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On first glance, these two novels by Nabokov would seem to have little in common. Laughter in the Dark is set in Germany in the 30s and all the action takes place in Europe; Pnin involves a European character (Pnin is a Russian displaced by the Bolshevik revolution) and except for a few flashbacks, the action takes place in the USA in the post-war 40s.
Laughter is the story of a mature, older man (Albinus) who has independent means, dabbles in art history and selling, is happily, if not excitedly, married with an eight year old daughter, who fantasizes about a more active and more exciting sex life, and who then throws his whole life to the winds to live with a beautiful young girl (16-17 years old) who satisfies all his carnal fantasies, and with whom he believes himself to be in love, not knowing that she (Margot) is simply playing him for his money and his connections (she aspires to be an actress) while shagging an old boyfriend who turns up again (Rex Axel) and who builds a close relationship with Albinus. Albinus had never been lucky in love or lust: "Blunders, gropings, disappointment; surely the Cupid serving him was lefthanded, with a weak chin and no imagination." Towards the end of the book, Albinus is blinded in a car accident which is a nice physical metaphor for the complete moral and intellectual blindness of his life with Margot, not to mention the fact that Margot and Rex carry on literally right under his eyes (even when he does have his eyesight) and even when he stumbles upon evidence of her cupidity and deception, Albinus is only too willing to believe her entreaties of fidelity.
Pnin, on the other hand, ends up as a not-very-appreciated professor in a small-town and largely forgotten university. His specialty, in addition to teaching Russian language to very few students, is Russian cultural history which has made him, "a happy, footnote-drugged maniac who disturbs the book mites in a dull volume, a foot thick, to find in it a reference to an even duller one." There is nothing like the passion and the sex that one finds (however obliquely given the time it was written) in Laughter. If blindness, moral and physical, is a fact and a metaphor in Laughter, the corresponding trope in Pnin is nothing much more than Pnin being constantly wrong-footed. The novel begins with Pnin on the wrong train taking him to a lecture where, when he finally gets there, he will have the wrong notes; throughout his life at the university (nine years) he is oblivious to the pitying condescension with which he is viewed by many and to the precariousness of his position which he owes to the patronage of the president of the university who is a friend (Albinus is also blind to what his erstwhile friends and colleagues think of his actions, but that is more because he willfully avoids contemplating it);
Pnin is in a sense a comedy of manners----we laugh with, and at, Pnin—and it is also a social satire with Nabokov using the vehicle of the novel to poke fun at academic pretensions, psychotherapy, American food, and religion. Laughter is more subdued in this sense, though there are some trenchant comments from a minor character about the abysmal state of literature and reading. Albinus's story is a tragic one, but he is not a truly tragic figure in the sense of one who strives for greatness but falls short or even one who is simply buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate; Albinus's striving is, despite his focus on Margot, incoherent and the tragedy could be easily avoided at any point through his own actions. The endings could also not be more different. Albinus plays the farce out to the end and is murdered by his mistress in a botched attempt to murder her. Things are much brighter for Pnin: his friend the president tells him that he will lose his position, just when Pnin thought things were settling nicely and he would soon have tenure; this shatters Pnin who sells up and quits town going who knows where, but the final glimpse of him is more optimistic: "Then the little blue sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen."
Pnin is a more complex novel. The narrative voice is that of the omniscient author, but a first person perspective pops up every once in a while and then takes over completely in the last chapter of the book. But Pnin himself, in the book, has said that he does not trust anything the narrator says, and he refuses to work under him as his only hope of staying on in the university. So we have a sort of narrative within a narrative and it is intriguing to try to figure out who is saying what about whom. (Knowing this at the end of the book would better inform a reader the second time around.) Pnin is also a work dealing with memory and remembering to a much greater and more sophisticated degree than is Laughter.
So, in the end, are there any similarity in the comparison of the two works? I think there is in a mirror-image sense. Albinus has all the trappings of happiness: wealth, respect, stable and loving family, all of which he jettisons for the fantasy of life with the unstable Margot, a fantasy that blinds him to all indications of her mendacity and unfaithfulness. Pnin, on the other hand, burrowing away in the small town university, pursing his esoteric research, being very much the absent-minded professor about town, constantly moving rooms because he can't find a suitably quiet place (without "sonic disturbance'), confused by his relationship with his former wife and her son, is, for all of this, a happy and a good man because he wants for little in material goods, he has friends, a quiet and undemanding life, he has his work, and he cares for others in his way. You can't feel sorry for Albinus at the end, but you do hope that the "miracle might happen" for Pnin in whatever his future is to be.
Must read some Nabokov! Which one should I start with? I suppose Lolita is the obvious one - but I wonder which one Nabokov himself would want me to start with.
Lolita is certainly the most approachable if you don't mind the subject matter. Pnin is definitely the alternative for a thoroughly wonderful human protagonist. Two other of his "greats" present more of a challenge for a first reader. Pale Fire is half poem, which puts some people off, but is otherwise a fascinating book and an enduring puzzle. Ada or Ardor, is a magnum opus which provides quite a tour of the long lives of brother and sister.
Take your choice between Lolita and Pnin, would be my advice, but start with the great ones.
An afterthought. In an interview Naboikov was once asked a typical question something like "Who is your favorite character?" He split his answer, saying (again paraphrased), "Lolita, because she is most famous; but I like Pnin better because he perseveres against adversity."
I think I will start with Pnin, since Nabokov liked him best. I've read so much about Lolita, I almost feel I wouldn't be coming to it fresh. And Pnin sounds like an interesting and likeable character. Generally, I'd rather read about characters I like, though there are occasional exceptions.
I haven't read all of Nabokov yet but of the ones I have Timofey Pnin is the best man. You have to love him.
I'd like to suggest though that after Pnin perhaps you would like to read Speak, Memory, Nabokov's partial autobio and Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff to get a picture of Nabokov himself. His life is all in his books. His life, but not his life.
It's on my list now! We share a lot of favorite novels in common, Emily, so I expect I will like it, too.
In a recent interview posted in Guardian Bookclub site, Martin Amis is quoted saying that Nabokov's "Speak Memory" is the best Memoir ever written. Pretty sweeping statement but is it true?
Yes. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. VN had a way of revealing, but not revealing so gracefully that I have not seen the like of anywhere else.
Also just as a btw, to anyone that has read at least half of Nabokov, including Speak, Memory, please read Look at the Harlequins!. Even not having read some of VN, I laughed myself silly at the allusions to his life and other books. Of course it's loads more that that, but what a nice bit of lagniappe!
oops i made a mistake, it's Axel Rex...anyway.
Well, John, with this character, i had a picture of my mind that this is one of the characters who could represent the author himself (Nabokov).
And if you think about it, the whole story, Laughter in the dark is written in a very Axel's personality style. Like the scene where Albinus thinks that the red pillow is the edge of Margot's dress, this is one of these jokes that Axel would love.
his sense of humour and the way he encounters with people is genius and hilarious.
also, in Camera Obscura, when he meets Paul at the stairs and Paul tells him to go away because Albinu's daughter is dying and this is not a good time for visiting, Axel in his mind thinks "I can't miss this...", i find this very funny but the author changed it in "laughter in the dark"...
edit: about your review, i don't really see Rex as a psycopath. he's an adventurer, a thrill-seeker. :)
Your comments on Axel Rex are very interesting, though I'm not sure that Nabokov would welcome the comparison. Rex certainly is an adventurer and thrill-seeker, but I thought him a psycopath for the way he in fact delights in torturing Albinus when Albinus is blind; Rex lacks any sense of empathy and I found him quite narcissitic in pursing his thrills.
I am reading Speak Memory which is beautiful and I highly recommend it; this is a book to read and re-read and savour for the language and the thoughts and the images. Quite remarkable.
There is a wonderful passage where Nabokov talks about an old governess, "Mademoiselle" who had been employed by the family to teach French, and whom Nabokov visited years later in Switzerland where she was "Stouter than ever, quite grey and almost totally deaf". Before leaving Switzerland, Nabokov is out for a walk and sees a swan, "a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself into a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light..."
And Nabokov recalls this image when he hears of the death of Mademoiselle and then he produces this quite exquisite remembrance:
"She had spent all her life feeling miserable; this misery was her native element; its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction? Just before the rhythm I hear falters and fades, I catch myself wondering whether, during the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more than her chins or her ways or even her French---something perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness, or that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancer's pale arms; something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had loved in the security of my childhood, had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart."
This is empathy for a fellow human being, an awareness that there are thoughts, hopes, fears, histories, emotions, lives deeper than what we see on the surface.
Sometimes, I come across books that I like so much that I buy copies to give to friends who are readers. I have done this with Embers and with West With the Night by Beryl Markham and I will certainly do it with Speak Memory. I can't wait to start giving it away!
What an extraordinary description of the swan. I love "the gluey glistening of the dark swell," which so captures the swan's incapacity - and yet swans are supposed to represent the essence of grace and ability, since they can fly while we humans cannot. I suppose Nabokov is telling us that Mademoiselle is like the swan - perhaps she, too, seemed ridiculous, impotent, heavy, caught as if in glue by her weight and her subservient job. In some folklore traditions, I believe, swans are symbols of death. And death seems, in a certain way, to have liberated Mademoiselle from young Nabokov's inability to appreciate her.
First book that I ever read of Nabokov's was King Queen Knave which I liked a lot--though my memory of it now is rather foggy. The others I really liked were Bend Sinister, Lolita, Laughter in the dark and The real life of Sebastian Knight. To me Nabokov can be a bit hit and miss--Pale fire for instance although it is loved by a lot of people is not something I cared for. Nor is Strong Opinions which I remember as a cultural and literary critique. I do have Speak: Memory and it is a work that is often cited by other writers as one of his best. I should think about working it into my cycle.
These are not novels, but the lectures Nabokov gave at Cornell were written out, and not extemporaneous, and they have been published as Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Literature. Reading them is like taking a course with one of the greatest teachers ever. He is so very methodical, incisive and detail minded in the analysis of Ulysses, you would be amazed. He notices everything. Of course, being a novelist himself, his insight into structure is understandable.
Also, the Nabokov/Wilson letters are as interesting to me as the Pound/Joyce letters. As far as personal preferences go, I like the novels he wrote in Russian in Berlin- the Gift, Mary, Despair, and King, Queen, Knave. I thought the characters were more sympathetic and believable than the ones in the novels he wrote in English in America.
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