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SoulDischarge
02-03-2012, 07:22 AM
If you want to chime in and let us know you're reading along, that'd be nice. Or you can just read and lurk.

Here's the schedule for when you should be done with each chapter and at which point it will be discussed. Feel free to read ahead, but don't mention anything past where the group is at for whatever date.
Sun 2/5: Chapter 1
Tues 2/7: Chapter 2
Thurs 2/9: Chapter 3
Sat 2/11: Chapter 4
Mon 2/13: Chapter 5
Weds 2/15: Chapters 6 & 7 (finish the novel)

Alchemy
02-03-2012, 09:10 AM
I have my copy! I don't know if I'll have chapter 1 or 2 read in time, but I'm sure I'll be caught up for the chapter 3 discussion.

Newro7ic
02-03-2012, 09:12 AM
My copy is in the mail, but I will catch up when it arrives and join the discussions.

JorgeC
02-03-2012, 08:46 PM
Just got back from buying my copy. i'll check back in on Sunday for some Chapter 1 discussion.

fatbastard
02-04-2012, 04:50 AM
Fuck you to the lazy person who checked out the audio version of this book at Central Library this week. I’m even lazier than you and found that it had already been checked out yesterday.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-05-2012, 12:40 AM
My amazon shipment turned out to be a surprise gift from a friend, not my copy of Pnin. Looks like my copy isn't due to arrive until Tuesday, but I'll get caught up as soon as I get it.

JorgeC
02-05-2012, 10:15 PM
Going into this completely blind. Never heard of the book or the author; English was actually my least favorite subject in school, that and history. Anyhow, just trusting that my fellow boardies will help me expand my horizons on the bookfront as I read mostly comic books and fantasy :)

Just finished the first chapter. As fussy/crazy (hypochondriac?) as Pnin seems to be, why wouldn't he go to a hospital if he just had a seizure? Maybe he gets these on a regular basis? The visions of people from his past as he goes up to give his talk makes me wonder if they are the after effects of the strike/seizure or if there's something else up the authors sleeve.

Quick questions. How do you pronounce Pnin? Pee-nin? Poo-nin?
Also, the narrator is Pnin's doctor? When I first read "doctor" my mind went to "physician" but as I think about it, could be his shrink.

Hannahrain
02-05-2012, 10:35 PM
From the cyrillic I assume that it's "Pneen," with as little space as possible between the P and N so they are almost one sound. It's easier to say with a softer, almost voiceless/breathless P and a harder N.

He doesn't seem like someone who would go to the doctor all the time to me. Sort of absentminded and...shabby?

JorgeC
02-06-2012, 07:11 AM
Thanks Hannah.

Absentminded and shabby. I'll take that into consideration. I was probably more focused on his pre-US wardrobe where he couldn't even be seen without a tie. I totally pictured a Tim Gunn-like guy opening the door when they came to collect his rent.

amyzzz
02-06-2012, 09:03 AM
This novel is more advanced than I have been used to lately. I read chapter 1, but I think I may need to re-read it more carefully. I did not realize that the narrator is his doctor.

JorgeC
02-06-2012, 09:44 AM
This novel is more advanced than I have been used to lately. I read chapter 1, but I think I may need to re-read it more carefully. I did not realize that the narrator is his doctor.

I believe it was revealed closer to the end of the chapter. Wooo, i'm glad i'm not the only one that feels this is more advanced than i'm used to, but also glad we're challenging ourselves.

algunz
02-06-2012, 09:54 AM
I found it interesting how when he was having his "seizure," he equated death with a sense of union, a communion. While I would think of death more as a separation. I never thought of it that way.

algunz
02-06-2012, 11:12 AM
With him having the near death experience, and the visions of lost people from his life during the seminar, and an almost disregard from people that he is in the same room with, it feels like maybe Pnin is already dead. Is this the original Sixth Sense? :p

JorgeC
02-06-2012, 03:55 PM
i'm kinda bugged that the first chapter made such a big deal about him being on the wrong train. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

SoulDischarge
02-06-2012, 04:11 PM
Nabokov's verbosity seems to be his greatest strength and weakness simultaneously for me. He comes up with some really exhilarating, charming turns of phrases, but his writing can also come off as unnecessarily obtuse. The only other non-Lolita book I've read a significant portion of was Bend Sinister, which had the same issues. All of his protagonists seem to be slightly obtuse academic types who are burdened with an abundance of intelligence that makes them largely unable to connect with the real world (and Pnin seems like another one of those so far), so in a sense, his writing does kind of work in favor of those characters, but it makes it kind of hard to get too emotionally invested occasionally. Chapter One seemed like a lot information thrown at the reader at once and not all of it seemed particularly important or meaningful. I do love things like "(flamboyant goon tie included)" and "He had a deep admiration for the zipper" though.

algunz
02-06-2012, 05:03 PM
I agree that he can be very wordy, but his words rarely seem to be completely superfluous. Somehow every little detail seems to reveal some important aspect of the character or reveal some foreshadowing of plot. But, I know I need to be careful too, because he almost forces you to read too much into it.

The narrator wants you to make judgements on the protagonist, because in the long run it's usually about learning a little about yourself/humanity too.

Newro7ic
02-06-2012, 06:02 PM
I'm not entirely sure it was a stroke, but maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention to that part. It seemed more likely that he was having a panic attack, and started to believe he was having a heart attack or stroke.

My conclusion is that the main point of the chapter was to show what an absent minded individual Pnin could be/is. He's intelligent, but not nearly as intelligent as the people he is surrounded by, prone to panic and over thinking to the point that it makes me less intelligent than he actually could be. An underachiever who has somehow overachieved. Maybe that's not the best way to put it. Perhaps, a moderately intelligent person who has convinced the people around him that he is smarter than he actually is. He gets by on his charm, not because he is supremely charming, but because he is awkwardly charming and people want to help him.

He is where he is, in spite of himself.

That is my take, anyway.

amyzzz
02-06-2012, 06:41 PM
I wish my panic attacks were as psychedelic as his are.

algunz
02-06-2012, 07:34 PM
Newro, is he really absent minded or is he too bogged down with tedious detail that he often misses the point?

I sense Pnin is more in control than we give him credit for. He hasn't messed anything up yet and in just the first chapter he has come plenty close to really screwing many things up. "Harm is the norm." Yet, Pnin has managed to sneak by every time already.

Newro7ic
02-06-2012, 10:28 PM
Newro, is he really absent minded or is he too bogged down with tedious detail that he often misses the point?

I sense Pnin is more in control than we give him credit for. He hasn't messed anything up yet and in just the first chapter he has come plenty close to really screwing many things up. "Harm is the norm." Yet, Pnin has managed to sneak by every time already.

Very much a possibility as well. But, his sneaking by has been achieved by the friendliness of others up to this point. This is only the first chapter, though.

JorgeC
02-07-2012, 08:38 AM
Nabokov's verbosity seems to be his greatest strength and weakness simultaneously for me. He comes up with some really exhilarating, charming turns of phrases, but his writing can also come off as unnecessarily obtuse.

I think this is what was challenging for me in the first chapter. I loved the language, but had to keep rereading sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs to ensure I wasn't missing something.

I finished Chapter 2 and i have to say i liked it much more than the first. We got to know Pnin and his many eccentricities ("began Pnining the room"). I realized that I know people like him! He's socially awkward, but still a nice guy at heart. It's like he's borderline Asberger's (sic?) syndrome, where he was just kept talking about himself during the interview with his potential landlord. I chuckled a few times reading thru this chapter, my favorite during the dinner party where they were talking shit about ("impersonating") him while he was standing on the stairs holding a dirty cup and when I realized he was calling Joan "John". The revelation that he was married and his ex-wife came to see him to ask him such a bold (understatement...i could use a few no-so-nice words...) question really threw me for a loop.

On a side note, does anyone work with people from other countries that are here on work visas or recently immigrated? I'm comparing a lot of what Pnin is going thru linguistically to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. Use of the formal vs informal, awkward phrasing, etc.

Hannahrain
02-07-2012, 08:45 AM
...too bogged down with tedious detail that he often misses the point?


I definitely see him like this. Somebody who is very smart and focused when it comes to minutiae (like thinking he was saving twelve minutes) but tends not to see the bigger picture (the train schedule being out of date).


i'm kinda bugged that the first chapter made such a big deal about him being on the wrong train. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

I think the train sequence was probably engineered (no pun intended) to introduce us to a particularly Pnin-y misstep as we get a feel for the character and also introduce the medical situation early on (and through that, allow us to travel back to his earlier life a bit). I haven't read chapter two yet, though, so you may have insight that I don't.


On a side note, does anyone work with people from other countries that are here on work visas or recently immigrated? I'm comparing a lot of what Pnin is going thru linguistically to the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. Use of the formal vs informal, awkward phrasing, etc.

I don't really work with a lot of immigrants other than a few professors, but I do study Russian and find it really interesting to see an intentionally contrived version of what I know I do all the time in his language. His broken English phrasing makes a lot of sense to me when I compare it with how the same thing would be said in Russian.

JorgeC
02-07-2012, 10:34 AM
"How much are you prepared to demand?" - i lol'd

Courtney
02-08-2012, 10:23 PM
I just read the first two chapters over the past hour so I could be up to speed with this thread and contribute, but I feel like I should probably go back and read things more carefully.

I agree that the incident seemed more like a panic attack than a stroke or seizure. A sort of dramatization of the "life flashing before your eyes" idea, used as a narrative tool.

Pnin seems like a very distinctly Nabokovian (can you say that?) character to me. He's the sort of typically quirky, scholarly older male who is destined to romantic tragedy. Although perhaps the tragedy part is more just Russian literature in general than Nabokov specifically.

I also really enjoy how Nabokov sets up little jokes that get played out a chapter or two later. For example, when describing Pnin's peculiar acquisition of the English language, he notes progress through describing Pnin's fondness for lingustic turns of phrase such as "wishful thinking," "okey-dokey," and "to make a long story short." Then, later, he describes how Pnin introduces himself to Joan Clement by giving her a "curriculum vitae in a nutshell -- a coconut shell" that included Pnin rambling on about his upbringing and using the phrase "to make a long story short." The whole thing made me chuckle.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-09-2012, 12:05 AM
SPOILER ALERT. It's past midnight so I may reference chapter 3 below. Sorry for the length. Feel free to skip. It's just my first opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

My copy arrived today. I read the first three chapters over an extended lunch break. I had taken some notes, but in a rather Pnin-esque fashion, I think I left them on my desk at work. This is my first experience with Nabokov. And, well, frankly I don't think I'll be rushing out to read another of his works anytime soon. Lolita, of course, remains on my 'to read' list, though. For reasons others have already articulated -- the verbosity (though charming phrases abound), Pnin himself being a bit dull and pathetic -- I'm finding myself mildly entertained, but hardly engrossed by the book. Since I left my notes at work, I'll have to go off of memory here, but these were some of the things which struck me or which are keeping me interested:



The most interesting aspect of the novel thus far is not Pnin or any of the supporting characters we've been introduced to at the college, but the narrator. I'm a bit puzzled by the style of the narration. The narrator is usually omniscient and describes the tiniest minutia of Pnin's day, like his encounter with a squirrel at the water fountain. But, then, a simple first-person phrase from the narrator reminds us that he is in fact Pnin's physician. This is pretty interesting to me and suggests many unresolved questions. Why is Pnin's physician telling us this story? What is his motivation? Is he the only narrator or will other voices pipe in with their thoughts on Pnin? Why and how does he know so much about Pnin's life? Does the physician play a significant role in Pnin's life or is he merely an observer? What does the physician think of Pnin? At times he appears to be quite sympathetic to our odd protagonist and at others he rather coldly exposes all of Pnin's social awkwardness and inability to relate to those around him. I also have to imagine that the novel must end in Pnin's death or severe illness. Why else are we hearing this story from the physician?


I haven't read ahead yet, but the arrival of Isabel at the end of chapter 3 makes me think something could develop between her and Pnin. There have been subtle clues throughout that while Pnin generally doesn't pay much attention to those around him, he does seem to note the figure of an attractive younger woman here and there -- in his class, in the library. Perhaps if something has gone something horribly wrong with Isabel's marriage, the two of them will be able to relate and connect? Pure speculation here.


Joan, his landlady, strikes me as a rather strong-willed woman who knows how to get what she wants without becoming overbearing or too authoritative. I love how her husband, Laurence, will make some angry declaration which his wife does not verbally contest, but somehow appears to overrule. It's quite comical and sly. For example, when Laurence finds out that Joan just spoke to Pnin on the phone about becoming their lodger, he says "Professor Pnin, by God! Well, I flatly refuse to have that freak in my house." And, then, half an hour later Joan was showing Pnin the room and shortly after he was moved in. I think the same thing happened with the party. I can't find the passage, but I think that Laurence said he'd have Pnin at his party over his dead body or something of that nature. And, of course, Pnin ended up crashing the party. That one was less Joan's doing, but still amusing. I think the same thing may have happened when it came to leaving the house vacant for Pnin and his ex to talk that afternoon. Laurence said he had no intention of leaving the house for Pnin's benefit and then, if I'm recalling correctly, there was no mention of Laurence's presence during the ex's visit, suggesting that he had in fact left the house.


I'm not smart enough to say what exactly it symbolizes, but water certainly seems to be a recurring theme. Joan and Pnin discuss the Turkish word for "water" during their first meeting. Pnin has that extended encounter with the squirrel at the water fountain -- even the squirrel seems to take no heed of him. The one I like the best is that when his ex-wife visits him and finally tells him the reason she wanted to connect was for child support, she told him that her husband and the biological father, described himself as the "land father" and Pnin as the "water father". A reference to their transatlantic voyage to America during which Pnin had, at least in his mind, assumed fatherhood for Liza's baby. Water can symbolize so many things it's hard to say if this is anything meaningful or just a red herring. It is curious that Liza's married name is Wind. Water, wind. Is fire next?

SoulDischarge
02-09-2012, 01:39 AM
I fell a bit behind due to the flu making my thoughts all scrambled so I haven't been able to concentrate on much. Are most people behind or on schedule at this point?

JorgeC
02-09-2012, 07:25 AM
I'm halfway thru Chapter 3 and will finish it at lunch. A lot of references to Pnin's prior homes.

amyzzz
02-09-2012, 09:42 AM
I haven't read chapter 3 yet.

JorgeC
02-09-2012, 01:42 PM
Rage, I like your take on the water theme. I don't usually notice stuff like that until someone points it out, good observation.

Finished reading chapter 3. Pnin is hilarious with how hard he makes things on himself (again, exactly like people I know IRL). I was reading his library adventure at lunch and caught someone staring at me when i was laughing about him losing his note card in a dictionary. It was an elderly lady at the table next to me at El Pollo Loco. She said she hasn't seen someone reading in public in a long time. This EPL is right next to a elderly care facility, glad I could bring a smile to her face before she dies.

Anyway, it seems to me that Pnin doesn't know what he wants (a place to move to? to be more respected?), or if he does want something he doesn't seem to go for it. He thinks of women, but doesn't pursue. He wants to write a book on Russian culture (i think) but takes his sweet time writing down so much stuff that i doubt he'll ever actually do it. The film that he watches towards the end of Chapter 3 that brings tears to his eyes makes me think he misses home, or the idea of home. Especially considering how often he moves, I don't feel he's comfortable anywhere.

Alchemy
02-09-2012, 05:28 PM
I just zipped through all the posts, because I'm not caught up on chapter four yet. I've had trouble sitting down with the book. I'm about to hit chapter three though, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I loved the little part about the teeth. It was funny and I could sympathize a little, reading this book with four gaping holes in the back of my gums.

algunz
02-09-2012, 05:41 PM
What's with all the (for lack of a better word) nationalistic stuff? I mean even down to Chinese checkers. Is this a typical Nabokov thing? Or is it the narrator and Pnin's need to obsess over such academic details?

I've only read Lolita.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-11-2012, 03:49 PM
Yes, now that you mention it, there is a lot of that going on. Well, Pnin is hardly a model of assimilation so I think it makes sense for him to notice the national origin of anything he encounters. It also lines up with his rather dry, academic researcher's way of thinking.

So, chapter 4, everyone?

I see that I'm not imagining things with the water themes. It was raining throughout the night when the Water Father welcomed young Victor to town. There were some amusing passages: Pnin lecturing Victor in the diner rather than engaging him in conversation (a common pattern), his hasty removal of the soccer ball after discovering Victor doesn't care for soccer. Someone had earlier suggested Asberger's. He seriously doesn't seem to know how to connect to or relate to other people. He talks at them, not with them. I've given up on plot at this point and I'm settling in for a gentle, elegant portrait of a sad but resilient man.

algunz
02-11-2012, 06:38 PM
I haven't gotten to chapter 4 yet. I just finished reading 3 and was going to read 4 in the morning. But I need to go back to the end of 2 for a moment . . .

"the world of the mind is based on a compromise of logic"

Fantabulous.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-12-2012, 11:44 PM
Spoilers below if you haven't read chapter 5 yet. (or 1, 2, 3 or 4). Okay, I'm actually starting to enjoy this novel now. It's hardly going to be one of my most memorable reads, but I'm definitely warming to it. Perhaps much like some people, eventually, start to warm to Pnin himself. Chapter 5 was by far my favorite thus far. Some random thoughts:




I loved how Pnin seemed to light up in the company of his countrymen. I think being at Cook's Castle, a somewhat remote location, probably made the temporary illusion of being back in Europe even easier for him to imagine.


The water theme continues with Pnin swimming in the stream while his friend watched from the boulder. I loved how [almost] elegant his motions in water were. On land he always seems to be bumbling and losing his footing. But in the water he seemed more at ease:
Slowly swinging his tanned shoulders, Pnin waded forth, the loopy shadows of leavesshivering and slipping down his broad back. He stopped and, breaking the glitter and shade around him,moistened his inclined head, rubbed his nape with wet hands, soused in turn each armpit, and then,joining both palms, glided into the water, his dignified breast-stroke sending off ripples on either side.


After his arrival at Cook's Castle, the rest of the chapter almost reads like a long poem; especially the last couple of pages of the chapter which follow a repeat incident (stroke, aneurysm, panic attack..?) as he hallucinates (or simply recalls in reverie?) his father playing chess and his first love, Mira and her untimely death at the hands of the Nazis. I was not expecting such a startling emotional chapter after the dryness of chapters 1-4. But perhaps that dryness was necessary. If every chapter had been this richly drawn, we'd be drowning in Nabokov's luxurious language. Instead, the effect is far more profound when preceded by such relatively quiet and uneventful chapters. I was especially struck by these two passages:




if one were quite sincere with oneself, noconscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things asMira's death were possible. One had to forget--because one could not live with the thought that thisgraceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in thebackground, 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 deathsin one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away bya trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower-bath withprussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood.


^ How crushing!


And the closing passage was just gorgeous:


That strange spasm was over, one could breathe again. On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exactspot where Gramineev's easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouettedagainst the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from theroad whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely anemblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin's fading day.

Alchemy
02-14-2012, 05:26 PM
I have finished the book. There may be spoilers in what I write here, for those who have not reached the final chapters, which are pretty great.

I don't think Nabokov has a problem of verbosity. It seemed to me that everything went towards building Pnin and the circumstances of his past, as well as those he made for himself as the novel went along - if not entirely that, then also building the narrator, who became very prominent at the end. Algunz said it well. I would actually say that this novel is pretty concise. I think in parts where I might have been a little bored, it wasn't because the language was superfluous, but because I was less interested in the academic circumstances of Pnin's life (where there were many references to things I was unfamiliar with, which slowed me down) and more interested in his romantic and language problems (because I felt I could understand that more easily).

The thing that interested me the most was how Pnin spoke English, because its awkwardness reflected his own awkwardness. I saw it as though Pnin were equal to his language - something that is roughly translated. At the end, I got the impression that the narrator got all of these stories - practically, the entire book - from Jack Cockerell's Pnin impersonations, which also mirrors a kind of language acquisition (or more accurately, a language learning), I think, so that in the end, Pnin, the book, is a rough translation of Pnin, the man. I don't get the impression at all that the narrator ever heard these stories straight from Pnin, especially because of how the book ends, circling back to the Cremona Woman's Club. So, for me, Pnin is the non-native translation of a character. (EDIT: I want to add this - Jack Cockerell learned Pnin like Pnin learned English. Good enough to communicate, but imperfect - the narrator criticizes Cockerell's impersonation, saying at one point that he doesn't believe that Pnin would have mistaken "shot" for "fired.")

I enjoyed this book, for the most part. I liked it more than An Invitation to a Beheading, which also had some great elements, but wasn't as neatly shaped as Pnin - in my opinion. I still need to read Lolita, as well as this big book of short stories I have from Nabokov. But anyway, this book is definitely one that doesn't reveal itself out of one reading. I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what is being said, and that if I returned to it with a better understanding of some of its artistic references, I could catch more of what is going on. I like that in a book - the whole "challenging the reader" thing... I should probably add Anna Karenina to my reading list...

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-15-2012, 09:35 PM
I actually finished the book two days ago, but couldn't figure out what on earth to say about the experience. Here's a random collection of my unsolicited thoughts on the book and some possible themes I think may have emerged when I re-read certain passages. I'd be curious to know if anyone else made similar connections or if you think I'm connecting dots which don't exist. It's quite possible; I did go to a public university.


The banal, minutia of life:
I have to admit, until the late chapters, I was not sold on this book. Sure, Pnin was a very sympathetic character and there were some funny, some sad, some dull every day observances of his day to day existence. But, after the stirringly emotional and lyrically beautiful summer's weekend at Cook's Castle in Chapter 5, his house warming party in Chapter 6 and the startling revelations of chapter 7, something clicked for me. Could we have felt such empathy for Pnin had all of the prior chapters had such drama and sweep as chapter 5? Possibly, but by getting us so deeply involved in the seemingly minor details of Pnin's live at the college, we grew to know the man in such intimate detail -- as only a friend or colleague truly could. Also, if all of those seemingly minor descriptions of his daily life had been chest-slamming operatic drama-rama fests, the impact of the painful memories from chapter 5 and his dejection and humiliation in chapters 6 and 7 would not sting us as they did. Is Nabokov saying something about life here? About how you know the true essence of another person? Is it true the seemingly banal minutia of his everyday life? I don't know, but it worked for me.


The real Pnin and Nabokov the narrator:
From what I can gather it sounds quite likely that Pnin the character was actually based upon a colleague of Nabokov's at Cornell. A colleague who, unlike Nabokov, did not master the English language with such aplomb, never truly assimilated in the US and generally did not meet great success in his teaching career. In fact, this colleague of his was reportedly very upset about the numerous parallels between his life and Pnin's. But since Pnin was published in installments in The New Yorker before being published as a novel, I wonder if he'd formed that opinion after only reading the first couple of chapters. If he did that, i could understand being upset. Here you were being depicted as physically awkward, disconnected, bumbling fool. But if he had read through to chapters 5-7, I think he would have formed a different opinion. Once we know who the narrator is and see that he clearly has a deep affection for Pnin, the prior chapters take on a whole different tone to my ears. We know that our narrator has learned the details of Pnin's life at the college directly from Jack Cockerell's vulgar impersonations, but I think we can infer that our narrator has softened or gently corrected some or all of Cockrell's accounts. For example, at one point, Cockrell says that when Pnin found out he was losing his job he told everyone he had been "shot". But our narrator says he doubts that the Pnin he knew would have made that mistake (saying "shot" in place of "fired"). This feels like a clue. Like the narrator is saying, yes, I took in everything that Cockrell (and others at the university?) told me about Pnin, but I balanced their accounts with the first-hand glimpses I had into his life back in Europe. Cockrell's account, in the narrator's mind, was an exaggeration.

But then there's the issue of the solitary moments in the novel which no one could know about. Surely Pnin would not have told anyone about these strange physical spells he was experiencing or about those painful memories of his first love? So, what to make of them? Well, early in the novel, the narrator refers to himself as Pnin's physician. Curious, because, I don't recall any other reference to him being physician; especially not Pnin's personal physician either back in Europe or in the US. In fact, he had come to the university to head up a new Russian Literature program. So, perhaps we are to infer that as Pnin's self-appointed "physician", these physical spells were an invention of the narrator. Simply a device for him to be able to trigger these distant memories of Pnin's youth in Russia and France. He knew about the younger Pnin's life in Europe from his encounters with both Pnin and Liza, Pnin's wife. It seems that back in Europe he recognized Pnin as a sincere, pure-hearted, loving man. A bit awkward? Sure, but essentially a good man.

There's also the case of the narrator "recalling" that Pnin earned straight A's in math, had a lead role in a play when he was a young man and was proudly shown off by his father. But Pnin contradicts these memories and says he never did well in math, he had in fact only played a minor role in that play and that his father never proudly introduced him to strangers. Was this the narrator (or Nabokov on the narrator's behalf?) acknowledging that memories/remembrance can go both ways? Like with Cockrell they can cruelly distort the truth and paint the subject of the remembrance in a negative light. Or, if we have just a glimmer of someone's true character (as the narrator did with the love letter written to Liza) perhaps that true memory then influences our remembrances of other minor details. And suddenly, we have remembered a Pnin who didn't really exist. A straight A math student, lead actor in the play, a boy proudly shown off by his father. And is the narrator acknowledging these issues with memory but saying he's going to embellish the past a bit because those slight embellishments will give you a truer portrait of what the real Pnin was like? An act or kindness or pity? From the narrator to Pnin and from Nabokov to his former colleague?



Literary references and Pnin the puppet?
I haven't read Anna Karenina, so I can't comment on what that book's introduction in several discussions in Chapter 5 might be about. Perhaps nothing at all beyond a reference to a prized Russian book; a shared reference amongst Russian emigres. But, later in the novel there are references to both Homer and Gogol, whose work I am somewhat familiar with. In The Odyssey, Odysseus, of course spends years at Sea trying to get back home. Yet another water reference in connection with Pnin, the "sea father" trying to get back home. Gogol's work was connected to the tradition of Russian and Ukrainian puppetry and folk theatre. In fact, some of the characters in his works were considered to be puppet-like creations for Gogol to pull the strings of. Think of the physical descriptions of Pnin. The large brown bald head, the wide, strong torso, tapering off into the embarrassingly thin legs and small feminine feet. Sounds almost like a puppet, right? Is this actually Nabokov's hint to us that really it's him pulling the strings all along? I mean, of course we know that Nabokov has written this book, but perhaps what he's saying is is that the narrator is his stand-in. His puppet. And Pnin is the stand-in/puppet for his colleague from Cornell.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-15-2012, 09:36 PM
tl;dr, I know.

Sorry, I know that was a bit self-indulgent. But I think I had to write it all out to process it. Let me know if you think I'm completely off here.

Alchemy
02-16-2012, 09:27 AM
Could we have felt such empathy for Pnin had all of the prior chapters had such drama and sweep as chapter 5? Possibly, but by getting us so deeply involved in the seemingly minor details of Pnin's live at the college, we grew to know the man in such intimate detail -- as only a friend or colleague truly could.... Is Nabokov saying something about life here? About how you know the true essence of another person? Is it true the seemingly banal minutia of his everyday life? I don't know, but it worked for me.

I think you bring up an interesting question: Could those later chapters (maybe 5 and 6) work as a stand-alone short story (or novella, however long it adds up)?

I think we get a lot of Pnin's character in those two chapters, alone. The way Pnin gets lost on the road somewhat mirrors his incident with the train, minus some further details on his little neuroses. I think they might be a successful story, actually, which then brings up the question: What are the other chapters doing? I think you're right about the depiction of a person's "true essence," which probably has a lot to do with the "seemingly banal minutia." I also think the chapters work a lot in regards to language, which is constantly being brought up - Chapter 1 introduces us to Pnin's English; Chapter 2 seemed to go into the Russian language, and Chapter 3 touched on the Russian language's pronunciation, syntax, and morphemes; and Chapter 4 was one of the strangest chapters, because it was so much about Liza and Victor, but whenever we are close to Pnin, we see him deep in language (he speaks to Victor in Russian, French, and English, seeming to test his language as soon as he sees him).

Then we come to these favorite chapters, at which point many ideas of language have been established, and perhaps we now focus on a message about Pnin's life - or a language's life. It seems to me, that although I think chapter 5 and 6 are successful on their own, they lack something that I believe is a central focus in the novel - language... Well, they don't lack ideas of language, but the intricacies of Pnin's language (it's life). We get to see it dying (more-so in chapter 6, I think; chapter 5, although beautiful, mystified me a little - what was it trying to say?). Chapter 6 seems to ask about the necessity of Pnin's language. Can they find a place for it in the university? Does anybody want it at the university? You have Hagen, in a way, trying to preserve Pnin; and then you have Blorenge, who sees this dead language. I think Nabokov is saying something about life, but also the life of a language.


Well, early in the novel, the narrator refers to himself as Pnin's physician. Curious, because, I don't recall any other reference to him being physician; especially not Pnin's personal physician either back in Europe or in the US.

This is a thing that I keep wondering about, but don't know if there is any clear answer. How well does the narrator actually know Pnin? Because I didn't see any signs about him being Pnin's physician (other than his referring to himself as the physician), since whenever he saw Pnin, it almost seemed to be unexpected, and Pnin would pretty much act like the narrator was a stranger. I mentioned above that I had a feeling that this physician got his stories from Cockerell's exaggerated impressions. He just seems to be the very definition of an unreliable narrator, which seems to explain some of the contradictions at the end. I think the decision to have an unreliable narrator also ties back with Pnin's language though, because Pnin's English is filtered through layers that change its meaning - or obscures its meaning - much like Pnin would be changed and obscured by an unreliable narrator.

JorgeC
02-16-2012, 10:50 AM
I have 2 chapters left, but I had to say that I felt Chaper 5 was the most heart-wrenching. Pnin doesn't allow himself to love and the story of his love for Mira was so sad. Great observation on Pnin's swimming Rage, water theme continues. I was surprised that Pnin was so great at something (croquet!), I felt like this was the first time he allowed himself to be carefree and happy. Even when he was with his "son", he seemed proud and somewhat happy while trying to set a good example, but in an intellectual way, not letting it flow naturally.

Courtney
02-16-2012, 10:51 AM
Sorry guys. I'm just posting in here to say that I haven't finished yet so I am avoiding the discussion until I do. Hope to finish it up by the weekend.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-16-2012, 10:40 PM
I think you bring up an interesting question: Could those later chapters (maybe 5 and 6) work as a stand-alone short story (or novella, however long it adds up)?

I think we get a lot of Pnin's character in those two chapters, alone. The way Pnin gets lost on the road somewhat mirrors his incident with the train, minus some further details on his little neuroses. I think they might be a successful story, actually, which then brings up the question: What are the other chapters doing? I think you're right about the depiction of a person's "true essence," which probably has a lot to do with the "seemingly banal minutia." I also think the chapters work a lot in regards to language, which is constantly being brought up - Chapter 1 introduces us to Pnin's English; Chapter 2 seemed to go into the Russian language, and Chapter 3 touched on the Russian language's pronunciation, syntax, and morphemes; and Chapter 4 was one of the strangest chapters, because it was so much about Liza and Victor, but whenever we are close to Pnin, we see him deep in language (he speaks to Victor in Russian, French, and English, seeming to test his language as soon as he sees him).

Then we come to these favorite chapters, at which point many ideas of language have been established, and perhaps we now focus on a message about Pnin's life - or a language's life. It seems to me, that although I think chapter 5 and 6 are successful on their own, they lack something that I believe is a central focus in the novel - language... Well, they don't lack ideas of language, but the intricacies of Pnin's language (it's life). We get to see it dying (more-so in chapter 6, I think; chapter 5, although beautiful, mystified me a little - what was it trying to say?). Chapter 6 seems to ask about the necessity of Pnin's language. Can they find a place for it in the university? Does anybody want it at the university? You have Hagen, in a way, trying to preserve Pnin; and then you have Blorenge, who sees this dead language. I think Nabokov is saying something about life, but also the life of a language.


You know, I think Chapter 5 could easily be its own self-contained short story, but yeah, I don't think it would have the impact it does without the preceding chapters. Really interesting points about language. I hadn't thought about that. As for what our narrator(s) are saying in chapter 5? Well, I may be grasping at straws here, but I think it actually has a connection to your language discussion. Doesn't Pnin seem more self-assured, accomplished, relaxed and understood in chapter 5? Whether or not Pnin was speaking in English, Russian, French or a combination of all three in Chapter 5 could be open for interpretation, but even if it was just in English, he was among other Russian emigres; some of them dear friends. Not only was his way of speaking understood, but his European cultural references and his views on contemporary American culture were also understood and often appreciated. He even excelled in physical activity - swimming and croquet. Sure, we have the unreliable narrator who may be sweetening things up a bit, but I think perhaps the purpose of the chapter -- if a chapter of a novel must have a sole purpose -- was to show Pnin in his natural habitat. Or at least as close as he could get to it.




This is a thing that I keep wondering about, but don't know if there is any clear answer. How well does the narrator actually know Pnin? Because I didn't see any signs about him being Pnin's physician (other than his referring to himself as the physician), since whenever he saw Pnin, it almost seemed to be unexpected, and Pnin would pretty much act like the narrator was a stranger. I mentioned above that I had a feeling that this physician got his stories from Cockerell's exaggerated impressions. He just seems to be the very definition of an unreliable narrator, which seems to explain some of the contradictions at the end. I think the decision to have an unreliable narrator also ties back with Pnin's language though, because Pnin's English is filtered through layers that change its meaning - or obscures its meaning - much like Pnin would be changed and obscured by an unreliable narrator.

Great point on the language here as well. It's amazing how many layers there are to this little novel. I can't believe that Nabokov could write like this in what was his third language. The word genius gets bandied about far too much, but this kind of talent seems to fit the bill. This was a book that, about half way through, I thought was nothing more than a pleasant mid-Century campus novel.


I really enjoyed this process of reading a novel and discussing it with others as we progressed. Made me realize how much I miss my old English Lit classes. It almost makes me want to apply to a Masters program in English Lit, but that would be ridiculous. I'm a terrible writer and I have no interest in teaching or academia. Just going to have to stick with book clubs! Looks like this might be our first and last one, though. Shame.

Alchemy
02-18-2012, 09:56 AM
Ah! Excellent point on chapter 5. I forgot that he was with other Russian emigres.

I enjoyed doing this, too. I'm also a bit homesick about my literature classes. The ones I took during my masters program didn't even have assignments, or tests, or things like that (except for a rare essay or some easy creative responses), so they were pretty much just book clubs. It's really fun to be in a room full of fledgling writers, moderated by an accomplished writer, talking about books and short stories without worrying about grades... But yeah, I don't know if this is a successful run for the Coachella board. I think, in the future, might we all want to try again, we should probably do a short story (or a couple short stories, to compare and contrast).

algunz
02-18-2012, 11:30 AM
I went past your spoilers really quick so as not to ruin anything, but I'm getting bored. Is there a point to the mundanity and detail? It's like American Psycho, but at least he's was murdering chicks in between.

I'm on vacation so I should be done in a couple of days.

Alchemy
02-18-2012, 01:37 PM
There is a point to it, but it seems to be more meditative and vague - as opposed to action or adventure. Pnin does not murder chicks, but a turn does happen near the end.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-18-2012, 05:38 PM
Alchemy, let's just be straight with Gunz. There is a dead woman in Pnin's past.



I enjoyed doing this, too. I'm also a bit homesick about my literature classes. The ones I took during my masters program didn't even have assignments, or tests, or things like that (except for a rare essay or some easy creative responses), so they were pretty much just book clubs. It's really fun to be in a room full of fledgling writers, moderated by an accomplished writer, talking about books and short stories without worrying about grades... But yeah, I don't know if this is a successful run for the Coachella board. I think, in the future, might we all want to try again, we should probably do a short story (or a couple short stories, to compare and contrast)

Your masters program sounds like a dream, Alchemy. Except for the whole turning in a thesis thing. If only there was a program in which one could read great literature, have fascinating in-depth conversations about the literature and then not have to produce any of one's own work. I don't have much hope for a future book club on this board if everyone's struggling to complete a novel that's under 200 pages. I'm going to have to find another book club. But, I'm still happy for this experience as I doubt I would have sought out another book club without this prompting. So,thanks for organizing, SD! If anyone has recommendations for book club groups (online or off), let us know.

amyzzz
02-19-2012, 10:50 AM
I finished the book last night and very much enjoyed reading rage against's and alchemy's discussion of the novel. Don't call this a failure since at least you two came up with great ideas here.This novel was short but it was so dense that I think it was difficult to get through. I particularly liked the part where Pnin mixed up Professors Wynn and Thomas -- perhaps that was another clue to the theme of the unreliable narrator getting Pnin's character wrong by relying on Cockerell's impression of Pnin, as in the theme of mistaken identity.

I would very much like to read a short story and discuss it if you two are on board. :-) This experience has inspired me to read Lolita again to see how much I missed thematically when I read it the first time.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-19-2012, 01:35 PM
I finished the book last night and very much enjoyed reading rage against's and alchemy's discussion of the novel. Don't call this a failure since at least you two came up with great ideas here.This novel was short but it was so dense that I think it was difficult to get through. I particularly liked the part where Pnin mixed up Professors Wynn and Thomas -- perhaps that was another clue to the theme of the unreliable narrator getting Pnin's character wrong by relying on Cockerell's impression of Pnin, as in the theme of mistaken identity.

I would very much like to read a short story and discuss it if you two are on board. :-) This experience has inspired me to read Lolita again to see how much I missed thematically when I read it the first time.


I don't know about "great ideas" on my part. Looking for a pattern and then crying out "symbolism!" is freshman grade stuff, to be sure. That being said, when re-reading certain passages, I did come across Joan at the party arguing with another party guest about a certain novelist's intentions:

But don't you think -- haw -- that what he is trying to do -- haw -- practically in all his novels -- is -- haw -- to express the fantastic recurrence of certain situations?

"Haw" is an odd one. Not "um" or "uh", but "haw". The first definition of "haw" makes sense, but something tells me that the fourth definition was also on Nabokov's mind when he wrote that little passage. As though he were saying to us, yes, reader, there are patterns thoughout and, yes, they have meaning. Again, I could be overreaching here.


haw 1 (hô)
An utterance used by a speaker who is fumbling for words.
intr.v. hawed, haw·ing, haws
To fumble in speaking.

haw 4 (hô)
interj.
Used to command an animal pulling a load to turn to the left.
intr.v. hawed, haw·ing, haws
To turn to the left.



Anyway, I just enjoyed the process. Nice catch on Wynn and Thomas. There was so much going on there as we were hurtling toward the conclusion that I completely forgot about that mix-up. I think you're right; it definitely plays into the unreliable narrator. And, sure, I'd be up for some short stories.

algunz
02-21-2012, 02:08 PM
Bump

I'm almost done reading and will be back to comment on your commentaries. This has proven to be a bit more interesting than I first anticipated, but I certainly can not claim this to be even close to one of my "favorite" books.

JorgeC
02-21-2012, 02:28 PM
Chapter 7 felt like it wasn't even the same narrator from previous chapters. For most of the book, i thought the narrator had intimate/close knowledge of all the happenings, but in the end, if indeed it was the same narrator, the last chapter unraveled the (non)relationship he had with Pnin.

While i came to enjoy some of Pnin's quirks, I ultimately feel that he'll never be happy and does it to himself. At his age, i guess people are set in their ways, but whatever ghosts of his past/obstacles he's faced (dead love, first wife was a bitch, unexpected "son") he never manned up. I can't sympathize with people like that. Even the narrator that considered himself a friend to Pnin, albeit a sliver of a connection thru a few chance meetings over a lifetime, he was a total dick to.

Overall, i enjoyed the experience of the "book club" as I wouldn't have read this book otherwise. I'll join in on future readings if we continue but it does seem hard to coordinate over the interwebz.

RageAgainstTheAoki
02-21-2012, 11:42 PM
Yes, but was that the real Pnin? We'll never know. Spoiler for anyone who hasn't read Pale Fire....



Pnin is a minor character in that novel. I've yet to read it myself, but stumbled upon this fact last week. I think that will be my next Nabokov.

amyzzz
02-22-2012, 07:19 AM
OH DAMN. I may have to read that.

Alchemy
02-22-2012, 07:22 AM
I know some cats who read Pale Fire at my graduate program, and none of them seemed to like it. I remember it was in a literary seminar called "Non-Linearity."

JorgeC
02-22-2012, 01:39 PM
Yes, but was that the real Pnin? We'll never know.

Exactly. it wasn't the real Pnin (at least in my opinion), it was the narrator's perception of Pnin and the disconnect from "his friend" to someone that wouldn't take his phone call and rejected the idea of working with him leads me to conclude that the real Pnin is a dick. At least my perception of the real Pnin. lol. i guess that's what's great about this novel, as with any great work of art, everyone gets something different from it.