I was recently joined by the brilliant and highly perceptive Cate Otto from The Urban Writers for a conversation about what we consider to be examples of exemplary writing, writing that we connect to, writing that warrants deeper conversation than it is given credit for. While Cate thought of several different authors and works, some I have read and some that I need to read, she chose this compelling passage written by Vladimir Nabokov (1957).
"Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner."
You described the context of this quotation to me early on, but I wanted to get the broad strokes from you here. How would you describe the context as you read it?
It's the story about Professor Pnin. He's a professor in Russian literature who lives in America. He's unfamiliar with the country and with the language, and with the culture, and there are all these odd things that happen to him. It's instances of bad luck, but it's always humorous as well. He's a very endearing character. It's as if Nabokov himself loves his character, you can actually see it. He's fond of his own character. So, with this passage specifically, what happened was that he was meant to give a lecture at a university. Then, there's this whole chain of events and things that go wrong.
He loses his briefcase. He was scared of losing his briefcase. He put his notes in his jacket pocket, but then he realized he put the wrong notes in his pocket, and then his briefcase is gone. When he tries to go and retrieve it, the person is working at the counters, the shifts have changed. So, it's someone else working there. So, there's this whole chain of events, and a whole bunch of things go wrong. This passage, to me, was interesting. First of all, I love any any instances of metafiction. The way Nabokov inserts himself in his own story, he does it a few times throughout the book. It's really well done, but also, in a way, he was really sneaky when he wrote this. He had to make a choice, he could either let Professor Pnin's string of bad luck continue. I think, in doing that, he would have run the risk of letting it become boring because he did. It's only funny up until a point.
He could also, I think, have inhibited the flow of the story, but he didn't. He made the choice to not let this continue and to have Professor Pnin actually show up and for things to go right. At the same time, he still put that other option in there. So, he's kind of saying, I thought of both these things, and I'm not going to waste either one. That's why I think it was absolutely fascinating. Also, this idea that we feel cheated when we add things in. Really, that's quite an interesting observation, I think. In turn, it does keep you pause to think, Do people typically feel cheated? For instance, I could relate to this because I feel that same when for movie ends happily. I always go, I roll my eyes. I'm like, Of course.
I think that's an excellent observation. I do love these first lines, "Some people - and I am one of them - hate happy ends. We feel cheated [and] Harm is the norm." I'm struck by that because "harm is the norm" is stated very generally. It's not, "Harm is the norm to some people," harm is the norm generally.
[Here, we took a pause in our discussion to figure out whether this was a translation from Russian. This novel was written in English. I later learned that Pnin was his thirteenth novel and his fourth in English.]
Saying that "Harm is the norm," it's quite a powerful statement. It is quite brave to say that.
It's so interesting, you know, because there have been famous quotations where people have said misfortune is a universal experience. We all experience misfortune, we all learn from our misfortune. So, would you say that being the norm complements that? What do you think?
I mean, I'm quite a fan of Nietzschean philosophy, he also speaks a lot of suffering and misfortune. He says something similar, that suffering is inevitable. Naturally, philosophers might disagree on on the differences between harm and suffering because, in philosophy, these are quite loaded terms. I do think there is something similar in that, that there is inevitable misfortune. However, people, as you've said, now say misfortune is something you learn from. Nabokov doesn't actually go that far, to say that it serves some sort of purpose. I think he just says that's the way it is. That's the way life works. Yes, I actually do agree with him, I don't think there's anyone who, who hasn't experienced harm in some way or another. It's also interesting that he contrasts a human condition to a natural occurrence, saying that what happens to human beings is as normal and as natural as an avalanche. We are part of nature, there's no difference between what happens to us and what happens in natural disasters.
Yeah, and I love that, "the avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically."
Which is crazy! He would actually say that!
"Unethically", like, it would be wrong for someone to not experience misfortune.
Yes, that's exactly what he's saying. It's not only natural, but it's also wrong. You should. Again, that's not only how the world works, but how it should work.
So, according to Nabokov, why should it work that way? Just because it's natural?
I'm going beyond him now. I don't know what he would say, but for me personally, I think this is where you could introduce theories that say that misfortune or people learn from misfortune. Nietzsche, for instance, stated that although suffering is inevitable, it's also what people use to create art or to achieve greatness. So, you grow from your suffering, you achieve greatness from your suffering. I think if you were to take that sort of stance, then in that sense, it would be unethical to protect someone from harm because you are you're preventing them from achieving greatness and in some way inhibiting them.
That's probably the direction that Nabokov is going in. It's unethical for the avalanche not to hit the village. The avalanche is, in and of itself, preventing the, the village from achieving its potential, from achieving greatness as you put it. Also, I love that we're personifying natural disasters.
I suppose that's what Nabokov does to you!
It's so funny because I was listening to a song called Face Like Thunder. It was so interesting. We often compare people to something else in our natural world, people to storms. When we're personifying an avalanche, what would you see that as a reflection of?
Personifying natural elements is a very old and ancient tradition. I think most cultures have some form of mythology that personifies natural elements. What is interesting about this is that he doesn't compare an avalanche to the human the way we would normally do. He actually compares it to life. So he, in a way, personifies life, I suppose, turning it loaded metaphor.
I wonder if, when he wrote this, did he actually sit there and think, Oh, let me say it like this. Often, with the truly great writers, we spend hours analyzing what they said and ask, "Did they mean it like this?" By that I mean, when he wrote it, he probably just wrote it without really intending to say all of what we're saying. I'm sure he intended to say that on some level, but he didn't plan it as such. I think that's what makes a great writer. There's intention in what we write without it being calculated, if I can put it that way. Without it being planned. It just comes through in the writing without conscious decision.
It's so interesting that you say that! When I'm reading this, I think this person probably experienced an avalanche, had been near it, or had read about it, and I think you're right. Graduate school told me, "They wrote it, they had their chance [to explain themselves]." Now, we have this opportunity where we can take what we understand about life, about writing about our experiences. We can use this opportunity to establish this greater connection to these words, whether it's personal and heartfelt, or whether it's fun and silly. You know?
It's, I think it's absolutely amazing. I love this project. I think it's so great, and it happens often, you come across something, it strikes you and you can't really understand why. There's just something to it. I think it's a great opportunity, actually, because I think for the writer, those were unconscious thought processes. To take those and to really look at them and consider them and try and understand what what was going on in their minds, and how it was that they were able to write something that resonates with so many people across time and across cultures. I mean, Nabokov was Russian and he lived in a different time. This is still as relevant now as it was then, and it will probably continue to be relevant long into the future. I think that's what makes it really amazing.
People will always experience harm, we will always understand what it's like, we will always understand avalanches, we will always have days where the little things just keep going wrong. It eventually gets to you and it wears you down. I think anyone who who creates, whether it's an artist or writer or a painter or musician, you get to a point where you have to make decisions, creative decisions. The way he got around it, it just baffles me.
Something that I love, specifically about classic Russian novels, is how they tackle the mundane how they use the mundane as a narrative strategy.
This book is really about this professor's life, and nothing very serious happens, there is no major climax in the book. It just describes a few years of his life. So, it's exactly that, it's the everyday, it's the mundane, but he somehow took the humor in it. He expressed the humor and the tragic. It's just the human condition.
When we talk about, you know, this avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village, that's something that happens in fantasy. That's something that happens in fiction that really registers with us as fiction. What we're looking at here is very much a reflective moment, and it feels more real. When we get to the second half of this, "Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover upon his arrival to Cremona that his lecture was not this Friday, but the next day." Again, it's such a mundane experience, but it's mildly annoying.
Exactly! It's not like he fell in the train or broke something or was seriously injured, it was just little things. It's having the wrong notes with you and taking the wrong train and somehow misunderstanding people and losing things. It's exactly that, mildly annoying!
Yeah, it's small instances of harm. Harm is the norm. I guess everybody experiences some harm even if it's only mild annoyance.
It is interesting, though, that he compares Pnin's harm, which is mild annoyance, to an avalanche, which I think is a little more than mild annoyance. When he says harm is the norm, and he follows it up with his avalanche example, it implies that the harm that is the norm is a lot more serious than what's happening to Pnin. Doom, also! Doom is a is a very descriptive, strong word.
We say "certain doom," like, what do we think of as harm? What do we consider doom? I like to think in the more positive sense, what may affect one person in a negative way might not affect someone else so much.
So, how this ends, how this section ends is with Pnin arriving, and he gives his lecture. Then, he describes it, how he was reading from his pages because his English isn't great. I think he had a very strong Russian accent as well. It's described that his audience was bored to death, half asleep, and he was just happily reading on completely oblivious, and he was just happy. The way that section ends is with him. He's happy. He's had a good meal. You know, he enjoyed giving this lecture. He doesn't seem to realize how his lecture was received. So, the doom and the harm doesn't really get to him, although it does upset him in the moment, that doesn't really get him down. Overall, he doesn't go home saying, "Wow, this was the worst day of my life." It just sort of like that.
Is this actually heavily optimistic? When we say that something is harm, it's our perception of harm, not actually harm. It's not doom, but our perception of doom. We can say that something is harm and something might really be harmed, something might really be doom to us, but it's not because it's something that can be fixed. It's something that can be overcome.
I mean, there was a there was a woman on the radio a few weeks ago who said to the presenter, I don't know what the topic was, "There's nothing good going on in my life at the moment."
Then, they said to her, "You were able to get through to me. You as one of I don't know, 800 callers or whatever were able to get through to me, and 799 other people weren't, so would you consider that a good thing?" So, it is exactly that, from her perspective. Everything in her life had gone wrong, and everything was doom and everything was harm, but for the presenter, it might be harm but it's not all harm. Your perception, I think, has a big impact on on this, exactly this, how you would define harm and doom.
That's essential, I think. I was raised in this "culture of optimism and happy endings." I was raised on the Disney fairy tales, like, all these different children's stories. So, I realize that my interpretation and your interpretation is going to look very different. For someone who grew up with different literature and in a different culture, they would probably read this differently.
That is actually quite an interesting idea. I mean, it goes without saying, I suppose, but something that I think still needs to be pointed out is that your cultural background will influence your interpretation of a passage like this. Then, also, if you do interpret a passage like this, should you consider the author's cultural background? Nabokov was Russian himself, so how how did he grow up? I mean, I don't know any biographical details of his, but I think it would be interesting to look into that and to consider "harm and doom" within that context, to try and understand how how he would see harm.
This is a public work, anyone can consume it, but it's also still such an unselfish act to try to understand the author's perspective. It falls in line with understanding another's perspective. That's what we do when we converse, you know, we try to understand one another's perspectives on things. I think that's really important. I think that is the problem that I had with that interpretation of, "The author had their chance." Yes, we do impose our own meanings to things. We absolutely do, but it doesn't necessarily erase the culture, the mind behind the word.
Absolutely, yeah, I just love books! It's so nice to get to dig into a passage like this. Now that we are actually talking about it, I don't think it's something you can do in isolation. As much as you're having a conversation with the writer, I think you need to bounce your ideas around. I think that it's much easier to impose meaning on something, your own meaning on something, that's not necessarily there if you're doing it in isolation as opposed to with people.
Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far, and thank you so much to Cate for a brilliant conversation and start to the "What We Take" series. This is a part of a larger project, and I am so excited for what it will become!
I'm looking forward to sharing another conversation I had with Cate and more collaborations in the future! If you enjoyed yourself here, and if you would like to read more, you can become a Purposeful Prose member! Members can engage directly with my posts and can make use of my forum. You can also follow Purposeful Prose on LinkedIn for more updates and information.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Nabokov, V. (1969). Pnin. Bard Books, Inc.