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Vladimir Nabokov and Clothing in Pnin

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
In my Russian Lit class, I recently had to write a paper about the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pnin.

Rather than drone on about Nabokov's sexual orientation or character relationships or some dumb crap like that, I decided to discuss the use of clothing (mostly men's) in developing character personalities.

Obviously it will make more sense to someone who has actually read the book, but I think it may prove interesting to those who haven't.

Because much of the information in the paper was taken from scouring these forums, I was hoping that some in-the-know people could make sure everything is correct. Any criticism of the writing style or anything else would also be appreciated.


[Several of the less sartorially relevant paragraphs were removed]

\tYou can tell a lot about a man by the way he dresses. The man who always wears a boring t-shirt and plain jeans and cross-trainers clearly has different priorities than the one who hunts around in thrift shops for old moth-eaten sweaters and wild vintage platform shoes, and they too differ from the type who enjoys wearing a conservative suit and tie. Though we are told not to judge a book by its cover, these manifestations of personality and desires are often a good starting point for getting to know someone. The characters in well-written literature are no different. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, a significant amount of characterization is provided solely through clothing.

\tOne of the first descriptions we are given of Pnin is of how he dressed in pre-war Europe versus how he now dresses in the post-war United States. In the Old World, he was a perfectly uptight prude. The mere thought of revealing even a flash of long underwear from under the leg of his pants was absolutely ghastly to him, as was appearing before a woman without a tie. In the New World, he is changed. He wears “sport shirts and slacks” and has no qualms about showing off his bare shins.

\tOne of the inevitable consequences of such an abrupt and extreme reversal is residual confusion over dress and other matters. While attempting to take the train to his lecture, he makes the rather bold sock choice of “scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, yet he couples them with black oxfords, arguably the most conservative of all shoe choices. We find out later that he has an infatuation with zippers. Modern readers will likely take the zipper for granted, but in the early 1950s the button fly on pants was fairly prominent. Today, button flies are nearly the exclusive domain of fancy hand-tailored suits. Falling in love with the zipper would clearly not have been the action of a conservative dresser, particularly not one who, as Pnin once did, wears sock garters (the hallmark of crotchety old men everywhere). This departure from tradition is contrasted with his attachment to shoe trees, the objects of many elitist clothing snob discussions. They represent a decidedly conservative attitude towards clothing and are one of the few mainstays in Pnin’s life, making appearances in every one of his numerous rented rooms. His confusion does not only affect his sense of style; it also informs his purchasing decisions. In the book he buys two new suits and a new bathrobe while completely neglecting his typewriter case, a “broken coffin fixed with scotch tape”.

\tOne of the suits he acquires is brown, bought for his date with Liza using the money earned from his lecture. It is a decision he probably ends up regretting. After a night of being treated like dirt and read bad poetry, Pnin is dealt one final parting blow when, while leaving, she says: “[Y]ou know, Timofey, this brown suit of yours is a mistake: a gentleman does not wear brown.” Liza is correct insofar as city colors are concerned (city colors being navies, grays, and charcoals). However, she ignores the fact that brown is an appropriate color in a country setting. This is surely a rule that Pnin learned in his strict observance of Old World propriety. When he rents the room from the Clements, he tells Joan, “[There are t]oo many people [at the college]. Inquisitive people. Whereas special privacy is now to me absolutely necessary. [sic]” It may be that his choice of brown was an unconscious reflection of his desire to get away from cities and live in rural isolation.

\tOf course, it may just as easily been another crazy Pninian break from convention. For his lecture in the beginning of the novel, he bought a new black suit. The black suit is one of the most contentious topics in modern men’s clothing. Tradition dictates that black lounge suits not be worn, even at night. Those espousing “The Rules” claim that black suits are only appropriate for funerals; for other occasions, black is the domain of formalwear. Others say that black is powerful and fashion-forward and ought to be accepted as a regular day color, like navy and gray. It seems at first thought that Liza would fall into the former camp. Then again, as far as we know, she wears nothing but black (a black skirt on their night together and a black sweater in the last chapter). It’s quite possible that she approves of such solemnity.

\tThe dress of Dr. Eric Wind, whom she certainly influenced, is evidence of this. At the beginning of the fourth chapter, he is seen wearing “a very white sports shirt open at the throat and a very black blazer”. This outfit would match perfectly with Liza, and the sartorial severity of black and white matches the severity of his emotional disassociation with his family and the rest of the world. These uncanny parallels must have been the conscious constructions of Nabokov.

\tWe have a few other descriptions of dress in other characters. Konstantin Chateau, at The Pines, wears “white flannel trousers and his lustring coat rather rakishly opened on a flannel waistcoat (for the benefit of the reader without a dictionary handy, lustring is a type of glossy silk fabric). This is a very fancy set of clothes. One wonders how a three piece suit can ever be rakishly opened (as it is inherently closed), but that “jaunty” contradiction and the warm glow of his bright garments must be what cause the “rare sense of well-being in his friends”.

\tWe are also given Ivan Gramineev’s seersucker suit. This is a rather bizarre choice in New England, as seersucker in generally only worn in the South. The comicality of the situation is further developed when we imagine that his “shock of white hair” is no doubt perfectly matched by a pair of white bucks and that his tie matches his “purple nose”. Gramineev is introduced running down a hill in frantic search of a hat. Chateau offers his (probably cheery and bright) panama hat, while Pnin instead procures a red bandana. This comes as much a relief to the reader as it does to sun-burned Gramineev, answering the puzzling question of how the notoriously bald Pnin gets by on sunny days.

\tBut this raises the more troublesome question: why doesn’t Pnin ever wear a hat? Once again, the modern reader might pass over such a detail because from lack of perspective, since hats don’t hold nearly as much sway today as they did in 1954. Pnin takes place before John Kennedy became president and brought about the death of the hat. It was also written before then, so it couldn’t have been a mere anachronistic slip on the part of Nabokov. He must have had a purpose in doing so, and it was probably to add another facet of Pnin’s individuality. Not wearing a hat was a bold statement, since men in those days were simply expected to wear hats. Especially bald men. Especially old men. And especially in extreme weather. He goes without a hat on bright, sunny days, but he also eschews it on days when it is cold enough to warrant wearing his beloved overcoat and green muffler.

\t(Incidentally, it is important to contrast the ways in which Pnin and Liza put on their coats. He uses the “[heart-warming] Russian-intelligentski” method – that is, both arms at once – and is quite successful in doing so. She, on the other hand, does one arm at a time, which leads to “searching with a frown for the fugitive armhole while [pawing] and [groping]”. These episodes effectively display Pnin’s easy-going nature and Liza’s uptightness.)

\tBy the time Pnin gets to The Pines, his previous confusion about clothing has dissipated. He steps out of his old sedan looking slick in his open-collar green sports shirt and partly unzipped windbreaker. He has completed his transformation from the stuffy European to the overly casual American. One imagines that he is probably also wearing khaki pleated slacks and ugly, black, rubber-soled shoes.

\tPnin’s notions of fancy, formal European dress make a final desperate grasp for continued existence at his faculty party. He presents a dashing figure in his blue silk, satin-lapelled smoking jacket and French tuxedo trousers. It seems a bit odd that one would get so dressed up for a simple housewarming, but the other guests’ clothing ought to be taken into consideration. Joan wears an old, though still stylish, black silk dress. Laurence wears “nice grey flannels” which, while not quite as formal as his wife’s dress, are at least passable as cocktail attire. Hagen wears a black suit, white shirt, and “a black tie with a red thunderbolt streaking down it”, as if he is preparing for a funeral in hell (maybe he wants to pay his last respects to Pnin’s career!). Still, his dress is formal enough to match the others. The only outlier is Roy Thayer, dressed as the classic lazy academic, complete with ugly brown loafers, elbow patches, and a pipe that doesn’t even match his shoes. Overall, it is a thoroughly fancy occasion, and it is nice to know that Pnin hasn’t lost all of his fashion sense.
post #2 of 5
post #3 of 5
Originally Posted by dare- View Post

Wow, that's so helpful and will be really beneficial to this poster. Thanks, Professor; you get an "A" for effort.

It's so easy to hide behind an anonymous sign-on name and post shitty little comments like this; try posting some of your own work in a general forum and see how it goes. Quite frankly, whether or not you think this is "A" work is irrelevant; I applaud the OP for having the confidence to post his work and ask for opinions.

Unfortunately, Pnin isn't a Nabokov I've read, so I can't really comment there (Lolita and Pale Fire were enough for me). In my classes, I always teach that the toughest thing about a paper like this is finding the right way to get into the topic in a way that goes beyond just plot summary. Connecting the book to something in which you are already interested (like clothing or sports or art or anything else), in my opinion, always leads to a better and more insightful paper. And, your teachers appreciate it as well; when grading a stack of papers that mostly all say the same five things, it's refreshing to have a different "angle."
post #4 of 5
You have a few typos in there (you might want to reread carefully) and you don't need to argue for N's conscious decisions; also "does not only affect" should be "affects not only."

That said, as a guy who teaches Pnin to college students, I thought this was great! It doesn't get into the deeper subjects in Pnin, but, for my part, it's helped me visualized the characters and opened up a whole little world of its own in the book. The rakishly opened three-piece suit = hilarious.
post #5 of 5
It's been nearly 15 years since I read Pnin. I recall Pnin as being a rather eccentric and socially inept character trying to find a way to fit into a culture that baffles him. It's been too long for me to remember anything about the clothes, but the essay made an interesting read nonetheless.
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