Seminar in Sentence-Making #36: Nabokov Edition

Posted by @ 4:29 am on January 22nd, 2011

This is from Chapter Two, Part 4, of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, immigrant professor Timofey Pnin, has just had all his teeth pulled:

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.

The first thing I notice is that the description isn’t static. It is wedded to narration in the forward motion of time. When we get “was gradually replacing,” we get the description of the before and after and the transition from one to the other because of the verb.

Nabokov, as he often does, takes big risks with figurative language in his description. He’s likening sensations to objects when he talks about the “ice and wood of the anesthetic.” It works because these objects so rightly represent the way the anesthetic makes the mouth feel — frozen (you can’t properly control the muscles of the mouth and tongue and lips the way you can’t when you’ve been sucking ice, and you can feel things but only dully, also in a way that recalls the post-ice-sucking sensation) and wooden (dull, heavy, strangely solid in a manner that becomes more apparent when contrasted against the “warm flow of pain” that replaces it, which is rightly given liquid and thawing qualities.)

The next big descriptive task, also framed in a way that shows the workings of the mind in reaction to the sensations of the body over time, is to talk about what it feels like to no longer have your teeth. Here, too, Nabokov gets figurative, parsing an extended metaphor comparing the tongue to “a fat sleek seal,” and familiarly tracing the former trajectory of the seal through a natural habitat that has more or less one-to-one corollaries with the habitat of the mouth. (Even the food stuck between the teeth gets nostalgic love, for it was “a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft,” a cleft that is will no longer hold anything because it is gone.) The seal’s former “secure kingdom” has been replaced by a “terra incognita,” a “great dark wound.” What has been lost was daily beautiful, and it has been replaced by a place of “dread and disgust” which “forbade one to investigate.” (The abstractions are more than earned — t he progression of rightly juxtaposed images have clearly shown why it is no longer any pleasure for his tongue to live in his mouth.)

In the last sentence of the passage, Nabokov switches metaphors: “And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.” It can’t be anything but intentional that these are death and decay images, or that the one set of bones he’s going to be showing everyone every day for the rest of his life are not even his own bones. How horrible, this fate, for a man who already has done his best to replace the outward way of being in the world — his Russian walk, his Russian language, his Russian propriety, his Russian style of dress and demeanor — for another which is neither Russian nor American, but which is a recognizably imitative version of the American which he didn’t set out to be until it was forced upon him, like the new teeth.

Finally, notice why the sentences are so beautiful in their sonic qualities. The thing I notice most is the way Nabokov makes use of repeated sounds within sentences, and especially in adjacent sets of words. His tongue is not a seal. It is “a fat sleek seal.” (And note, too, that at this moment, when he gets lyrical, the prose tightens to regularly iambic feet: “His tongue, / a fat / sleek seal . . .”) Along the same lines: “plunging from cave to cove” (a lesser writer would have said cave to cave or cove to cove, but the description keeps the sounds adjacent while varying the music by changing the vowel, and the description is more precisely right in so choosing) — and note, too, the broader sonic context of c-based sounds: “checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft . . .), and note, too, that in addition to that syntactical run beginning and ending with the k sounds in checking and cleft, it also contains the n pairing of “nuzzling that notch” and the s pairing of “shred of sweet seaweed” (which moves the w sound slightly from word to word, again, in a way that pleases the ear.)