After the party at his house, and being informed that is being fired by Waindell College and replaced by another Professor of Russian – who is in fact the nefarious narrator of the novel we are reading – Pnin retires to his kitchen and slowly begins to wash the dishes and glasses and cutlery left behind by his guests:
‘He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the aquamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak. He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in midair, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.’
During a discussion of free indirect style (discours indirect libre) in his book How Fiction Works, James Wood comments on this passage as follows:
‘Nabokov writes that the nutcracker falls from Pnin’s hands like a man falling from a roof; Pnin tries to grasp it, but ‘the leggy thing’ slips into the water. ‘Leggy thing’ is a terrific metaphorical likeness: we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’? Now if the brilliant ‘leggy’ is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless ‘thing’ is Pnin’s word, and Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it.’
However, the narration is being ventriloquized via Vladimir Vladimirovich N., Nabokov’s narrator. Whose word then is ‘leggy’? Pnin’s, Nabokov’s, or VVN’s? Whom should we applaud for this fancy bit of writing? Clearly, as Wood suggests, the accolades fall at Nabokov’s feet.
A few years ago the London Review of Books published an admirable article by Iain Sinclair in which he compared, among other things, a piece of writing about a bird by Tom Raworth with a similar avian anecdote by Martin Amis:
‘From the hill the road sloped down and to the right. A dark grey bird with an orange beak skimmed across, paused on a wooden fence, shat, then continued its curve as the blob fell. All the way on the tube he kept thinking of the line ‘And we walk through the valley of fables where the eagles lie.’ It was going to rain. The colours of the flowers hurt his eyes.’ (Tom Raworth: A serial biography)
Compare and contrast Raworth’s bird with the anachronistic London sparrow (gone, vanished) which puts in a rather showy appearance in the opening sequence of Martin Amis’s ‘Yellow Dog’. Amis is working so hard, as is the sparrow, to be live, engaging, on-the-money; the throwaway charm is so affected, so sub-Keatsian, that the inevitable violence that follows makes for a very pretty natural break.
‘A sparrow, a feathered creature of the middle air, hopped onto the bench beside him and, with eerie docility, began to ventilate itself, allowing its wings to thrum and purr, six inches away.’
Good, yes? But too much of a stand-out cameo, a guest-star ‘bit’. The Amis sparrow is significant where Raworth’s generic ‘bird’ behaves in its curious way and flies, immediately and without waiting for applause, out of the story. There is much more to tell. Amis can’t leave the canal fauna alone, the nature stuff of Camden. There is a minatory ‘dead duck, head down with its feet sticking up like the arms of a pair of spectacles.’ Another vivid apercu (stopping the drift), like . . . like . . . a well-turned simile from a Martian verse-maker. Raworth and those who have learned from him don’t do similes. Similes diminish narrative integrity by suggesting that this work, this map, is not in itself convincing, or true, and that a parallel world of unsubstantiated ‘likeness’ runs alongside. The simile says: applaud my wit. And, from my prejudiced point of view, the faultline in English literary culture begins here.’
Sinclair alerts us to an element at work within, not simply ‘English’ or ‘literary’ culture, but intrinsic to our whole way of thinking about writing, that is, intrinsic to our entire creative process, in which metaphorisation, the substitution of one thing for another, is a central concern. Susan Sontag, perhaps most notably, warned of the dangers of this in her study of Illness an Metaphor. But there are broader and more generic ramifications: is writing a sort of fancy tricks activity, in which the clever guys get to invent the smartest similes and most alarming metaphors? How do we respond to the clever use of metaphor and simile in writers like Nabokov and Amis? With admiration? With irritation? Or a bit of both?