Tag Archives: Academia

Not So Muted Mirth

“It’s nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism – all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (52)

IMG_0288One of the most delightful aspects of this blog is when someone comments that they are excited to read a book or author that I have written about. A rare, but delightful joy. The other morning I was collecting some of the essays that I have written, about the books of one of my favorite authors- Vladimir Nabokov. By the time I was done re-reading and repairing them, as much as I could, for a critical viewing, I was overtaken with desire for more Nabokov. I controlled myself long enough to take a shower but then practically ran out of the house with a towel turban still on my head in my febrile haste to the library.

Once the book was in hand, I had a moment’s calm to reflect, and I was struck with the realization that I was that person! I had influenced someone to run in a dead heat to the library to read something! I was quite pleased with myself. Right up until the moment that dawned – I was that person. Oh. That’s pretty pathetic, Jessica. Might even have to remove the qualifier from that sentence- nothing pretty about it, the narrator in my head added.

Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you an anarchist?’ I answer ” -time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth – (11)

Call me over sensitive, but the narrator of Pnin hovered around charity, sometimes dipping a finger into condescension. I found myself talking to him, “Narrator, be nice. Poor Pnin is trying, and his heart! He’s heartbroken. Do be kind.” Pnin is a Russian émigreé working in the world of academia. With a caustic charm, Nabokov gently skewers the ridiculous people that populate Pnin’s world: from his silly colleagues, truly awful ex-wife, to a hilariously serious conversation about the flawed chronology of Anna Karenina. It’s all wonderfully told.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading the bulk of this book in an examination room of a cardiologist with my client. Every now and then she’d look over at me, “It’s very funny,” I would offer. But her narrator was keeping her busy working her up into a fit of fury that exploded on the doctor’s head when he came in. She was too cold, had waited too long, and had come too far. Finally, the heart doctor made an intellectual decision to say, “I’m sorry.” She was not fooled. “That doesn’t help me AT ALL. You have wasted the time of this valuable person!” All eyes turned to me. Of all three people in the room to have the word “valuable” attached to…I smiled with wholesome disquiet at the floor, looked up to the doctor and gave him an I have no idea what she’s talking about look, but he was done with me before I got to I have n-. Meanwhile my narrator was in a paroxysm of giggles flopping about uncontrollably, mockingly holding up my paycheck- Oh shut up. I went back to my reading.

“Our friend,” answered Clements, “employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are ocacular. He calls my wife John.”  (165)

The narrator of Pnin does not fully insert himself into the story until very near the end, just to underline and dot the head-scratchingly odd awkwardness of Pnin. But it’s not, perhaps, Pnin that is entirely at fault, it’s what’s distorted and lost in translation. That’s a feeling we all understand: translating what we feel, into what we say and how we act, into how we are then perceived- it’s a wonder there are any forms of successful communication at all. Maybe there aren’t. We all just think we understand each other. Pnin’s narrator is at the ready, standing by to laugh under his breath, shake his head just a little, Oh you poor dear. You’ll be alright.

“So I take the opportunity to extend a cordial invitation to you to visit me this evening. Half past eight, postmeridian. A little house-heating soiree, nothing more. Bring also your spouse – or perhaps you are a Bachelor of Hearts?”
( Oh, punster Pnin!)   (151)

Pnin is very endearing, but of course it’s the narrator that we fall in love with. He’s the voice in the head of the book, in a good mood, teasing without malice. I wish my narrator was in a good mood more often.

More reads by Nabokov, towel turban or not:

Avoid Vocatives: King, Queen and Knave
More Bleeding Stumps of Verse: The Gift
Sun and Stone: Speak, Memory

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No in italics.

“Oh Dixon, can I have a word with you?”
To its recipient, this was the most dreadful of all summonses. (80)
– Kinsley Amis, Lucky Jim

DSCI0010I have to admit to a similar urge to run in the other direction whenever I hear the above question as well; or at least a mumble under my breath- ‘oh God no. No in italics.’ In a dedicated attempt to lighten up my state of mind through reading I began Lucky Jim. A little humor, a little fun…why not? I then proceeded to have one of the most unhumorous, unfun days of my life-  typically ironic. Needless to say, I had trouble finishing it. But that is not because the book is not highly amusing- it is. It is simply that highly amusing barely brought me ground level for a few days there. But, life is full of twists and turns, through a feat of heroic kindness I am on a better way now, so was able to finally resume the story of Mr. Dixon’s twists and turns.

It was rather annoying to hear how kind she’d been; it entailed putting tiresome qualifications on his dislike for her. (14)

James Dixon is a man who is in a relationship he does not want, in a job he does not really do, in an academic field he does not like. Rather than alter any of the conditions of his life he gets into one scrap after another all in hapless attempts to avoid his own complicity. He is also broke. That never helps.

‘I don’t suppose you want me to say this, but you must realize it yourself, I should think. I don’t see how either of you can be very happy with the other one.’ (210)

Of course, that’s very often the way of the world, the unhappiness is there to see, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to go along with it. Fighting the grain is exhausting. And most everyone is against you.

Dixon ran out into the street. He felt as if he’d been hurrying all his life. (253)

Why hasn’t Wes Anderson made a film based on this book? Dixon is just annoying enough to be very endearing, and there is a kookiness to the story that is crying out for Anderson. When Dixon finally mentally releases his heart, his drive to see the woman he loves that very day is very sweet. I’m a sucker for a lovable misanthrope. Maybe because I’m half that.

what next? what next? What actually would be next: a masked hold-up, a smash, floods, a burst tyre, an electric storm with falling trees and meteorites, a diversion, a low-level attack by communist aircraft, sheep, the driver stung by a hornet? He’d choose the last of these, if consulted. (258)

Kinsley Amis was good friends with Philip Larkin and this book is acknowledged to be based on Larkin (as well as dedicated to him). I’m not an expert on Larkin, but, little that I know, I have a feeling that Amis gifted Jim with a lucky sort of charm that few people, particularly angry ones,  possess. Dixon’s charm is of course his sense of humor, whether it’s burning a hole through his host’s sheets, avoiding tiresome students and colleagues, or inventing and naming faces to express his feelings and reactions moment to moment, he is quite funny. The entire story is amusing, acerbic, and astute, none of which can conquer love because in the end, well,  love is sweet.

Dixon laughed too. He thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing. Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he’d none to celebrate with. As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face. (264)

* title from page 2: Welch was talking yet again about his concert. How had he become Professor of History, even at a place like this? By published work? No. By extra good teaching? No in italics. Then how? As usual, Dixon shelved the question.