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Near the end of "Pnin," the narrator tells us about a letter Pnin
has written him, the big news of which is his refusal to join the
new Russian Division at Waindell. But I’m especially curious about
the small talk that follows:
Then he turned to other subjects. Victor (about whom I had
politely inquired) was in Rome with his mother; she had
her third husband and married an Italian art dealer.
The parenthetical aside is puzzling to me, and—in a book that
buries so much of its treasure between parentheses (“O Careless
Reader!”)—it seems worth digging into.
Why would the narrator ask Pnin for news about Victor Wind? It’s
true that Pnin and Victor have struck up a charming relationship
in the past year, but would Pnin expect the narrator to know about
it? Pnin’s last interaction with the narrator was, apparently, on
the hundredth anniversary of Gogol’s death (March 4th, 1952). It’s
hard to believe that at that point Pnin would have expressed much
interest in or attachment to Victor (whom he does not meet in
person until Easter vacation, 1954).
The narrator says he inquires “politely,” as if this were an
obligatory matter of manners, but there seems nothing polite about
a question that touches on two of Pnin’s greatest humiliations
(two times he imagined himself loved by Liza, only to find that
she was using him to solve a problem with another man). The
narrator might, I suppose, ask Pnin, "How are Liza and her boy?"
But the sentence here reads “Victor was in Rome with his mother,”
not “Liza was in Rome with her son.” My suggestion is that the
narrator’s interest in Victor is not polite, but genuine, and
When we first learn about Victor’s artistic talent, the narrator
tells us that his parents, Eric and Liza “used to worry gloomily
about its genetic cause.” This seems at first just one more blind
conformity of Eric and Liza’s (“morbidly concerned with heredity,”
with the resemblance Victor ought to bear to forbears, they fail
to enjoy the beauty in his unique genius). But what follows is a
rather painstaking paragraph that seems to take these questions
seriously: Is Victor’s sense of color like that of Eric’s
grandfather, a stained glass artist? Is his exactness like that of
Liza’s great grandfather, a celebrated mathematician? “One
wonders,” the narrator admits in the paragraph’s final line, as
though he, too, wonders, or worries, gloomily.
Wouldn’t the gloomiest worry about Victor’s genes be that none of
them come from Eric—that Liza conceived him while cheating with
someone else? If this is the case, isn’t the likeliest suspect the
one who shares Victor’s exquisite gift for perceiving and
depicting colors, shadows, and reflective surfaces?
Is the narrator Victor Wind’s father? I think we’re meant to
wonder, and to think that the narrator wonders. If Liza returns to
Pnin in April of 1940, “carrying before her like a chest of
drawers a seven-month pregnancy,” then Victor was conceived in the
fall of 1939. Would the narrator have been in France then?
(Nabokov was, and their paths are otherwise similar.)
I’ve been talking about the narrator here as a character who
dwells in the world of the story, but in another sense, as its
writer and creator, he of course “fathers” all its characters. And
in Victor, he seems to create a perfect child, endowed with
supreme vision, unerring taste, immunity to fads and conventions.
When Victor Wind tries to fall asleep, he daydreams about an ideal
father. Should we think of the narrator as daydreaming for himself
an ideal son?
Many thanks in advance for any opinions on these questions,