Comedy, it’s been said, is made possible by incomplete understanding. If one fully understood another’s suffering, the story would turn tragic. The difference between the two might be deemed a problem of translation.
Readers often judge literature and drama by sum or end-game: If there’s a predominance of comic elements or the work ends in marriage, it’s comedy. But life isn’t often like this, despite our eulogies—how should we feel about the sum of Sam Clemens?—and neither is good writing.
A case in point is Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel Pnin (pronounced like “up Nina” without the u or the a, says Nabokov). I only read it this week, despite having titled my forthcoming novel with its phrase “a democracy of ghosts,” which I had read elsewhere in Nabokov. The Post-Its pictured here were a few of the ones I found in this library book, and they make a found poem of the difficulties of translating not only from language to language—“queasy…smirk…pawn…intelligence quotient”—but from experience to experience.
I was surprised to discover that Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is in effect an adjunct lecturer in this early campus novel, though what he says is, “Naturally, I am expecting that I will get tenure at last…I am an Assistant Professor nine years. Years run.” He says this “rather slyly” just before he’s summarily dismissed because students aren’t interested in taking his (awful) courses, and because he can’t “compete with those stupendous Russian ladies, scattered all over academic America, who, without having had any formal training at all, manage somehow, by dint of intuition, loquacity, and a kind of maternal bounce, to infuse a magic knowledge of their difficult and beautiful tongue into a group of innocent-eyed students in an atmosphere of Mother Volga songs, red caviar, and tea….”
[The setting of the campus novel] is 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).
Lodge says Pnin the man is “essentially comic—pathetic at times, to be sure, but not a tragic hero,” though he admits, “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.” In fact, Lodge says, “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 understand fully the society in which he finds himself.”
That starts to sound like classical tragedy, in whose protagonists the seeds of their own destructions lie. Yet even Nabokov described writing Pnin as a “brief sunny escape from [Lolita's] intolerable spell.”
In an article in Nabokov Studies 8, Stephen Casmier focuses instead on the pain in Pnin, a novel that “foregrounds the agonies of translation…. Nabokov uses several techniques to create a profoundly unsteady literary landscape—casting aspersions on the first-person narrator and what he actually knows about his subject, Pnin, and thus hopelessly alienating Pnin from the narrator and the instance of narration.”
That is, it creates distance in its attempt to “translate” Pnin’s experience, which might be read as comedy—or at least as Nabokovian comedy—in which “Pnin’s own struggles with language and bizarre, verbal transliterations [are shown by] the smug and quirky eye-dialect that the narrator uses to render Pnin’s speech. This enables him to transform Pnin’s thick accent in English into burlesque, visual malapropisms. Thus when he asks his landlord, Joan, for whisky and soda (at a very tragic moment), he says: ‘I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust.’”
Elsewhere, Pnin breaks down and weeps several times (“'I haf nofing,' wailed Pnin…'I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!'”) falls painfully down a flight of stairs, experiences anguish at the actions of an ex-wife, suffers a form of eternal torment imagining all the ways a former girlfriend died in the Holocaust, and has those recurring existential seizures. Interestingly, Casmier and Lodge see one of Pnin’s mortifications, the elective removal of all his teeth, in very different lights. Comedy or tragedy? The passage in the novel reads:
[H]e was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. 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, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; 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.
Lodge says, “Were the effects of this banal but unpleasant operation ever described so vividly, sympathetically and humorously?” Casmier says, “One becomes aware of another body jarred by pain and performing the intensely familiar act of reconnoitering that must follow physical loss. […] An actual body had to feel, did feel (Nabokov had a similar operation not long before writing Pnin) the pain described.”
Look first at the intact mouth with its somewhat disturbing fat tongue flopping and sliding around battered jags; the rotting sweet shreds of food; then the “great dark wound,” the lost world of bare gums that fills our hero with “dread and disgust…” A “repulsive operation,” Pnin warns his new landlords before having it done.
Nabokov’s tone has always felt to me like an original mix of vivid images, fusty European-ness, and sadistic good spirits. Casmier quotes Brian Boyd, author of Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years: “Cruel heroes like Humbert Humbert and Van Veen and victims of cruelty like Adam Krug and Timofey Pnin have led some readers—including Edmund Wilson—to suppose Nabokov had a perverse love of inflicting pain.”
Nabokov’s aware of all this, of course, which pulls it out, but sometimes just barely for this reader. In Speak, Memory, a memoir I love, he refers to the man who murdered his beloved father merely as “a sinister ruffian,” and I begin to wonder at what point the stiff and sardonic literary upper lip becomes a sneer of perversity.
But this is the problem, isn’t it? Prose—a shaped, directed, linear set of symbols—chooses for itself the task of representing the complexity of life. One must make choices, and Nabokov does so with a knowing wink. Lodge says, “There are always reminders in his work that reality is larger, denser and more various than any work of art can encompass.”
The last view of Pnin in the novel is by the narrator, who has finally showed up to witness—firsthand, for a change—Pnin’s setting forth in exile yet again: “[T]he little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.”
The presentation is all boldness, shining threads of gold, and beautiful mists, but it’s that “distance” that wreaks havoc: Pnin has been driven out from a place where he’d finally found happiness, was fired coldly by his friend on the night Pnin admitted to wanting to buy the house he’d settled in after years of lonely, dispossessed existence. (Pnin shows up safely again in Pale Fire, but do we enter that into the record of this narrative? What if that subsequent book had never been written?)
The novel’s comic treatment of Pnin’s peripatetic adjunct life is hard to take as comedy, especially these days, but many will want to read it that way. In our small world where men and women made superfluous disappear, and strangers drag in hopefully, we’d rather forget what our systems do to individuals. I think of one middle-aged adjunct who always says the most alarming things in the cheeriest manner, such as how when she can’t find work it will be better for her and her child to be homeless than to move back with her parents. The first scenario is an evasion and emotional lie; the second only hints at the misery of the situation. Comedy may be harder to create than tragedy, but it’s easier to digest, and sometimes it feels better not to understand too deeply.