Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov IV

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov IV

“The novelist never could
face the secret that cost
his brother his life.”
—Lev Grossman, “The gay
Nabokov,” Salon

“He treats male homosexual
love in his fiction almost shows
symptoms of compulsion.”
—Michael Maar, Chapter 3
“Sodom,” Speak, Nabokov (2009)

A memoirist, who used to know Nabokov at Cornell in the nineteen-fifties, recounts this characteristic anecdote:

“At a crowded party, I found myself pushed up against him. Feeling the need to say something, an impulse I should have resisted, I told him that I had just read Pnin, which I had liked very much. He could have said "Thank you," but instead [he] asked, "Why?" I told him (and it was a truthful remark) that I liked it for the compassion I found within it. He abruptly turned away, as if I had slapped his face.”
—James McConkey, "Nabokov and 'The Window of the Mint'," in The Achievements of Vladimir Nabokov, eds. George Gibian and Stephen Jan Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 31.

This incident seems perplexing since Nabokov would never have 'abruptly turned away' upon hearing McConkey say, at a noisy party, that he liked Pnin for its compassion: Nabokov made no secret of the fact that compassion was important to him. What McConkey missed was ‘who’ the compassion was for.

My guess is that Nabokov’s compassion was for his brother, Sergey, who was lost during WWII along with many other friends of Vladimir. A novel can have healing powers for the author through the “wonder of recurrence and transformation” (see Connolly “Pnin” in Nabokov’s Fifth Arc 195-210).

According to Maar, Victor is Pnin’s son who comes to live with him after living with Pnin’s former wife and it’s Victor’s genius that overflows into Pnin, enabling him to escape the compulsive patterns of worry and loneliness.

Pnin’s relationship with Victor mirrors Hubert’s with Lolita. Both children are the same age when they enter the lives of their stepfathers. Pnin succeeds precisely where Humbert fails. Victor has all the qualities that Humbert finds lacking in Lolita (Michael Maar, “Pnin’s Journey into the Light,” Speak, Nabokov, 86-87)

What’s interesting about Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship with his brother Sergey is that it comes out in various novels, not just Pnin (1989).

“For literature, which can be indifferent to what brings it into being, guilt is an ideal impetus—the perptuum mobile among motivations. Without the gnawing unquenchable need for justification, certain works of literature probably never would have been written.”—Michael Maar, Chapter 3 “Sodom,” Speak, Nabokov (2009)

Did Vladimir Nabokov feel guilty about leaving Sergey behind him in Paris? Did Nabokov feel guilty reading the telegram about Sergey’s concentration camp death? Did Vladimir feel remorse for being homophobic about Sergey’s gay lifestyle in Paris, did he have any desires to relive in fiction some kind of rapprochement with Sergey and perhaps the other gay expatriates from Russia and Germany caught up in the Nazi dragnet in Paris? Sebastian Knight seems to indicate so.

“The squirrel pattern that recurs in every chapter of Pnin seems to intimate a number of possible metaphysical answers to the problem of human pain: a patterner of human lives, a designer of fate, who apportions pain with the utmost compassion and concern; a reprieve from present anguish as death allows one to step from the prison of time into the free world of timelessness; or a gender interest in particular mortal lives on the part of those who once cared for them when they too were mortal.”—Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.

In other words, does the Pnin Theme, for example, perform a special allegoric mission, besides sharing in the general symbolism of all fictional expression? The figure of the Pnin narrator is perhaps the most elusive of all of Nabokov’s novels, and in this respect has rivals only in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Pale Fire.

The question of Nabokov's reliability ought to be of utmost importance to anyone wishing to understand the novel's deep-laid plot. One cannot, after all, help concluding that if Pnin and Victor are analogous to Vladimir and Sergey, then the whole story of Vladimir’s life, the entire length of the book about him, should be regarded in a new light.

The last chapter would have been a logical departure point: Pnin leaves Waindell as N. settles in it and decides to write about Pnin's adventures. A mechanism of this very type, though set in a true chess environment, works quite smoothly in V.'s biography of his half-brother Sebastian Knight: V. begins the book after Knight's death and leads the narration up to that death, a logical starting point of his quest, which is the end of the story about that quest.

Over and over again, in the course of his narration, N. shows how Pnin, driven to utter desolation, comes very close to solving the utmost riddle of his existence, but as he reaches to grasp "the key of the pattern" concealed by "the evil designer <...> with such monstrous care" (23) it dissolves in a squirrel (24, 58)

This is exactly what Nabokov speaks of in his lecture on Proust: “In Search of Lost Time is an evocation, not a description of the past <...> This evocation <...> is made possible by bringing to light a number of exquisitely chosen moments which are a sequence of illustrations or images... The key to the problem of reestablishing the past turns out to be the key of art.” Lectures on Literature, p. 208.

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