The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives


Vladimir Nabokov.
New York: Knopf, 2004 (1953).
[extract from Lodge’s intro]

Asked to sum it up in one word, I would unhesitatingly say ‘sweet’; by which I probably do not mean what you think I mean. It is not sweet in the manner ascribed to human infants and other small mammals; it is not cute, or precious, or fluffy. This is no asinine candy-coated scribble to delight the many and appall the few. Well, perhaps it is. At the very least, it introduces an unprepossessing character who might describe himself as follows:

I am not handsome, I am not interesting, I am not talented. I am not even rich. But, Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do (ch. 6).

N. gives every indication that this is an accurate appraisal and, since the story of such a one could so easily be ponderous, one reads with amazement the sustained lightness of the prose. Moreover, it is impossible to scorn Pnin, just as one cannot fully pity him; rather, in reading it is as though one unfolds him carefully and peruses him like a misdirected letter.

This would be the sentimental approach. Reason dictates I observe that Pnin is a very fine example of the ‘campus novel’, a genre which includes the likes of Pictures from an Institution (whose title I can never remember), The Lecturer’s Tale (one of the rare books I am actually ashamed to have finished reading – as opposed to the many books I blush to admit sits on a shelf, bookmark midway through), and Lucky Jim (which I dislike). Pnin quite tops them all, for university life is acutely observed and concisely captured (cf. ‘lightness’) in descriptions sadly familiar fifty years on:

Again the marble neck of the homely Venus in the vestibule of Humanities Hall received the vermilion imprint, applied in lipstick, of a mimicked kiss. Again the Waindell Recorder discussed the Parking Problem. Again in the margins of library books earnest freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature,’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poem, an especially able scholiast had already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it ‘birds.’ […] And still the college creaked on. Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoevski and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers (ch. 6, again).


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