Last year I offered a “small contribution to the correction of literary history.” I pointed out that the “good fight” which opens the ninth chapter of The Sun Also Rises—the bantamweight fight between Charles Ledoux and Francesco Buonagurio, who boxed under the name Kid Francis—did not take place on “the night of the 20th of June,” as Hemingway wrote, but eleven days earlier on June 9th. (Francis won a twelve-round decision at the Cirque de Paris. The bout was memorable as the last of Ledoux’s sixteen-year career.)
The next morning Jake Barnes writes Robert Cohn to say that he and Bill Gorton will leave for Pamplona on the 25th. When he meets Brett Ashley and her fiancé Mike Campbell, he asks if they are coming. “The 25th,” Mike says. “When is that?” “Saturday,” Jake replies.
The trouble is that, in 1925, June 25th was a Thursday. The last time June 25th had been a Saturday was in 1921. But Hemingway was not yet in Paris on June 25, 1921. He did not leave the United States, with his new bride Hadley Richardson in tow, until November of that year. In June he was still living in Chicago. Moreover, Kid Francis did not debut as a professional boxer until 1923. In 1921 the Italian Jew, who would be murdered in Auschwitz eighteen years later, was just thirteen.
If the fight had actually been held on June 9th, however, and if Jake leaves for Pamplona with Bill five days later, then their departure would have occurred on June 14th—a Sunday. Not quite the novel’s time frame, but closer than the calendar that Hemingway muddles between the covers of his book.
“Who on earth wants to know the exact day?” cries Varvara Bolotov, a character in Pnin. She probably speaks for most readers. Her husband, announcing that he is reading Anna Karenin for the seventh time, says he has only now noticed that Tolstoy “does not know what day his novel starts.”
Pnin corrects him. “I can tell you the exact day,” he says:
I don’t mean only the objective care with fact to which his students at Cornell (the Waindell of the novel) were treated, and which readers of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature can still enjoy:
But Nabokov believed it was indispensable—not merely to scholarship and criticism, but to fiction itself. Now, this may sound the note of heresy, because as a novelist, Nabokov’s scorn for realism and didacticism is notorious. “For me,” he wrote just over a year after completing Pnin, “a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” And what does aesthetic bliss have to do with exact days? Fiction transports a reader “somehow, somewhere,” and what difference where or when?
And yet, in his fiction, Nabokov takes excruciating pains to specify exactly where or when. Pnin is fifty-two when the novel bearing his name opens. The time is the Fall Semester of 1950. Pnin is traveling “to deliver a Friday-evening lecture at Cremona—some two hundred versts west of Waindell, Pnin’s academic perch since 1945. . . .” The exactitude is maintained throughout the novel. Dates are specified throughout. Places are demarcated precisely in relation to other places. History intrudes (“the course of recent Russian history, thirty-five years of hopeless injustice following a century of struggling justice and glimmering hope”), and is not fictionalized, but rather absorbed into the fictional world.
Indeed, despite the search for Pnin’s “real life” original—one scholar has published an entire book on Marc Szeftel, a Russian professor who taught at Cornell along with Nabokov, and is assumed by many to be Pnin’s original—I am increasingly convinced that der zerstreute Professor with the barrel frame and spindly legs, the “firm-principled exile” with his tears of homesickness and love for America (“my new country, wonderful America which sometimes surprises me but always provokes respect”), the “human surd” with his private sorrows and struggles with English, is a self-portrait under a different man’s identity. The line dividing the campus “joke” from the “prominent Anglo-Russian writer” was perhaps more visible to outsiders than to Nabokov himself.
Obscure pedant and great novelist are conjoined by a passion to know the exact day, and what ultimately separates them may be of lesser moment. Literature thrives on exactitude and abhors approximation.