Migrations of Signifiers in Lolita and Pnin, or The Two Faces of Vladimir Nabokov’s Exile
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Nabokov poignantly impersonates exile: after leaving Russia, the young poet had to forsake his native tongue and turn to English. His life illustrates the etymology of ‘migration’, stemming from ‘change’: with an existence marked by temporal, geographical, social and linguistic changes, Nabokov even decided to live by change. Lolita and Pnin, the first two novels written in America that are set in America, are both structured around change⎯ protagonists, settings, and actions. However, these novels also illustrate two different aspects of Nabokov’s exile.
In Lolita (1955), the writer with “an unpronounceable name” (Strong Opinions, 107) pays a beautiful tribute to America, displaying his amazing command of English, through teeming verbal creations, puns, sound effects, and a virtuoso poetic pulse. Nabokov, who mastered three languages, had an acute sense of the multiplicity of signifiers, and even liked to expose his brilliant working of them.
Pnin (1957) is not a linguistic success-story, as it rather reveals the anxieties of exile. Being severed from Russia and Russian has tragic consequences on Pnin: his uprooting is powerfully figured in the replacement of his bad teeth (the very tools of language) by a very regular American set. Moreover, Nabokov’s exploration of the protagonist’s struggle with English further plunges into the basic structure of language: Pnin’s difficulties in handling the signifiers of his “adopted” tongue introduce humour, and provide a poetic opening of signs.
Through an analysis of the various forms of linguistic displacement using syntax, pronunciation, borrowings, and newly coined words in both novels, this paper illustrates how migrations from signifier to signifier are at the core of Nabokov’s experience of exile⎯migrations that enriched his beautifully-crafted English.