INTRODUCTION by David Lodge
Vladimir Nabokov was a literary genius. There is no other word with which to describe a writer who in mid-life became a stylistic virtuoso in a language that was not his mother tongue. Circumstances – which is to say, the convulsions of twentieth century European politics – impelled him to achieve this feat, exchanging Russian for English as the medium of his art (as well as acquiring an enviable fluency in French along the way). He was born, in 1899, into a patrician Russian family who were driven into exile by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. After studying at Cambridge University in England, he scraped a living as a writer in Berlin, and later in Paris, publishing novels in Russian (some of which were translated variously into English, German and French) without making any great impression on the literary world. He came to America in 1940, with his Jewish wife, Vera, and their son, Dmitri, as virtually penniless refugees from Nazi-occupied France. In spite of lacking conventional academic credentials, Nabokov was able to find employment as a university teacher of Russian and comparative literature, first at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and from 1948 at Cornell University in upstate New York. Over the same period he began to rebuild his career as a writer of fiction. His first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) had the misfortune to appear only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was barely noticed. But his essays and stories attracted the attention and admiration of editors and fellow writers, and in 1944 The New Yorker, which at this time enjoyed a uniquely prestigious position in the American literary world, acquired the right to first consideration of his work. His second novel in English was, however, only a little more successful than its predecessor. This was Bend Sinister (1947) a dark fable about an imaginary (but obviously European) state under brutal totalitarian rule.
Over the next few years Nabokov, in the intervals allowed by his teaching duties and other literary and scholarly projects, began to work on a novel set for the first time in America, based on an unpublished pre-war short story with a European setting about a man sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. Lolita grew in scale and complexity and caused him much labour and anxiety. In the summer of 1953, when (on sabbatical leave from Cornell) he was at last drawing towards the end of this novel, Nabokov wrote a short story called ‘Pnin’, about the comical misadventures of an expatriate Russian professor on his way to deliver a lecture to a Women’s Club in a small American town. He created the new character partly as a relief from the dark obsessive world of Humbert Humbert – in his own words (in a letter to a friend) as a ‘brief sunny escape from [Lolita’s] intolerable spell’. But it is clear that the new project was also a kind of insurance against the difficulties that he expected to encounter in trying to publish a novel in which a middle-aged man describes in lavish and eloquent detail his infatuation with and seduction of a twelve-year-old girl. From an early stage in the development of the character of Pnin he planned to write a series of stories about him which could be published independently in The New Yorker, and later strung together to make a book, thus ensuring some continuity of publication and income while he tried to find a publisher for Lolita. This proved to be a shrewd professional strategy. It also partly explains the unusual form of Pnin.
Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Critics have disagreed about the answer to this question, and some have grumbled that it is neither one thing nor the other – arguing that the chapters are too slight either to satisfy as individual stories or to add up to a proper novel. In fact the stories are artfully well-formed, and reward close and careful reading. What seems like a random detail often turns out to be a narrative clue, the full significance of which only becomes evident later. The repetition of motifs also gives the stories a satisfying symmetry, individually and collectively. Chapter Two, for instance, begins with the sound of the bells of Waindell College, and ends with a picture of the bells on a magazine cover. Chapter Four begins and ends with descriptions of rain falling while the characters sleep, or fail to sleep. Squirrels pop up in one form or another in nearly every story, as do reflections in windows, puddles and mirrors. In spite of the temporal gaps between them, the stories describe a continuous narrative arc, poignantly tracing Pnin’s quest, which is ultimately frustrated, to find a home, or to make himself ‘at home’ in alien Waindell. To point out these formal features, however, does not quite meet the challenge of defining exactly what kind of fictional work Pnin is.
If we need a generic provenance for Pnin, we might trace it back to the character-sketches of representative ‘types’ written by the classical Greek author Theophrastus and his later imitators. Although the narrator assures us that ‘Pnin . . . was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of last century, der zerstreute Professor’, there is something of the stock ‘absent-minded professor’ in his character. That ‘Pnin’ is the only genuine name in the Russian language consisting of just one syllable, however, emphasizes the character’s rich individuality rather than his typicality. In the text his name takes on a linguistic life of its own, becoming an adjective (he is in a ‘Pninian quandary’ in the first story), a verb (he ‘Pninizes’ his office by his choice of furniture and fittings) and an incitement to word-play both intentional (‘Ping-pong, Pnin?’) and unintentional, as when the chairwoman of his lecture at Cremona introduces him as ‘Professor Pun-neen’. Considered as a novel, Pnin is certainly a prime example of what the Chicago Aristotelian critics called ‘the novel of character’ (as distinct from the novel of plot or the novel of ideas). The very title indicates that its aim is to evoke a person rather than to tell a story – or to evoke a person by telling a series of anecdotes about him. When Nabokov was looking for a publisher for the completed book he stressed the element of character:
"In Pnin I have created an entirely new character, the like of which has never appeared in any other book. A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterized by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual..."
Nabokov was not always so admiring of his creation. Sending the first story, ‘Pnin’, to his editor at The New Yorker, Katharine White, he wrote in a covering letter, ‘he is not a very nice person but he is fun’. The stance of author to character implied in the work itself comes somewhere between these two extremes, and is complicated by the ambiguous relationship (to be discussed later) between the narrator and Vladimir Nabokov. The Pnin that emerges from the whole sequence of stories is certainly an engaging character, in whose fortunes (mainly misfortunes) we take a sympathetic interest. We approve of the characters who befriend him and disapprove of those who exploit him. But he is an essentially comic character – pathetic at times, to be sure, but not a tragic hero. His physical appearance – the impressive combination of head, shoulders and torso that tapers off disappointingly in ‘a pair of spindly legs . . . and frail-looking, almost feminine feet’ – is an anatomical anticlimax, an emblem of the kind of situation he is constantly getting himself into by some error of understanding or judgement. Pnin inhabits a Pninian world, but unfortunately nobody else does, and he is constantly bumping into uncomfortable or embarrassing evidence of this fact. Bathos is also a recurrent rhetorical trope in the stylistic surface of the book.
Where did this character come from? There have been several suggestions for real-life models, the most plausible being the historian Marc Szeftel, an emigre Russian historian who was a colleague of Nabokov’s at Cornell (which is recognizable as ‘Waindell College’ in Pnin, according to those who know both the actual and the fictional campus). Galya Diment has collected and displayed the evidence for this identification in her Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel (1997). By collating the New Yorker texts of the Pnin stories with their eventual form in the published book, she shows that Nabokov revised some of the biographical facts of Pnin’s life, making them correspond more closely to Szeftel’s curriculum vitae, and suggests that this process was connected with a perceptible warming of the author’s attitude to his character as the book progressed (for which there is some warrant in the two contrasting descriptions by Nabokov quoted above). Diment believes that ‘the ‘‘humanized’’ Pnin is, in many ways, the ‘‘Szeftelized’’ Pnin’. It is certainly significant that Szeftel was Jewish, because it is Pnin’s association with his Jewish sweetheart Mira, and his anguish at her tragic fate (revealed in Chapter Five) that dignifies his character more than any other single trait. But there were other things Pnin apparently had in common with Szeftel, such as his imperfect English, which would have seemed less flattering to the putative model.
It is fairly obvious that Pnin was not an instantly recognizable portrait or caricature of Szeftel, for this would have been impossibly embarrassing for both men, who were not only colleagues, but also collaborators on a scholarly project (a study of a medieval Russian epic, The Song of Igor’s Campaign) and met socially in private life. There is evidence, however, that Szeftel suspected the character of Pnin was partially based on himself, and somewhat resented the resemblance, without ever explicitly complaining about it. Szeftel was both fascinated by and jealous of Nabokov’s meteoric success with Lolita shortly after the publication of Pnin. He wrote an article entitled ‘Lolita at Cornell’ for the Cornell Alumni News, long after both men had left the institution, and meditated a book-length study of the novel which never materialized. Relations between the two men became increasingly cool, but while they were colleagues they seem to have made a tacit mutual agreement not to bring out into the open the extent to which Nabokov had borrowed traits from Szeftel to create the character of Pnin (a not unusual accommodation, in fact, between novelists and their friends and relations).
In the New Yorker text, Pnin is said to have come to Waindell College in 1948, the same year that Nabokov himself joined the faculty at Cornell; but in the book version the date of Pnin’s arrival is put back to 1945, when Szeftel was appointed at Cornell. Very few readers of either version would have seen anything significant in these dates – except members of the Cornell faculty. This suggests to me that Nabokov may have used Szeftel as a model partly to distance himself from the character of Pnin in the eyes of those who knew him, because the author did have some things in common with his fictional character. Nabokov’s lecturing style, for instance – reading from a carefully written text and making little or no eye contact with his audience – was similar to Pnin’s. Nabokov too was xi EVM272PINT 15-12-03 16:45:57 AccComputing PNIN capable of absent-mindedness, and on one famous occasion began lecturing obliviously to the wrong class until rescued by a student who had seen him entering the wrong lecture-room. (He dealt with the mistake more suavely than Pnin would have managed, however, saying before he left the room: ‘You have just seen the ‘‘Coming Attraction’’ for Literature 325. If you are interested, you may register next fall.’) Pnin shares, in a milder form, several of his creator’s intellectual prejudices – against Freud and psychotherapy, for instance. But what links Nabokov to Pnin most strongly is that they are both exiles with painfully nostalgic memories of pre-revolutionary Russia and an inveterate hatred of and contempt for the communist regime that deprived them of their birthright. The ache of loss throbs not far below the comic surface of these tales and occasionally grips Pnin with the intensity of a heart attack. It may have been to keep this powerful current of emotion under control that Nabokov made Pnin a more comical and absurd character than himself, borrowing traits from other emigre professors such as Szeftel. Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity: a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to fully understand the society in which he finds himself. Pnin, in short, is a composite of observation, introspection and invention, like most fictional characters.
To consider the possible sources of Pnin in Nabokov’s experiences at Cornell is to be reminded that the book was a very early example of the ‘campus novel’, a subgenre which is very familiar to us now, but was only just beginning to manifest itself in the early Fifties. Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952) has some claim to be the first in the field, and Nabokov would certainly have been familiar with it, since he knew both McCarthy and her husband, Edmund Wilson, who was one of his closest literary friends at this time (they fell out later). Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954) which was for those in the know a riposte to Mary McCarthy’s book, gave a further impetus to the new genre, though Nabokov was already embarked upon the Pnin stories when it appeared. What the three books have in common is a pastoral campus setting, a ‘small world’ removed from the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, in which social and political behaviour can be amusingly observed in the interaction of characters whose high intellectual pretensions are often let down by their very human frailties. The campus novel was from its beginnings, and in the hands of later exponents like Alison Lurie and Malcolm Bradbury, an essentially comic subgenre, in which serious moral issues are treated in a ‘light and bright and sparkling’ manner (to borrow the phrase applied to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, who would certainly have a written a campus novel or two if she had lived in our era). Chapter Six of Pnin is a kind of campus novel in miniature. . . .