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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) GALYA DIMENT (Seattle) Timofey Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marc Szeftel1 "Nabokov was my colleague at Cornell University, and there we met frequently. We had a very good relationship, but we never had an intimate friendship. Nabokov avoids that kind of friendship, having Vera is enough for him, and it also contradicts his essential ego-centricity." Marc Szeftel The name of Marc Szeftel, a Russian historian and Nabokov's long-time colleague at Cornell University, has been familiar to many Nabokov specialists because he has often been cited as the prototype for one of Nabokov's most memorable protagonists, Timofey Pnin. Both Andrew Field and Brian Boyd in their biographies of the writer made direct connections between Pnin and Szeftel, Andrew Field claiming that Nabokov actually confessed to him ("while riding in the elevator of the Montreux Palace"2) that Szeftel had served as the prototype for the character (Field 291), and Boyd simply stating that "[m]any have identified Marc Szeftel ... as Nabokov's model for Pnin" (Boyd, American Years 288). It is not clear just how much of Szeftel's biography was really known to Nabokov and how much of it he used in Pnin. There are, to be sure, strong biographical correspondences which are hard to discount as merely acciden1 . I would like to thank the Bishop, Jakobson, Marchant estates for kind permission to use materials cited here. I would also like to thank D. Barton Johnson for reading a draft of this article and giving me valuable suggestions . 2. It has to be noted here that some now doubt the veracity of Field's account, given the state of the index cards on which this and similar imformation had been jotted. Field's Nabokov archive has been recently auctioned , and a thorough study of his notes may eventually shed further light on the episode. I am grateful to Brian Boyd for sharing his observations with me concerning both the incident and Field's records of it. 54 Nabokov Studies tal. Thus both Pnin and Szeftel were bom in February, both studied sociology , both got their university degrees in 1925 in the countries of Eastern Europe (Pnin in Prague, and Szeftel in Warsaw), and both devoted much of their lives to the unfinished study of the "great work on Old Russia, a wonderful dream mixture of folklore, poetry, social history, and petite histoire" (Pnin 39), which is an obvious, albeit not spelt-out, reference to The Lay of Igor's Campaign ("Slovo o Polku Igoreve," 12th century3), a famous Russian epic. And yet it was, I believe, not the biography but the "notion" of Marc Szeftel that served as an inspiration for the novel.4 Alfred Appel remembers how he told Nabokov about some of the funnier problems that Szeftel's students experienced while trying to decipher the notes of what they thought was Szeftel's incomprehensible English: "Nabokov laughed at the story until tears streamed down his face . . . but then . . . mused with warm appreciation : 'What an innocent man'"(Boyd, American Years 289). It was Szeftel's legendary "foreignness," naïveté, his imperfect English (according to Field, Nabokov even told Szeftel that he spoke "ugly English" [292]), oldworldliness , unrelieved seriousness in academic pursuits as well as his dignity in the face of disrespect and even ridicule that could have made the "notion" of Szeftel so attractive to Nabokov as he was fashioning his fictional Russian lecturer in a small American college. In Szeftel's diaries there exists no direct acknowledgment that he was really aware that Nabokov used him as a prototype for Pnin. And yet, Szeftel's widow, Kitty Szeftel, says she immediately recognized her husband in Pnin when the first installment came out in 1953, and that "[Marc] seemed to agree with me, and I think he more or less took it as a compliment" (13 Aug). Szeftel's former student at the University of Washington, Daniel C. 3. Some critics, among them, André Mazon, John L. Fennell, and A. A. Zimin have believed that the epic is a much later work and thus a "fake." Like Roman Jakobson, with whom he collaborated on several studies of the epic, Szeftel never doubted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 53-75
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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