Friday, December 28, 2007

Books: Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

Surprisingly, unfortunately, this was not such a good book. Maybe it shouldn't have been so surprising; Lolita is, for the first half or two-thirds, utterly brilliant, and Pale Fire, though difficult as all hell to fight through, is conceptually astounding. But Speak, Memory is like a bog with no water, and there's only so much steam one can get out of the same character (and I will hereby accuse Nabokov of constantly reusing the same character). This time, the man's name is Pnin, and he's (surprise surprise!) a older, socially-awkward, Russian emigre professor at a small American university. He struggles with memories of the past, and the drafts of the present in each of the rooming houses he attempts to comfortably inhabit (a grave problem, too, are the "sonic disturbances.")

As always with Nabokov, the phrase is better than the sentence, which is better than the paragraph, which is better than the chapter, which is better than the novel. There is one utterly brilliant passage toward the beginning when Pnin, after having all of his teeth pulled and replaced by dentures, recalls in poetic detail the unconscious joys his tongue had found passing across and against those teeth all his life, and recoils at the personified grin in a glass that mocks him from the bathroom sink. Passage aside (which can be read all on its own), there's really no need to read the rest of the darned thing, unless you really have absolutely nothing else to do.

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