Pnin

Vladimir Nabokov

I have realised why I read Nabokov fairly infrequently; if I read him all the time, I would run out of Nabokov to read, and by that stage I would not want to read anything else. Calvino says of The Charterhouse of Parma (which I read just now and will get around to reviewing here, this week, promise) that when readers discover it they often form the opinion that it is the novel, the one that matters the most, and which will affect their reading of all subsequent novels. I find a similar thing happens when reading Nabokov; other novels seem a little thin by comparison.

Stranger still is the feeling I get when I’m reading his books: that he was, of all people, the novelist. In other words, I start to feel that it’s a bit pointless for anyone who is, or was, not Vladimir Nabokov – with his own very particular combination of literary skill, exuberant delight in creation, graciousness and humour – to be writing novels at all. Well, anyone with the exception of Jane Austen.

Pnin is relatively straightforward compared to Pale Fire (I seem to remember that the title character of the former has a walk-on in the latter) and is pure pleasure from start to finish. There’s one sentence – it comes at the end of one of Pnin’s reminiscences to his wife’s son – which I think may be the most moving and funniest single sentence of dialogue I have ever read, better even that the absurd punchline of the Sergeant’s tale of bicycles in The Third Policeman.

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5 responses to “Pnin

  1. Nabokov? Flann O’Brien? Nice to see that people are still reading the classics. Another neglected author–Louis Ferdinand Celine. I just found the third book of his trilogy (CASTLE TO CASTLE, NORTH, RIGADOON) and shall be diving into the series as soon as I can free up the time. We grow from challenging our minds…rather than safe, easy reads. Great authors are timeless and incognizant of trends and styles. Remorselessly unique, effortlessly incomparable.

  2. I remembering coming away from Pale Fire thinking “that was probably the single cleverest novel, if not work of humankind that I have ever experienced”. In retrospect I don’t know if it quite holds that prize, but it is absolutely bloody amazing.

    The other thing you hear about Nabokov is that his writing is a must-avoid for working writers … it’s too depressing for them to be so bluntly confronted by their relative mediocrity.

  3. I read Pnin quite recently and loved it, but I can’t think what sentence it is you’re refering to. I must know!

  4. “In youth, one day, in the Russian countryside, latitude of Labrador, a racket was given to me to play with the family of the Orientalist Gotovtsev, perhaps you have heard. It was, I recollect, a splendid summer day and we played, played, played until all the twelve balls were lost. You also will recollect the past with interest when old.”

    Chapter 4, part 8, p373 (Library of America edition 1996)

    For me, that last sentence manages to perfectly capture Pnin’s character and the pathos of age, and I find the rhythm of it very funny.

  5. Haha, that’s amazing, I remember it now. Pure Nabokov indeed.

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