19 April 2009

Ur-story: A Portrait of the Scholar as an Old Pnin

The first major issue confronting the novel writer is how to frame the story he wants to tell. How, if at all, does the writer naturalize the text? How, if at all, does she disguise the fictional artifice? What is the justification for this book's being here? Why, in other words, is this novel being written? Let me explain.

Legion are the ways in which writers seek to justify the existence of their fictional works. Some are organic to the text, others not so much. Thus: this is a collection of letters (epistolary novels like Pamela and Shamela) or diary entries (think: Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones, Tintin); this is a confession (The Book of Evidence, Lolita) or a memoir I've hacked out for posterity or simply to pass the time (Malone Dies); this is a story told to me by someone I trust (or don't); this is an account of something that happened to me or somebody else; I pieced this story together from a variety of sources and this is what I discovered; despite what you may have read in the papers or the legal casebooks, this is what really happened; here's what I saw (Sherlocke Holmes); here's what the butler saw; etc., etc. These are, by and large, attempts to disguise the artifice of the fiction: to make it seem true (even though we secretly know it isn't).

Then there's another set of works that make no attempt to justify themselves; the writer does not trouble over the whole notion of a frame story. You are 'in' the story once you start reading. They might begin in media res, or, e.g., 'Once upon a time' or 'It was a dark and stormy night' or [insert your favorite filmic establishing shot here] or 'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan...' or 'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,' or however. Naked stories, if you will, which, by their very being, imply they are works of fictional art and are to be taken as such: "This is unashamedly an artifice," they seem to say. "It participates in the artificial category: fiction." It may even say so and be titled something like: Netherland: a novel, just so there's no mistaking it.

Some works, however, try a third approach by having the story purportedly told, narrated, dictated by purportedly dead people: The Third Policeman, where it works to marvelous and compelling comedic effect; Transparent Things, where it works to brilliant, technical effect (about which more later); and The Lovely Bones where it doesn't work at all—or rather, to be generous, works to cheap, sentimental effect. One also thinks of the Torah a/k/a the Pentateuch, purportedly written by Moses whose account of his own death and burial at the age of 120 on Mt. Nebo is particularly compelling.

This is by no means systematic, but you get the drift.

Some few works problematize the whole issue by inserting the author (or purported author or implied author) into the story as a character: one thinks here of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, e.g. In my most recent Ur-story post, I showed how William Gillespie used a Nabokovian Pale Fire pastiche-type strategy to achieve an original effect, challenging the reader to piece together the justificatory framework and with it infer the meaning herself.

Nabokov is notorious for playing around with frameworks. Case in point: Pnin. The story is ostensibly about a bumbling, old world, scholar at a small, upstate New York liberal arts college. For the first few pages, we read what appears to be a fairly standard, straightforward, third-person close narrative about Professor Timofey Pnin, a Russian emigre who fled both Stalin and Hitler. We pick up tidbits about his history; we enter his private thoughts; we learn things he is unaware of; we see him in defining, anecdotal moments: in other words, we encounter him in his aloneness.

Along the way, however, we get a few hints that things are not all they seem: "Now a secret must be imparted," we read on p.8 [the second page of text] of Vintage Books edition; "How should we diagnose his sad case?" (p.13). We gloss over these casual references, perhaps thinking them to be rhetorical devices or flourishes of the master stylist we know VN to be. But then, on p.16, our sensibilities are shocked when we hit this sentence:"
On the third hand (these mental states sprout additional forelimbs all the time), he carried in the inside pocket of his present coat a precious wallet with two ten-dollar bills, the newspaper clipping of a letter he had written, with my help, to the New York Times in 1945 anent the Yalta conference, and his certificate of naturalization..."
"Whoa, whoa whoa!" we think (after appreciating how VN is able to work the word 'anent' so naturally into the sentence), "with 'MY' help? Who the heck is this person interjecting himself into the narrative, referring to himself and how he 'helped' Pnin? How can he possibly claim to know these facts about Pnin's private, interior life we've been reading? This must be a mistake, a typo or something. A slip of the tongue if you will. Or else it's just Nabokov being Nabokov. What an ego, eh?" And we let it pass again, but a little more skeptically this time.

Further on, on p.19, we read: "What was our poor friend to do?" Again. Is this 'I' making us complicit in the narrative, or is this merely the rhetoric of the royal 'we'? Our Spider-sense is aroused. Then, on the very next page, we are completely confounded by this passage:
"My friend wondered, and I wonder too. 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. The sensation poor Pnin experienced was something very like that divestment, that communion. He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified. A stone bench among the laurels saved him from collapsing on the sidewalk. Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it. My patient was one of those singular and unfortunate people ..."
This has been no mistake, we realize. The narrator has now established himself as a full-fledged character in this narrative. But this is problematic. Who is he? He knows too much; he is telling us things he cannot possibly know about Pnin's inner states. He must be imagining things, or projecting. What gives? How can he be trusted?

So we step back, reflect, and think to ourselves, 'Well, maybe this is some sort of philosophical disquisition on the problem of 'other minds' or something?'

We read on to see. More clues, like breadcrumbs, are scattered about throughout the text:
"Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him ['AHA!' we shout], I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next." (p.26)
And that is Chapter One. Here, the implied author drops another veil (to mix the metaphors): He is ethical, he implies, adhering to the 'truth' of the situation and not his more sadistic predilections.

Oh, Vladimir Nabokov (vlah-DEE-mur nuh-BOH-cough), you're such a scamp, playing around with our perceptions, interjecting complexities and confusions into an otherwise simple story-line. What are we to think?

[continued next post up]


Frances Madeson said...

Gee, Jim. Some might say gobbledygook. I prefer a great, gleesome gaggle of gigantic geese grazing on grass and gardenias gliding around the globe on a perpetually full gas tank. 'Gratulations!

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

@ Frances Madeson - Holy alliteration, Batman!

@ Jim H. - I found this post via The Reading Experience. So far so good. Looking forward to part two.

I don't think I've encountered a better live blog of a reader's experience navigating an author's (apparently intricate) narrative voice.

There's something Woolfian about your post, your "record[ing] the atoms as they fall upon the mind."

I'm very happy to have found your blog!

Rose Hunter said...

I second Rebecca. Great post. I got here via The Reading Experience as well.... Will be back for part 2!

Jim H. said...

Rebecca & Rose,

Welcome to WoW. Your presence here effectively doubles my regular readership. I jest. I'm flattered you choose to spend your own precious time reading my little feuilletons.

I'm grateful to Dan, over at TRE, for pointing people to my little corner of the web.

I've been at this for over a year. My "ur-story" posts are essentially my critical looks at various books from my perspective as a writer. I just finished looking at Gaddis's "Carpenter's Gothic".

If you click on the title banner, it should take you to the full, front page. Remember, you have to read up from the bottom.

On the right is a list of subjects I've managed to broach. It's a little ungainly now, but feel free to browse anything that strikes you interest.

I've had a chance to look in briefly at each of your own blogs (also Frances's). I plan to spend more time looking into them.

Again, welcome.

Jim H.