire, and wants to read it again, and have a further immersion, Brian Boyd’s “Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery” is a good companion. I do understand how some people might not like it though. But I love it.

  16. Demob Happy said,

    I also got turned on to ‘Ada’ via Amis’ autobiography ‘Experience’, which is full of allusions to Nabokov and Saul Bellow’s greatness as master stylists. What Amis never makes clear is whether being a great stylist is actually the same thing as being a great writer – something he may want to ask himself one day. I too found Ada unreadable but have fared a bit better with Bellow.

  17. Gaskella said,

    Funnily enough, I added this to my bedside pile (ie to be read soon) just a week ago … Serendipity or what! Thank you for your thoughtful review – It’s certainly made me more likely to read Pnin soon rather than later.

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks Gaskella. I just looked at your blog and you might find even more serendipity when my next review goes up tomorrow…

    What Amis never makes clear is whether being a great stylist is actually the same thing as being a great writer – something he may want to ask himself one day.

    Saucer of milk, sir? But it’s a good point. Ten years ago I would have praised anything Amis wrote. Now I am a lot more critical.

  19. Richard said,

    Allow me to echo the Invitation to a Beheading recommendation. It was my first Nabokov. Though I’d also stick up for Despair, and The Gift was great, too. Another good Russian one is The Defense.

    And I loved Ada.

    You should also check out Michael Wood’s marvelous Nabokov study, The Magician’s Doubts.

  20. Richard said,

    Also, this is me, two years ago, rambling on a bit about Nabokov and Despair, including Wood’s book and other stuff: here and here.

  21. Rob said,

    Thanks, John. This sounds terrific. Like you, I read a few of Nabokov’s early work a while back, and didn’t find it up to the standard of Lolita (to be fair, how could it be?), so never bothered with the rest. But this does sound like the sort of thing I’d enjoy. One for the pile, then.

  22. Demob Happy said,

    I’ll have that saucer of milk !
    In fact I don’t hate Martin Amis, I like a number of his books – I just think he is overawed by a very fussy, showy strand of literary style that has sometimes had a negative impact on his own output.

  23. John Self said,

    A fair point, James.

    Rob, I recommend Pale Fire if you’re after something which is (almost) up to the standard of Lolita.

    Thanks for the recommendations, Richard. I think I might have read Despair – isn’t that the one with Hermann Hermann, a sort of prototype Humbert? The Michael Wood recommendation is welcome too – he writes an afterword to the edition of Pnin which I read, and I was highly impressed with it. (And thanks for the links; your second comment was delayed coming through.)

    Incidentally, I was just reading a brilliantly uninformative interview with Peter Ackroyd earlier (he really doesn’t seem to like the process: Mark, you have my sympathies!), and was reminded of some comments by him on Nabokov which I noted a few years ago from his review of N’s last published novel Look at the Harlequins!:

    This is the novel to end all of Nabokov’s novels – or at least one hopes so.

    This is the common strategy of second-rate writers…

    The messages received about [the central character's] great works make them seem uniformly tedious and self-indulgent; but this may be how reputations are made – Nabokov, after all, should know.

    Are [Nabokov's] novels good enough to be remembered? No. … [T]here is not and never had been anything of great import in his writing.

    Sorry James, looks like that saucer of milk has a prior calling!

  24. Sam said,

    In case anyone still hasn’t seen this, an interview on ‘Lolita’ with Nabokov and the critic Lionel Trilling.

    Like Amis and Wilde, Nabokov knows how to deliver a good line (which I always find a bit of a suspicious quality in a writer). Also like Amis, he seems very sure of his own greatness.

    But how brilliant is it that Trilling spends the whole interview puffing away on his cigarette!

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Ldpj_5JNFoA

  25. nicknick said,

    Hooray, Timofey on Asylum!

    Nabs most assuredly had a major hand in translating his early novels, often rewriting entire bits. King Queen Knave is the preeminent example, a book that reads much more closer to 50s and 60s Nabokov. I adore KQK’s trio of characters, esp. Dreyer and his cinema dreams. Biran Boyd, in his two-volume bio of V.N., mentions the long break between Lo and Ada may be credited mostly with Nabokov spending a large chunk of his time bringing the Russian novels into English.

    Pnin was written alongside Lolita, which never ceases to floor me.

    Invitation To a Beheading and Despair are my faves from the Russian period. Martin Amis also puts Despair atop his list, which makes me happy. Despair, I agree, is basically a dry run for Lolita and H.H. (notwithstanding The Enchanter, which is lovely for Dimitri’s longish outro [which will also make you want to perversely track down Novel With Cocaine]).

    Rereads of Pnin allow you to pick up the cross-chapter textual brilliance. I’ve always loved the telephone conversation in the beginning of Chapter 2. The punch bowl 6 is one of the most affirming moments in any of Nabokov’s novels. Oh, and a squirrel appear in every chapter. It’s fun trying to find him.

  26. nicknick said,

    ps, And in reference to obooki’s comment about Pnin as Nabokov’s least favorite novel: No way! I believe, when asked by an interviewer who his favorite characters were (cf. Strong Opinions?), he went with Lolita and Pnin. Plus, you know, he gave Timofey a happy ending in Pale Fire

  27. John Self said,

    Thanks nicknick – I knew I could rely on you for some prime Nabokoviana! Looks like Invitation to a Beheading is leading the field for my next Nab.

  28. I thought this a hugely clever novel, and one that on finishing I really enjoyed even though there were times when reading it I found it quite alienating.

    And those things were connected, as John says it’s the unreliability of the narrative that’s fascinating. There came a point when I read it when I found myself frustrated with Pnin’s utter absurdity, and with increasing and obvious authorial interjections, and then I realised (I suspect round about when Nabokov intended me to) that the authorial interjections were because there was another author between me and Pnin and the absurdity was a function of that other author’s own take on events. And that, that transformed the novel for me.

    I think the novel dances with irritating the reader in places, intentionally, but if you trust it (and I agree with John also that Nabokov merits some trust) there is a point to that and the trust is repaid. Whether Nabokov liked it or not I can’t say, but I thought it quite exceptional.

  29. Paul said,

    On Newsnight last night they had an interview with Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir and Vera’s son, about the forthcoming publication of ‘The Original of Laura’, the novel that Nabokov was working on when he passed away. You can see it here.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7736449.stm

    I am of course excited about this. But a little apprehensive too. The story sounds brilliant and original. But it was not near completion when Nabokov laid his pen down for the final time, and he did request that the manuscript be destroyed. Dmitri says that upon reflection he knows for sure in his heart that close to death, his father’s judgment was not true to his own self, what he would have really wanted. Ultimately, I think we have to respect the decision of his son.

    So what we have of Nabokov’s final work are partly formed fragments. I will find it irresistible to examine and read and think of what was to be formed out of the fragments. But still, a latent unease and maybe even a twitch of guilt for doing so.

  30. John Self said,

    Ah, the perils of being a completist, Paul! I read somewhere that the work in progress was about the equivalent of 30 pages. I don’t think I shall partake, though I look forward to seeing how it’s received.

    Max, I share your views on the book pretty closely. And the more enthusiasm I see for it here, the more I look forward to revisiting it.

  31. Kerry said,

    John and everyone else,

    I highly recommend his short story “That in Aleppo Once…” I read Pale Fire and Speak,Memory first, but this short story seems like an excellent place to start with Nabokov. The story includes beautifully written sentences, the Nabokov’s characteristic use of ambiguity between charater, narrator, and author, and, at least for me, was emotionally compelling as well. Add in numerous literary and autobiographical allusions and you have an excellent introduction to the wit, aesthetics, and brilliance of Nabokov.

    I realize I am a bit late to this particular conversation, but I only just ran across this entry (I shamefully only check for updates once every week or two, though yours are undoubtedly the most worthwhile posts I read on any of the literary blogs I frequent) yesterday.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog and, if you weren’t familiar with this short story, I hope this recommendation is helpful.

    Regards,
    Kerry

  32. Kerry said,

    and I really did not mean to refer to Nabokov as “the Nabokov”…..I do admire him, but not in quite that odd a way…..

  33. John Self said,

    Thanks for the recommendations and for sharing your thoughts, Kerry. No need to apologise for late commenting: all discussions on this blog are permanently open, months and years after the initial post!

  34. Pnin was actually the first and only Nabokov I’ve read, and as I enjoyed it very much I’m keen to try more of his work. Lolita is of course the obvious choice but if as you say it’s the best of the lot, I feel I ought to read the others first and perhaps save the best to last!

  35. John Self said,

    Fair reasoning, Dandy H, but there’s a lot of stuff out there with Nabokov’s name on it which I think may not delight as much as Pnin. Perhaps try Pale Fire, then some earlier works, but get to Lolita sooner rather than later, is my opinion!

  36. Howard Male said,

    Personally, as an almost-completist, I have a soft spot for ‘Laughter in the Dark.’

    Even if it is a little overripe it’s only overripe in a Zola kind of way.
    Nabokov’s novels are like vivid patchwork quilts of the most exquisite sentences, that don’t always come together as a structurally satisfying whole.

    My theory (though I’m sure I’m not the first to say this) is that the method used to create them (individual index cards of separate scenes or passages of prose which N then filled in the gabs between) could have a lot to do with how, apart from Lolita and a couple of other gems, his narrative arcs were never as elegant or completely satisfying as his line-by-line prose.

    By the way, John (or any of you N-heads) – have you read any Glen Duncan? Even more than Amis once was, I see Duncan as Nabokov’s natural heir. Try ‘Weathercock’ or ‘Death of an Ordinary Man’ – vivid, intense, and sometimes funny journeys into dark, uncharted waters. I’m baffled as to why this extraordinarily sharp and gifted writer isn’t better known.

  37. John Self said,

    That’s a very interesting theory, HM, which I for one haven’t heard before. Or it could be kind of the reverse – that the index cards were a symptom of Nabokov’s control-freakery attention to detail, which meant that as a writer he couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Possibly.

    Glen Duncan is someone whose books I’ve picked up numerous times but have never tried. Love Remains was the first one of his I saw, I think, which was promised on the blurb or quotes as being particularly dark and even ‘sick’. And I, Lucifer also springs to mind. I think I feared he might be a sort of show-off type of writer, though that of course has never ruled Amis out of my affections.

  38. Howard Male said,

    As I’m also a huge Amis fan, I can tell you, without bias, that Duncan is far more ambitious in his subject matter, and sets himself greater technical and thematic challenges than Amis generally does. So, nearer to Amis when he’s writing something like ‘Times Arrow’.

    As for my VN theory. I believe that for most writers the novel is a sustained act of improvisation, even if every writer has a different approach to this process. Maybe the prosaic thriller writer plots out every twist and turn of his or her narrative before beginning a book, but most writers leave plenty to chance as that’s the only way to sustain their interest – to entertain themselves during the long process of tapping out a hundred thousand words or so.

    If the index cards were the first flowerings of VN’s novels, perhaps we can picture them as individual green shoots popping up from the rich soil of his imagination (sorry, for getting a bit carried away here!) which would then be expanded upon and linked up by further writing.

    Eventually an aerial viewer of the novel’s little plot of land would no longer be able to see any patches of naked earth. Therefore the index cards are more a symbol of VN’s lack of control of his material in the early stages (what should he plant between these initial flowerings in order to make his garden the Best in Show?) rather than his control-freak leanings.

    In other words, VN was the master of the vibrant, vivid sentence, but was obliged by the fact that the novel was the primary prose form of the day – as it still is – to find the material to stuff down in-between the intense key scenes which the index cards contained.

    Once again – my apologies for getting a bit carried away here!

  39. Tony S. said,

    HM,
    For me, Nabokov had some complete triumphs, none more so than “Pale Fire”. John Updike is a writer who is great sentence by sentence, but not so good book by book. For me, his only complete triumph as a book that I’ve read is “Gertrude and Claudius”. Now Phillip Roth has probably never written a dazzling sentence, but he’s written some fine books. I’m intrigued by what you wrote concerning Glen Duncan and will give him a try.

  40. As someone who also enjoyed Laughter in the Dark, I think comparing it to Zola is spot on, an astute observation which had never occurred to me but which I can see the logic of.

    I’ve never even heard of Glen Duncan, so thanks for that, I shall check him out.

  41. Howard Male said,

    Thanks Tony and Max for the feedback.

    I wouldn’t have heard of Mr Duncan myself if it hadn’t been for my long-standing habit of picking up books for a pound at the monthly Galloway & Porter warehouse sale in Cambridge. When you are effectively spending the same as you do on a daily newspaper on a brand new book, it becomes much easier to take a gamble on a novelist you’ve not read before. Most people attending these sales leave with books stacked up to their raised chins, and an excited glint in their eye.

    So, yeah – maybe Mr Duncan is the least publicised, best writer we have! I look forward to hearing what you all make of him.

  42. Greg Cameron said,

    I really loved “Pnin” – it reminded me, perhaps oddly, of Nabokov’s beloved Gogol. Of course, I’ve spent too much of my life in higher education so this book gets quite a few recognition laughs from me. I have to admit I don’t understand why Nabokov’s novel “The Enchanter” is regarded as some sort of dry-run for “Lolita.” To be honest, I thought Lolita fell apart as a novel around the half-way point – I think Mary McCarthy said the same thing about the novel. Only one moment late in the novel is emotionally convincing to me. The rrest of the second half is just noise and padding to me. Of course, the early satirical observations of American kitsch in the novel are priceless. To me it’s a flawed masterpiece sort of like(and I mean only a very broad comparison indeed here) Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn,” which persists in spite of its very flawed ending. “The Enchanter” is a book which stands on its own, as far as I’m concerned. It’s more truthful about pedophilia than “Lolita” and it has its own dark insights. Notice the horrific description of the woman the protagonist marries to get access to the girl. It really is a stupendous piece of writing and a forgotten triumph of Nabokov’s career. Which do you prefer? A minor triumph or a flawed masterpiece? Personally, I think the topic of pedophilia is explored much more honestly in the novels of Caroline Slade(I particularly recommend her novel “Margaret” in this specific regard). It is an academic disgrace that Slade’s novels haven’t been brought out in academic editions. Slade was not the word manipulator/artist Nabokov was, but she does have her own aesthetic qualities, as it were. And “Lily Crackell” is a great American novel. Nabokov’s “The Enchanter” might not be a masterpiece, but it is surely more than a footnote to Nabokov’s considerable artistic accomplishments. Greg Cameron, Surrey, B.C., Canada

  43. [...] John Self over at The Asylum is an admirer (“It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written.”), you will find among his commenters the occasional dissident. The reason usually being that the [...]

  44. Lee Monks said,

    If you haven’t already, get hold of Speak, Memory – it’s staggering.

  45. Luke Evans said,

    If only David Foster Wallace had been alive to hear the words “We must accept some of what [the narrator] says, otherwise we are playing tennis without a net.” Not only would it have gotten straight to the heart of what Wallace seems to have tried to say with his prolix digressions, but it also relates to his main sporting interest. I would say this, of course – I’m writing a dissertation on his inhertiance of postmodernism (a watershed movement that Nabokov had the fortune of spilling into).

  46. [...] Meer zinnenschrijver dan romanschrijver, bedoel ik. Op de weblog van John Self ontwikkelde zich een interessante discussie of de aanpak van Nabokov daar iets mee te maken heeft. Nabokov schreef zoals bekend op [...]


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