Some of the artworks and artists mentioned in Pnin (incomplete list; feel free to expand)


Time Warps in Pnin

Here are my chapter-by-chapter notes on the moments where Pnin travels through time (and his heart jams; often with squirrel around). They were written for my consumption and elaboration, but you can get the gist!


Transcendence of Time

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there is a recurring pattern of “time travel” in the book: In each chapter, Pnin has some kind of palpitation of the heart, in which he suddenly finds himself back in his childhood or younger adulthood. These moments correlate pretty nicely with the appearance of the infamous squirrel.

Chapter 1: 20-25 (discreteness. Pattern of Wallpaper. Peach stone. Ends on 25 with the “doom should not jam” passage)

Chapter 2: No collapse quite like in Chapter 1 (unless we count the “I haf nofing!” on p.61) but much of the chapter is devoted to Pnin’s love of Liza, including a job in the rue vert-vert (44) and another mention of his “jammed heart” (47) and of “verbal heart props” (53). And that moment of near-transcendence happens again with the squirrel on p. 58 (gives the squirrel water)—let’s look at that.

Chapter 3: Squirrel this is time is on p. 73, but the “jamming” continues with a mention of the doorjamb on p. 65, which marks the room as belonging to Isabelle Clements (Pnin doesn’t see it; in re home, see G’s blog post), followed shortly by the narrator’s “It warmed my heart” and the whole Pushkin’s death episode… (68) Another intimation of “something else” some puzzle he (and we) are not quite getting on the bottom of 79. Pnin jumps back in time when watching Soviet movie: TEARS, again (81-82).

Chapter 4. This time the squirrel comes on p. 88. Most of the chapter is about Victor. We get the “water father” theme from Chatper 3 developed. Skiagraphy (see squirrel handout) and Victor’s art  related to “squirrel theme” in some way. No heart, as far as I noticed on this read-through, but notice the chapter ending on p 110, which picks up the “Windshield painting” and is one of those authorial “signature” moments for Nabokov. We’ll talk more about this chapter on Thursday.

Chapter 5. The Pines. The squirrel, the heart and the melting all occur on page 131, when Pnin is forced to remember Mira Belochkin (!) , his first great love, who died in Buchenwald (another forest–“beech forest” this time).

Chapter 6. This is the chapter with the Bowl, and where Pnin holds his little lecture on squirrel etymology (158). The tears this time come with the washing of the bowl (172-173). We’ll talk more about this on Thursday.

Chapter 7. The stuffed squirrel now shows up in the narrator’s recollection of Pnin’s childhood bedroom (177); the heart makes its appearance at least once,  in the “most cordial terms” that the narrator offers Pnin (186)



Please find a pattern in Pnin. Please try to find time to post here and name it. (Page numbers are always good.)

Please read through the handout with critical takes on the pattern of the Squirrel.


An Honest Question

Dear All,

It has been suggested to me (by one of you) that I teach a whole seminar just on Lolita. As I envision it, I’d start the class with short stories, GRGW, other short texts by Nabokov about how he writes. We’d read the whole “poshlust” chapter in his Gogol book. I’d probably also teach Speak Memory!, which we didn’t get to read.

We’d do a lot of close reading of the novel itself, and read lots of different criticism.

And then we’d have a whole section of the course on reception. We’d think more thoroughly through the “Lolita Myth” (Patnoe), we’d watch and discuss the two films (Kubrick and Lyne), I’d find some texts that engage with Lolita (including feminist responses).

What do you think? Should I do it?


Last thoughts on Lolita

Kerem asked me if I ALWAYS say that we should have/could have done more…. Well, yes, I do. And then I think the place where YOU come to a kind of personal “reading” of our novels is in the papers. I think with The Defense and Invitation you have done that quite successfully–you have taken our digressive discussions and then hammered out a single idea that works as an interpretation of the novel itself.

But it’s also worthwhile to summarize what we DID do with Lolita this semester. And to think about what we MIGHT have done more. Please comment and add your two cents to my list!

What we DID do…

  • We talked about the GENRE of the book. And about all the different generic impulses (confession, a twisted novel of adultery/honeymoon story, medical case history, detective story, road novel, quasi-religious narrative, pop culture compendium, etc.)
  • In that same vein, we talked about VOICES. In close reading passages, we did, in fact, notice how fragments of popular discourse, educational messages, advertisements, etc. suddenly enter the narrative.
  • We talked a bit about POETRY. The opening is so obviously a work of poetry. (At least one of you drew a connection between this opening and the “dactylic” passage in “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” What we didn’t talk about (see below) is the way in which poetry works intertextually in the book (with the brief exception of Poe’s “Annabel Lee”).
  • We talked about the odd parentheticals that seem to remove agency from the narrative and are left hanging for us to make of them what we will.
  • We talked about a kind of large-scale NARRATIVE DOUBLING. There is HH narrating, but then there is a whole layer of the book that he doesn’t seem to be in control of (Quilty, Lolita’s double life, etc.) There is some similarity here to “The Vane Sisters,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that VN wrote that story around the same time. Remember that in the letter to his editor he makes some comment about how often one may actually use such a trick. Perhaps that’s a hint that that same trick is at work in Lolita?
  • We discussed, to a large extent, the relation of the PLOT to the FORM of the book. What is the relation of moral reading to aesthetic reading? I wish to insist that both are possible, but that in this book the relationship between the two can never be resolved in a satisfying matter. Indeed, this is what I personally think makes this novel so interesting.
  • We talked about how the reader is drawn into identifying with both HH and Lolita and the problems that raises (including traumatic responses). And how we should relate that to Nabokov’s “prohibition” of identification (in GRGW, but also in the texture of this novel itself)?
  • We talked about the ways in which American society and culture are complicit in what HH is able to do to Lolita.
  • We talked about the three big taboos (not only American, but especially American) of sex, race, and religion (see “On a Book Entitled Lolita”).
  • We hinted (or I hinted) at the way our own reaction in some way performs the “prudity” of American culture that Nabokov is exposing. We have a moral impulse that is really challenged and provoked by the novel.

What we DIDN’T do

  • In a broad sense, I don’t think we read the text closely enough. We could have looked at many more passages and how they work. What is the “aesthetic” texture of the novel?
  • We did not work very much at all on INTERTEXTUALITY. What is this book doing with literature that came before it?
  • In this vein, I really wish we had done more with the play. With the Enchanted Hunters, with the ending of the book. With Shakespeare, especially.
  • We didn’t talk enough about the issue of Nabokov writing in English (his own personal “tragedy,” as he writes in “On a Book Entitled Lolita”). Stuart drew my attention to an article by Anna Morlan that addresses this matter along with the question of “autobiography” in Lolita. The piece reached me too late for me to assign it or read it carefully before class. I will post it (along with a dissertation Murray sent me on Nabokov and Poe ) on Sakai, if you are interested.

Follow-up to Prinet and Kreutzer Sonata

Check this out–remember that Humbert’s Uncle was in the Perfumery Business?

Here’s an advertisement for the perfume “Tabu” (a telling name if there ever was one).

What layer does this add to the previous post about Tolstoy and Kreutzer Sonata?

(ok, in re taboo, I suggest also “On a Book Entitled Lolita“–p. 314: “Their [publishers] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.”)