“Incidentally,” she said, as he was helping her into her coat and as usual searching with a frown for the fugitive armhole while she pawed and groped, “you know, Timofey, this brown suit of yours is a mistake: a gentleman does not wear brown.”
He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her — just as she was — with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—
He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution to the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like movement, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eying him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
The water father continued upon his way, came to the end of the path, then turned into a side street where there was a small bar of log-cabin design with garnet glass in its casement windows.
* * *
I finished Pnin last night: entertaining, keenly observed, finely crafted. The storytelling is perhaps more traditionally Russian than many of the stories Nabokov wrote in his native tongue while in European exile twenty years earlier. Even the narrator, tangentially involved in the lives of the characters but also detached in ironic reflexivity as he looks back on events that unfolded some time before the telling, seems Chekhovian. The style fits perfectly, since the titular character Pnin is old-school nostalgic Russian to the point of endearing parody, displaced into bourgeois-democratic America as scrutinized by the satirically observant eye of the sophisticated intellectual expatriate. Timofey Pnin is Humbert Humbert’s good twin.