Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Campus Postmodern Fiction

by Vladimir Nabokov

“The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglebooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.”  ― Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

A comic novel very much in the Russian style with an opening on a train (ala Dostoevsky's The Idiot), this is a delight to read. While it is a short novel (novella length in the Everyman's Library edition) it is certainly not a trifle. Rather it is a postmodern gem, a novel of character with Pnin the elusive and complex and oddly funny character at the center.
The book's eponymous protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States. Pnin, a refugee from both Communist Russia and what he calls the "Hitler war", is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, possibly modeled on Wellesley College or Cornell University, at both of which Nabokov himself taught.  At Waindell, Pnin has settled down to an uncertain, nontenured, but semi-respectable academic life, full of various tragicomic mishaps, misfortunes, and difficulties adjusting to American life and language.
As a representative of the "campus" novel it compares favorably with those of Randall Jarrell, David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. Its pastoral campus setting is very much a "small world" (title for one of Lodge's novels)removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is the perfect setting for the precise observations that Nabokov is so good at rendering. The postmodern characteristics add an intellectual sheen to this campus story and at close reading raise questions about the nature of the narrator, Professor Pnin, and the status of the fiction itself. Whether memoir or fiction, autobiographical or imaginary flight of academic fancy, this novel charms the reader with the Nabokovian magic that is unique in twentieth-century literature.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, intro. by David Lodge.  Everyman's Library, 2004 (1957)

No comments: