You might know Nabakov for his supposedly scandalous masterpiece Lolita. Believe it or not, he actually wrote lots of other books in both Russian and English, and of them, very few are about grown men falling in love with young girls! A perfect example of one of these novels totally unrelated to awkward romances is Pnin.
The novel tells the life story of Timofey Pnin in fragments, some from his youth in Russia, but most from his adult life as a University professor of Russian literature in the United States. Nabakov's initial description of Pnin and his interactions with his surroundings portray him as a bumbling buffoon, lost in the English language and just about everything else. This is how he's described on the first page of the book,
"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 disappoingtingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail looking, almost feminine feet."
Nabakov, famous for his spectacular prose style, effectively shows the reader Pnin as the majority of the characters in the book see him - as a clown. At this point in the book I began to worry if I was merely reading a 200 page demonstration of how clever Nabakov can be with words, like listening to a bewildering guitar solo only to realize it existed independent of any song to anchor it down. I quickly realized, however, that I wasn't a cleverer reader than Nabakov is a writer.
Without abandoning the sardonic tone, Nabakov somehow begins to portray Pnin as a type of tragic hero. Behind the broken English is a man who's knowledge of literature -Russian, French, and English literature - is exhaustive. Underneath all the strange mannerisms and obsessed devotion to social formalities is a loving husband, step-father, and teacher despite his affection seldom coming back to him. By the end of the novel Pnin has evolved from a teacher who knows everything about Anna Karenina but seems to know little else, to a man who loves the beauty of the world around him in both people and objects so deeply that he wishes only to study and admire it without having to become a part of it. Unfortunately, he lives in a world where admiration isn't enough to survive on.
When I realized who Pnin really was I couldn't help but pity and admire him at the same time. I think this excerpt from the letter Pnin wrote to propose to his wife who later left him three times (you'll have to read the book to figure that one out) is one of the most telling passages in the novel of who Pnin is:
"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. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy."
Well, as usual, this post has gotten way out of hand and is longer than I intended, but I can't finish without talking about how amazing Nabakov's prose is. Or maybe it would be best if I put my favorite example of his writing from Pnin and let you write your own inner-body blog post about how great it is. This is a memory Pnin has of a childhood friend that occurs to him when he is at a gathering of Russian friends in America (it's long but it's worth it!):
P.S.: Notice how the tone struggles to remain formal despite the highly emotional content of the memory. The tone becomes a symbol of Pnin's whole character! Amazing!
"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, 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 death 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."
That counts as the poem of the week.