- Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov's "Pnin"
Gennadi Barabtarlo's lovingly assembled guide to Pnin provides students with the essential information they require to savour one of Nabokov's best-loved books and offers scholars enough surprises to make them turn back with delight to a novel they thought they knew. Barabtarlo supplies bibliographic details about Pnin's composition and publication, records revealing variants between the New Yorker and book versions of the novel, tracks down facts and sources, including the unsought (the models for Nabokov's satire on psychoanalysis) or the unnoticed (the Eugene Onegin echo as the narrator produces Pnin's letter to Liza), seeks out parallel passages in other Nabokov works, comments astutely on features of Nabokov's [End Page 573] style (the "and . . . and . . . and" construction, the mastery of narrative transition, the device of circular composition), and of course analyzes Pnin as a whole.
Apart from some excellent comments on Pnin's epicyclic structure, Barabtarlo's overall interpretation of the novel unfortunately seems the weakest part of his book. The last chapter of Pnin poses the novel's great critical problem: what do we make of the fact that what had seemed to be an impersonal narrator turns out to be a character on the same level as Pnin, a "friend" of Pnin's, a former lover of his ex-wife, and at the same time identifiably a version of Nabokov (a renowned Anglo-Russian writer and college professor, born in a rosy-stone home in Petersburg's Morskaya, christened Vladimir Vladimirovich, a passionate lepidopterist since childhood)? Barabtarlo stresses Pnin's near-perception of the patterns that suggest he is a character in a world someone else has created. That would describe more accurately Krug in Bend Sinister, who probes the pattern and limits of his world and at last comes to understand that he is created by Nabokov, a creature—"an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me," writes Nabokov—on an entirely different plane of being. But Nabokov does not repeat from novel to novel his shocking, searching experiments in point of view. The surprise in Pnin is that the narrator, who like any omniscient narrator seemed on another level of being from his protagonist, turns out to exist on the same level. What does that do to Pnin's inner life (his recollection of a childhood illness, his old love for Mira Belochkin, the dream he shares wtih Victor), to all that makes him so poignant and so real, to all that the narrator cannot have heard from Pnin and could never know from informants like Cockerell?
Barabtarlo treats the question as a problem in logic, where Nabokov situates the novel in quite different philosophical terrain, in the problem of other minds. Not only does Barabtarlo confuse the issue, but he writes about it in a fashion that pays too little heed to the reader. In fact his relation to his audience remains uncertain throughout: he can translate Nabokov's "nicht wahr" but leave untranslated passages of German or French that he cites in his notes, or employ a vocabulary ("tautegory," "on the mete," "ambigory") that unwittingly echoes the early Beckett's parody of scholarly arcana. He can write with clarity, energy, independence of mind and sometimes brilliant imagery, but he needs to keep the range of his readers much more firmly in mind.
Barabtarlo misses some illuminating bibliographic variants, internal connections, parallel passages, and background information, but he has also discovered much that no one else has seen and few will now question. After twenty years, Alfred Appel has revised his Annotated Lolita. That is a mark of success. Barabtarlo's guide to Pnin deserves a similar success—and a more rapid revision of its own.