Sew together some short stories based on a single character and whatya get is a below-par novel (thanks for the tip-off, Ads). Not that nippy Nab doesn’t have a lot to say here, but ultimately there’s little more here than the brief and continual introduction/approximation of character in witty prose. No plot that is, just characters. And occasionally acute insight into the punctuation of personality, especially the dual personality of the émigré (Nab par excellence) as seen through the eyes of the lovable savant.
There’s also a subtle discontinuity at work, starting with what could’ve been a ladies’ library circle story about a distracted professor (Peter Sellers ideal casting, with pleasing sarcastic winks for all the bitty aunties); and ending as it does with a whodunit narrator-game uncloaking good old V.N., who had already appeared referentially as the poet Sirin. But as far as fairly narrating childhood’s memorial domain, Nab stands as resident genius. An accurate litmus test of authorial greatness is their sensitivity and panache in tackling the child’s perspective. Nab (nearly) stands alone here in not sentimentalising or romantically deifying Innocence über alles. He seems to tap into and build upon the child’s access and desire for maturity, as shoots of growth which every (child) character innately possesses. Already.
However, the overriding feeling in Pnin
, despite its intensely enjoyable fun and academic puns is that Nab is cruising in third gear without hurry; he’s avoiding using the entire technical/novelistic manual and just coasting downhill with an easy read. There’s little rapid-fire fireworks or prose ingenuity. Just little vignettes to help his American friends understand the subtleties of Russian habit and gesture, and even then with not much continuity. The story of Pnin’s interestingly artistic step-son is left to dribble unconcluded. The glass bowl nearly shatters, suspenseful Nab, but thou art his keeper and must complete him! Please conclude — especially since the writing on art was acute by average fiction standards.
It was a fair fall night, velvet below, steel above. (p 138)
Technically speaking, the narrator’s art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes. (p 26)
There’s also the pure Nab fun of dental anxiety and falsies:
His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom… but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. (p 32, hello Amis)
There are, incidentally, lots of coloured descriptions of sky and shafts of light. There’s also the usual stock jabs at Freud and the manqué-Freudians. Also a loving rendition of the pleasures of private scholarship. Deliciously comical errors and subtle insinuations re marsturbation and homosexuality (‘curiously neat’) packaged with careful unstitchings of character.
Genius is nonconformity. (p 75)