Friday, June 13, 2008

Reading: Nabokov and Percy

  • Benjamin Percy's Refresh, Refresh
  • Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin

This Percy collection contains "Refresh, Refresh," the best short story in the land in 2006, if Ann Patchett is to be believed. That particular story is a little over-heated for my taste. My favorite is "Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This," another one that originally appeared in The Paris Review. It concerns a small town municipal worker, if he can be called a worker, whose job entails naps occasionally punctuated with a bit of a job clearing fire hydrants. Then he gets saddled with a young partner, just returned from Iraq. A relatively quiet piece, though someone does get hit with the business end of a digger.

Pnin is my personal favorite book (so far) of 2008. Of course it was published in 1957, and Nabokov is a bit a ringer, but still. I know this book has a good reputation. You regularly see it held up as one of Nabokov's better books, with Lolita and Pale Fire, but I am still surprised by how much I like it. Funny, sad, tricky in that proto-pomo Nabokovian way (not too much, though, not like Pale Fire), but most of all, and most surprisingly, this novel is sweet. There is a part, near the end, where I was on tenterhooks, everything hanging on whether or not a serving bowl has broken in the wash. Part of me was on the verge of a fit, and another part was wondering how the hell is he [Nabokov] doing this to me?

Does anyone care about summary? I tend to skip it, but briefly, the book is about a middle-aged Russian émigré, a refugee really, from the Revolution and Civil War, working as an adjunct professor at an American college. He initially is presented as a buffoon, but we gradually come to see him as tragic. In one chapter, when we see him with other émigrés, we glimpse a Pnin that might have been had there been no revolution -- a competent, intelligent, gifted, if somewhat romantic, man.

Pnin is less complex than Lolita, Nabokov's masterpiece, and about a third shorter. And it's a good deal less open. But in some ways, I prefer it. I found it easier to become involved in this story emotionally. I laughed out loud, a lot. I almost cried. So for some new readers of Nabokov, this might be a better starting place than Lolita. You should read it!


  1. Cool -- found an online version of "Someone is..."

    (aaiihhhh -- present tense! haven't read a story in present tense in, forever)

    Sounds like a cool story, tho. Sounds like something you or I may have written at State... :)

    Read this article and thought you may be interested:,,2285549,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=10