Friday, July 25, 2008

The anti-Zorba…

[Sure, it would help if you have read either Zorba the Greek or Pnin, or both, but even so, have a gander and consider how important nationalism and the actual soil of your home is to you, or, these days, to anyone. That's the angle I want to take with this piece, expanding it so I can submit it to a magazine (since amateur reviews of half-century old books are not too high in demand): a reflection on the fragmentation and marginalization of flesh and blood nationalism in favor of technotopic tribalism. Notice, for example, the metastasizing hipness of "groups" on Inyourfacebook.]

That is my tentative description of Timofey Pnin, based on having, at last!, read Nabokov's Pnin. I love Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek, and the most indelible part of it was the one time, if memory serves, he spoke of the "Zorbatic" universe that Zorba both inhabited and wrought. In a similar way, Nabokov's, admittedly much more frequent, use of Pnin'sche Wörter such as Pninian and Pninize, is an indelible element in the book. I see Pnin as the anti-Zorba because, while both as ostensibly hearty, eccentric figures, Pnin's bulk and fire are much less substantial than Zorba's. Pnin has fled his homeland and is deeply, if not seamlessly, rooted in his new American habitat. Zorba, by contrast, had left his beloved Crete, lived and loved in Russia, but returned, with a vengeance, you might say, in order to, almost literally, bury himself in the soil of his homeland. Zorba dances his way through town scheming and dreaming and, in fact, rabble-rousing; Pnin, by contrast, floats to and from campus, changing domiciles every semester or so, constantly being gossiped about and mocked by his colleagues. Zorba is the heartbreaker; Pnin is the heartbroken. Zorba is earthy and anti-intellectual; Pnin is mock-refined and dreamily intellectual.

The contrasts between Zorba and Pnin seem so obvious and radical that it may beg the question why I should link them in the first place. I see a link between them because of the imaginative polarization they generate in my mind. They are so vivid, and so quintessential in themselves, that they represent for me quasi-paradigms for how to write characters. Plus, both figures are based on actual humans the authors knew. Zorba was actually a wild, vivacious Cretan from whom Kazantzakis learned much, just as his book's narrator learned from Zorba. Pnin is, I am convinced, the subjective characterization of Nabokov himself as both immigrant, literatus, and unwitting iconoclast. (Pnin was born in St. Petersburg in 1898 and emigrated to Germany and France before coming to the USA; Nabokov was born in the same city one year later and followed the same course as Pnin, mutatis mutandis.) A more fundamental link between Zorba and Pnin is how they embody the legacy––specifically, the legacy of suffering and exile––of their respective authors' motherlands, both Greece and Russia being predominantly Eastern Orthodox. Zorba is so Zorbatic precisely in order to sublimate the suffering of all Cretans with the crude but invincible implements of blood, sweat, voice, soil, music, food, and the like. Pnin is so pitifully, heroically Pninian––with his "unnecessarily robust shoulders" (p. 61) as symbols of the grief-swollen heart below them––because he bears within him the collective suffering of Russians of Nabokov's generation. He teaches Russian, frequently diverging from the textbook to poetic and historical excursions that usually go over the heads of his students (cf. p. 68), not because he has any great skill at it (cf. p. 10), but because it is the one way for him to assert and preserve his Pninian roots. Both Pnin and Zorba are clowns in their own ways. Zorba plays a vaudevillian mascot for Crete, while Pnin plays a deadpan shuffler for Mother Russia. We love them and fear for them at the same time, wondering how long the act can last. How soon before the earth reclaims them and the music box subtext snaps shut? How soon before history reclaims their antics as but one blurb in an otherwise oppressive monotony of dissolution, dissociation, rootlessness and ruthlessness?

In light of these subliminal questions, we see how, despite their clownishness, intentional or unwitting as it may be from scene to scene, both Zorba and Pnin are pitiful, if not in fact tragic, figures. Zorba can never find his home in this world, since it inherently resists the Zorbatic apokatastasis he is campaigning for. Crete is a metonym for the Zorbatic Elysians fields, while Turkey is a metonym for the byzantine imperialism of entropic history. The Buddha––that unmoving icon of dehistoricized bliss––may be killed (by Zorba's narrator) but he will always come back, imposing on Zorba an all new odyssey of hedonistic deconstruction to fulfill. Because his aims are so much loftier, or perhaps, so much more chthonic, than Jason's, he will never make his way home, while Jason does. Pnin, for his part, may seem perfectly content in his new position as a winsome scholar at a small college in the quiet remove of American suburbia, but deep within, in the unfathomable vastness of his barrel chest––a chest which is frequently plagued by heart murmurs and "a shadow behind the heart"*, as his doctors put it (p. 126)––no place is quiet enough for him (cf. p. 63). Hampered by his broken English, we hear his past as a fragmentary litany of dates, battles, upheavals, migrations, and cities (cf. pp. 33–34), but that fragmented path is the course of his own odyssey. The only place quiet enough for Pnin, the only place truly homelike, is the past he bears within him, since it cannot be corrupted by language or further political change. His migratory isolation is his alone, and thus himself, alone, but intact.

* Interestingly, squirrels are a recurring image in Pnin. Nabokov notes how 'squirrel', in Greek, means 'shadow-tail'. Since squirrels seem to shadow, as it were, Pnin on the campus, I suspect both Pnin and squirrels having a 'shadow behind [the heart]' is no coincidence. What, after all, do Pnin and squirrels have in common, if not the habit of hoarding into their inflated cheeks (or chests) and quiet tree hollows (or rented rooms) fallen fruits (of the past) to be stored up for harsher times ahead?

1 comment:

Dad said...


PNIN is one of the funniest and most elegant studies of a man out of touch. It shows us so much about what we are and why we are what we are. As Pnin said, "I don't haf nuffin'." And, better yet, trying to fit in: "People who live in glass houses should not try to kill two birds with one stone."