I think this is a fascinating question and topic.   Having thought a lot about Pnin lately, my own sense of it is that VN might have felt that "compassion" as a general first impression of Pnin ignored so many levels (and details) of what he was doing in the novel that he could not even engage in a discussion after such an opening.  The things he wrote to the New Yorker's Katharine White (if my memory is correct) about the unpleasantness of the narrator, what many have called his cruelty and his condescension towards Pnin, was probably much more important to him than the feeling of compassion--what may be a false compassion, or at any rate is a very complicated intertwining of compassion and mocking condescension.  I'm sure also that the answer "compassion" uttered this way would have struck him as one of those "general ideas" that he loathed--or, put more modestly and accurately, that he felt were pernicious because antithetical to careful thought and attention.  "Compassion" would also have signaled that his novel was perceived as a "human interest" novel, another pet peeve of his.  I can imagine dozens or hundreds of responses to the question that would have pleased him, but "compassion", like "simplicity" and "sincerity" (see intro to Lectures on Don Quixote, I think) is one that was automatically out-of-bounds.  I wonder if the word "tenderness" would have worked better for him, in an answer like: "I love it for the tenderness it makes the reader feel for its hero"---to which might be added: "almost in spite of itself".  Other answers he would have valued might have been---for the variety of colors it describes, or for any specifically recalled passage's precision, for any particular minor detail that reader valued. 

It's interesting that the quoted anecdote resembles almost exactly in structure the recent NYRB piece by Jay Epstein, discussed on-list.  In both, VN receives a hopelessly general response, and simply turns away.  Is it because he wanted to teach precision of perception, thought, and expression only by example in his writings and in the classroom? Is it that he felt that turning away was itself a pedagogical answer--"You are so wrong I can't even reply; you must go back to the drawing board"?  I wonder. 

Stephen Blackwell

On 4/9/2013 10:39 PM, NABOKV-L, English wrote:
Dennis Kelly writes:

 [. . .]

Why did Nabokov abruptly turn away upon hearing McConkey say, at a noisy party, that he liked Pnin for its compassion? Did Nabokov think otherwise? If so, why?

Google Search the archive Contact the Editors Visit "Nabokov Online Journal" Visit Zembla View Nabokv-L Policies Manage subscription options Visit AdaOnline View NSJ Ada Annotations Temporary L-Soft Search the archive

All private editorial communications are read by both co-editors.