Nabokov’s Butterflies and Pnin
I never really ‘got’ Nabokov. I knew as a literature major I should. I just couldn’t.
At the ripe old age of eighteen or so I identified intensely with the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I still do. And that was simply where I stopped with Russian Literature, forever and amen.
Recently a friend had the sad honor to act as executor for a former Park Ranger and biology teacher. She brought me the last of his personal effects, his books, to look through.
Among them I first found Pnin in an innocent looking paperback and set it aside for myself to read. It looked an approachable, non-intimidating Nabokov. Then I could claim to have at least read one.
Pnin hooked me from the first page with his idiosyncratic dress, his strong sense of what must be true at all odds with what is actually happening around him, his ineffectual life present life so deeply rooted in a rich, lost past, his challenged English, his rich sense of humor. Pnin is doing things po amerikanski (the American way), telling his life story in a nutshell- a coconut shell. Pnin, “to make a long story very short [one of the few English expressions he can use semi correctly]: habitated in Paris from 1925, abandoned France at beginning of Hitler war. Is now here. Is American citizen. Is teaching Russian and such like subjects at Vandal [Waindell] College (35).” This fiftyish professor reminded me of a nattily-attired old Latin American Literature professor from my university years and stole my heart.
Later I found Nabokov’s Butterflies, a substantial hardback collection of letters, biographical essays and photographs. September 27 1945 he wrote to Edmund Wilson from Cambridge Massachusetts “I am doing the same things I was doing last year: dissecting butterflies at the Museum and teaching Russian to girls in Wellesley… The urge to write is something terrific but as I cannot do it in Russian I do not do it at all…”
Thank heaven Nabokov later managed to write in English.
These endless details, these tremendous run on sentences are an example to us all.
According to Wikipedia Pnin is supposed to be narrated by the unreliable Vladimir Vladimirovich N___ and Professor Pnin based on an unfavorable and humorous character study of a real professor Nabokov knew at Cornell. But for me Pnin and Nabokov are each other-both ever wanderers, both teaching at the college level, both passionate thinkers, both with names which will forever and ever be mispronounced by all posterity.
Nabokov couldn’t possibly have produced the humor and compassion of this funny and sad character without somehow seeing himself in Pnin’s shoes- or, to be more precise, “His sloppy socks… of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges; his conservative black oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing…” [ I am a sock and shoe person myself. I wear only smartwools and own 3 pairs of one or two hundred dollar shoes instead of dozens of cheap shoes.]
I understand that Pnin, ever the refugee, ends up drifting again at the end, but reappears in Pale Fire, so Pale Fire is next on my list. Perhaps I won’t claim or bother to ‘get’ Nabokov, but what a joy Pnin is, and I look forward to learning what else Nabokov’s discerning, richly detailed, emotionally searching, gently ridiculing, ultimately unreliable narrator has to offer.
Meanwhile I have Nabokov’s Butterflies here for you, a very nice gently used edition for $25 plus 3.99 media mail shipping. winecountrybooksnapa at gmail.
Best wishes, and happy reading.