The Nabokovian 48 (2002): 15-19

Rose and Aquamarine: Liza in Pnin

Very few readers will hesitate to define Liza as one of the terrible characters in Pnin. She causes so much of Pnin's disappointment and tears that she looks to be part of the evil pattern surrounding Pnin. When she marries Pnin, she loves not him, but the narrator who has left her, marrying for convenience to recover from the lost love. Though she leaves Pnin for Dr. Wind, she returns to him seven-month pregnant only to take advantage of her married status in order to easily emigrate to US. Then after many years of silence, she visits Pnin and asks him to support her son at an expensive private school. Pnin marries her, forgives her betrayal, plans eagerly to adopt and love her baby by Dr. Wind, and agrees to send a small sum to her son every month, although he recognizes "her impure, dry sordid infantile soul" (58). As he has promised in a letter to Liza, he offers her everything he has--but what he receives in return is only betrayal and insult. Liza seems to have been conceived as a character who represents what Nabokov despises: she is a psychiatrist, which means the worst in Nabokov's world. It is also well known that Nabokov did not think much of most women writers, and Liza composes poems, which poorly imitate the early style of Anna Akhmatova and her minor followers. Liza is beautiful, but she is desperately shallow, selfish and snobbish. Her personality will never change even after death as Pnin worries about her lame soul coming to him in heaven.

On the other hand, we also find her among the favorable women who are related to Pnin through the motif of rose. The rose imagery is repeated several times in Pnin, and for those women except Liza, it suggests an ideal, beautiful love or relationship, though never to be realized. First, when they meet, Joan Clements begins to talk about a rose garden in Turkey, where they were staying in the same year. As she says that they would meet there before Pnin interrupts her, they could have made the acquaintance, but actually they did not. The fact of not knowing if they met at the rose garden and Pnin interrupting her both suggest that they may have sympathy with each other, but they cannot reach true understanding. With the next rose imagery, Betty Bliss appears closer to Pnin. She is introduced as "a soft thorn in Pnin's aging flesh" (42). Sitting together discussing Turgenev's poem in prose "How fair, how fresh were the roses," she was so excited that she could not finish reading it (42). Unlike the case of Joan, the rose images here allude romantic love, but also connect with the lost beautiful past and the impossible future. Pnin can imagine a serene married life with Betty but actually does not love her; their relationship will not progress. Pnin's true love, Mira, is not shown directly with roses, as if to be distanced from the other women. She is the only lover to die and the only "immortal" for Pnin in a unique way: she keeps dying in Pnin's imagination in various ways in a Nazi concentration camp. When she appears in Pnin's memory in spite of his prohibition, she blurs in a field of white tobacco blossoms. She is just once glimpsed with the rose motif: she wears a muff with a warm rose-red silk lining when they meet last time before they are separated by civil war.

Among the women appears Liza ostentatiously with the motif of rose, and for her, roses are something more than suggesting theirs could be an ideal relationship. When she is compared with Akhmatova in some literary column in an emigre magazine, "Liza burst into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen" (45). Though we may see young Liza in her freshness and naivite, as Pnin does, we cannot be unaware of the narrator's--and Nabokov's--scornful tone. Moreover, the narrator reveals the truth that the columnist was bribed by one of Liza's admirers to write about her. Besides, partly because of the rose, Liza is seriously hurt by the narrator as a character. In the last chapter, the narrator tells about their past affair and quotes one of her poems: "No jewels, save my eyes, do I own, but I have a rose which is even softer than my rosy lips. And a quiet youth said: 'There is nothing softer than your heart.' And I lowered my gaze . . ." (181). When the narrator reads the poem for the first time, he severely criticizes it and suggests that she give up writing verse. Later, he seduces her by asking to let him reread the poem in a quieter place and she takes him to her apartment. There after the affair, he cruelly denounces it and Liza tries to commit suicide. As the narrator indicates, the erotic undercurrent and cour d'amour implications are in the poem, expressed in a rose, in keeping with the traditional rose image. The rose is related with her sexuality and writing in this episode, in both of which Liza is hurt, and she becomes a co-sufferer with Pnin of the narrator's oppression. Liza's roses are not for an impossible future or the lost past for Pnin and her, but for her, unknowingly, become a way to unite with Pnin in the present.

Strangely enough, we find Liza join Victor in supporting Pnin to survive the last critical moment. In chapter ten, an aquamarine crystal bowl that Victor sent to Pnin gives him strength to face the doom of losing his position and habitation. As has been discussed by many critics, the bowl is the focus point to which all the important motifs--squirrel, Cinderella, water, glass and the theme of father and son--come together to prepare the climax, and it is an emblem of Pnin's victory over the narrator and his evil thematic design that the bowl remains intact. As the bowl functions as a magic talisman preserving Pnin from harm, after Pnin finds the bowl safe, he regains self-control and strength enough to overcome his new hardship (Julian W. Connolly, "Pnin: The Wonder of Recurrence and Transformation," eds. J.E. Rivers and Charles Nicol, Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1982, 207). The bowl is the symbol of the precious things Pnin possesses, especially Victor's love and admiration for him. Liza seems to have no relation with the scene, but her existence is suggested. In her poem quoted above, Liza refers to her eyes as the only jewels she has, and we have been told about the jewels, aquamarine, in the second chapter when Liza is first described:

There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed an cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark. Whatever eyes Liza Pnin, now Wind, had, they seemed to reveal their essence, their precious-stone water, only when you evoked them in thought, and then a blank, blind moist aquamarine blaze shivered and stared as if a spatter of sun and sea had got between your own eyelids (43-44 italics added).

Liza's commitment is not only by her aquamarine; we notice that the description of the bowl has similarity to that of Liza's eyes as for the diffused different elements:

The bowl that emerged was one of the those gifts whose first impact produces in the recipient's mind a colored image, a blazoned blur, reflecting with such emblematic force the sweet nature of the donor that the tangible attributes of the thing are dissolved, as it were, in this pure inner blaze, but suddenly and forever leap into brilliant being when praised by an outsider to whom the true glory of the object is unknown (153).

Spiritual and material elements are dissolved in the bowl, and from the dissolution emerges the secret power of "the true glory" of it. First Pnin cannot appreciate the bowl as an object, but perceives only the brilliance which reflects the sweet nature of Victor, although he recognizes its substantial beauty when it is pointed out by the others. The description of Liza's eyes shares the belated, transferred appreciation, which makes the observer recognize its essence only in thought later, when she is absent, as the mixed brilliance of sun and sea. The bowl and Liza's eyes exist in a kind of spiritual dimension, which makes a miracle possible. In the actual world of Pnin, Liza's eyes are "blank, blind" to Pnin's virtue, and she mostly causes pains for Pnin, but she also belongs to another world, which exists under the surface of events in the novel and helps Pnin to escape beyond them. Seeing Pnin driving off into the soft mist beyond the hills, the narrator thinks that any miracle might happen there. We know a small miracle has already happened to Pnin, in which Liza may take part without knowing it.

Akiko Nakata, Nanzan Junior College, Japan