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On Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel by Galya Diment

This first-rate scholarly study of the relationship between Marc Szeftel and Vladimir Nabokov has been endorsed by such heavyweight academics as Brian Boyd and Robert Alter, and I can only add that if there is such a thing as required reading for non-specialists in Nabokovopolis, this should be at the top of the list. Galya Diment provides a fairly conclusive argument that Mark Szeftel was an important model for the Russian Master’s third novel written in English, the second in America.

The heart of the book consists of five chapters and a conclusion, and also contains appendixes from Marc Szeftel’s archive and own writings. The latter includes of selections from his diaries, which make it pretty obvious that Szeftel wasn’t nearly as comfortable a solipsist as the alter ego fate appears to have dealt him. And man, did he ever know it. Some of the passages included in Diment’s study read like outtakes from a rough draft of Kinbote’s, without the miniscule amount of self-awareness the fictive scholar was able to muster. They certainly exhibit nothing like the former king’s rather heady imagination, in which readers have taken so much delight. What is there, and what Diment makes all too clear, is a great deal of sadness. The sadness of an émigré, the sadness of a scholar, and perhaps even the sadness of a century.

Szeftel seems to have toiled long and hard in the academic vineyards, at times with scholars as notable as Roman Jacobsen, and for reasons that perhaps only Nabokov himself knows, never really achieved his due regard as an academic. More to the point, he seems to have settled just outside the realm of humiliation and some grand joke at the hands of everyone from the great writer to colleagues and even his students. The operative paradox here is that Szeftel would have remained one of life’s unknown little tragedies had it not been for his immortalization as the Russian specialist at Waindell, but as Diment evinces he may well have never felt himself to be quite so tragic a character at all if he hadn’t crossed paths with the accomplished poet-lepodiatrist-teacher-scholar-writer from St. Petersberg. One of Szeftel’s books was praised by Nabokov, he was once on the verge of actually working with Nabokov, and he long contemplated scholarly studies of Lolita even after he became one of the models for Pnin. In the end he produced a few anecdotes about exchanges with Nabokov during the time they shared together at Cornell.

Along the way, Diment notes that a case has been made for considering Pnin an even greater work than the now monolithic Lolita, and by no less a scholar than Michael Wood in `The Magician’s Doubts.’ The reason for this originates in the rather more organically developed theme of the Double, a theme Szeftel himself consciously noted and, like several others (to Nabokov’s own consternation) tied to Doeseovsky. She expertly employs the work of other scholars to illuminate what is particularly special, if not unique, about Pnin’s relation to the novel he inhabits:

“The most dramatic declaration of Pnin’s independence and VN’s [the self-identified narrator of the novel] “just deserts” comes from Charles Nicol… Nicol actually goes as far as to describe the two men as atgonists and their relationship as a struggle between the “devilish” narrator and the innocent protagonist, in which Pnin “has confronted Nabokov and won.” (p.56)

It seems to me that Nicol overstates his case a little here, but I do think that Diment’s account of the narratological ambiguity that grew as the novel progressed and its roots in the brief conjunction of the fates of Szeftel and Nabokov is illuminating.

Diment is entirely evenhanded in her treatment of everyone involved, and the only particular bias consistently shown is her high regard for the Northwest, Szeftel’s final home and where she herself teaches (at the University of Washington, sponsors of the press that published this book). She notes that Szeftel never much enjoyed the region himself, and perhaps even saw it as the true boondocks, one of the many injuries to be suffered in a long and yet disappointing life. In its way, this is one of the saddest works of scholarship I’ve ever read. But it is gracefully written, and, as she says in the conclusion, a real tribute to the model, to the author, and to our ability to transform life through fiction. Marc Szeftel certainly did his best to partake of that transformation.

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