Death in Pnin

pg. 20 “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.”

pg. 68 “In a set of eight tetrametric quatrains Pushkin described the morbid habit he always had— wherever he was, whatever he was doing—of dwelling on thoughts of death and of closely inspecting every passing day as he strove to find in its cryptogram a certain “future anniversary”: the day and month that would appear, somewhere, sometime upon his tombstone. ” ‘And where will fate send me’, imperfective future, ‘death,'” declaimed inspired Pnin, throwing his head back and translating with brave literality, ” ‘in fight, in travel, or in waves? Or will the neighboring dale’— dolina, same word, ‘valley’ we would now say— ‘accept my refrigerated ashes’, poussiere, ‘cold dust’ perhaps more correct. ‘And though it is indifferent to the insensible body … ‘”

pg. 135 “… no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

pg. 136 “The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”

These quotes, and our discussion in class today, made me think of this article I read recently in a new light (in case the link doesn’t work, it’s called “What Does It Mean to Die?” from the New Yorker). By the definitions of death Nabokov posits, is Jahi McMath alive? And is Pnin alive beyond the novel as he drives away from those who torment him?

Lolita imagery

“Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth- these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had!”

H.H.lists a series of objects which prompt vivid mental images from the reader, making me think of 50s diners in small town. By calling these “disgustingly conventional,” he challenges the romantic lens through which America looks back on this past aesthetic. He is dismissive of the staples of pop culture which Dolly loves, just as he disparages other Americanisms he considers unrefined. However, this line does more than just insult two birds with one stone. To me, it is just another reminder of why the novel cannot be called a love story. The fact that H.H. doesn’t even pretend to be interested in Dolly beyond her looks makes his “love” appear flimsy and shallow, as though being based around rape and pedophilia doesn’t in itself disqualify it as love. He indulges her personality as he indulges her desire to hear jukebox music- as a sort of peripheral cost to his repeated defilement of her body.

Theatricality in Invitation to a Beheading- pg. 134

“No, you’re still only a parody,” murmured Cincinnatus.
She smiled interrogatively
“Just like this spider, just like those bars, just like the striking of that clock,” murmured Cincinnatus.
“So,” she said, and blew her nose again.
“So, that’s how it is,” she repeated.
They both remained silent, not looking at each other, while the clock struck with nonsensical resonance.
“When you go out,” said Cincinnatus, “note the clock in the corridor. The dial is blank; however, every hour the watchman washes off the old hand and daubs on a new one- and that’s how we live, by tarbrush time, and the ringing is the work of the watchman, which is why he is called a ‘watch’ man.”
“You oughtn’t joke like that,” said Cecilia C. “There are, you know, all sorts of marvelous gimmicks…”

Why “The Defense”?

Luzhin is a character who, outside of chess, has very little agency in his life. He seems to be like a chess piece himself, shoved around by his parents, Valentinov, his wife, and of course the grandmaster Nabokov, alternately moving in lines and circles. I think part of why the Turati game tips Luzhin over the edge and into his downward spiral is because it diminishes his power in the only realm in which he’s truly been able to exercise it. This made me wonder why Nabokov decided to call the novel “The Luzhin Defense” when “the defense Luzhin had worked out had proved an utter waste” (136). If this defense ended up falling flat, is there a different defense in the novel that could explain the title? Or is the point to highlight that Luzhin is ultimately defenseless, and the only way he is able to retaliate against the powers that constrain him is by jumping out of the window at the end?

Sight vs. Insight in the Vane Sisters

In my Spanish 101 class last semester, we read Aura by Carlos Fuentes, a novella in which (warning: spoilers ahead) a young man named Felipe Montero is drawn into a house occupied by two women, under the illusion that he is there to sort through the files of the older woman’s late husband. He becomes quickly fascinated with the younger woman, Aura. The house is completely dark, and she is his guiding light within it. Felipe soon realizes that Aura and the old woman, Consuelo, are involved in mystical or supernatural affairs. Eventually, he discovers that Aura is the younger incarnation of Consuelo, while he himself is the counterpart to the late husband. Fuentes suggests throughout the story that Felipe relies excessively upon his sense of sight, while the women in the story have a greater range of sensory ability, including “the sixth sense.” Upon entering the dark house, Felipe is forced to relinquish his sight and becomes immersed in the women’s witchy world, which ends up transforming him. The narrator of “The Vane Sisters,” is also fixated on sight and characterized by his lack of awareness of non-physical forms of seeing. When in his state of intense observation at the beginning of the story, he describes himself as being in “a state of raw awareness,” as though he were “one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket” (619). Later, he dismisses Cynthia’s insight into the whims of the departed as “beyond logic,” and disdains her “ridiculous fondness for spiritualism” (625, 626). As the acrostic at the end reveals to us, his confidence is ill-founded; the role of the narrator is filled not only by the French professor who believes himself to be in charge but also by the two sisters, which means he does not have the ability to see what ends up being the story’s defining quality. The double identity of the narrator (being the professor and the sisters), as well as the theme of sight versus insight, reminded me of Aura. I’m not sure if Nabokov makes the issue as much of a gendered one as Fuentes does, though, because other male and female characters in “The Vane Sisters” don’t seem to fit neatly within one of the categories of sight or insight. Would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this!