English professor Will Pritchard, AM’92, PhD’98, reflects on the “tender coincidences” that occur when father and son teach the same book.
Nearly twenty years ago, while still a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago, I was invited to contribute to a Festschrift for my father. The looming occasion was his 40th year as an English professor at Amherst College. By the time the volume was published, I had been hired as a visiting professor at Williams College, and I may be forgiven for imagining that a torch had been passed. It had not. My father did not retire for 15 more years, and then in name only. He still retains his office and teaches one class each semester at Amherst as an emeritus adjunct. Instead of my succeeding him, we have shared the profession for 18 years.
Over that time, we have occasionally happened to teach the same book at the same time. Usually it’s some canonical masterpiece in a survey course—Paradise Lost or King Lear. This past October, more improbably, we both assigned Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), which relates the misadventures of Timofey Pnin, a long-suffering Russian émigré teaching at Waindell College (“Vandal College,” as he pronounces it). I was teaching the novel in a senior seminar on Nabokov, he in a course on modern fiction.
The conjunction of our two syllabi was apt. Nabokov, more than many novelists, employed “those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love.” Lolita is full of outrageous, grotesque coincidences, such as the car crash that kills Humbert’s wife moments after she learns that he married her for her daughter. Pnin, a gentler book, provides a “tender coincidence” in the unexpected arrival of a glass punch bowl, a gift from Pnin’s ex-wife’s son, on the very day he is hosting his first faculty party. (Also a less tender coincidence: Pnin learns at the end of that party that he has been fired.) But serendipity was not only a fictional motif for Nabokov; it permeates his autobiography as well. “Coincidence of pattern,” he writes, “is one of the wonders of nature,” and he finds it in his own life in the uncanny convergence of dates and in recurring themes and motifs: jewels, matches, pencils, ships—not to mention chessmen and butterflies.
As coincidences go, it is not so astonishing that two professors, even a father and a son, should teach the same book in the same week, and indeed it may be causation rather than coincidence. I first read Pnin in an edition that my father had taught from and that bore his marginal checks and exclamation points. More broadly, my susceptibility to this novel can be attributed to my having spied on many a faculty party as a child.
I found out that my father was also teaching Pnin when we were talking on the phone. He told me he was rereading the book in preparation for class (he knew I was teaching it), and he asked if I had any ideas about “Old Miss Herring, retired Professor of History, author of Russia Awakes (1922),” who ends chapter one. Alas, I did not, although I later saw a commentator explain her as a “red” Herring. A few days later, after teaching my first class on Pnin, I got a letter from my father, typed (as always) in his ground-floor office at the college:
Just downstairs from upstairs introduction of PNIN, always a delight. The only way to “teach” it that I can see is to read aloud and explain the jokes. They don’t seem to get anything. Not a single student played chess, let alone bridge ... But they’re an agreeable bunch, so it says here.
Pnin—coincidentally?—anticipates these sentiments. The narrator refers to “the usual shop talk of European teachers abroad, sighing and shaking heads over the ‘typical American college student’ who does not know geography, is immune to noise, and thinks education is but a means to get eventually a remunerative job.” Nabokov mocks the kind of shoptalk my father allows himself here, but I think he would approve his mode of instruction: read aloud and explain. When teaching Bleak House, Nabokov told his Cornell students, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens. However, my job is to direct and rationalize those meditations, that admiration.”
At our second Pnin class I shared my father’s letter with my students and then, following his and Nabokov’s advice, tried to appreciate the novel rather than analyze it. We read a few choice passages out loud, but it’s hard to rationalize admiration and harder still to add anything good to a joke. Pnin again anticipates the situation. We twice see Pnin in class “rippling with mirth” at jokes only he gets, laughing so hard that his students eventually join in: “his complete surrender to his own merriment would prove irresistible.” Every teacher has had such moments, and yet no one wants to be, as Pnin is, “beloved not for any essential ability but for those unforgettable digressions of his.”
The novel also includes a poignant scene of Pnin receiving a lesson in comedy. Pnin’s landlady is trying unsuccessfully to explain a New Yorker cartoon to him:
“Impossible,” said Pnin. “So small island, moreover with palm, cannot exist in such big sea.”
“Well, it exists here.”
“Impossible isolation,” said Pnin.
Teaching is impossible isolation, too, even in the classroom. One never knows what one’s students are really thinking, why they are laughing. So having my father as a fellow castaway, even if on a different island, was comforting. I was pleased to discover, too, that my favorite passage in the book—the description of Professor Roy Thayer, “a mournful and mute member of the Department of English”—had been flagged on the title page in my father’s old copy of the novel, along with other admirable paragraphs about pencil sharpeners, Jack London, sleep, and croquet.
I felt some pressure to repay my father’s teaching tips, so I emailed him a snippet from Kingsley Amis’s withering review of Pnin (he called it a “limp, tasteless salad”). My father replied via email, a medium that is still somewhat new to him: “willy, thanks-I had forgotten about the amis;/Pnin review, told my class that he didn’t love Lolita but had forgotten about the other […] I’ll give it to my class Monday when we leave Pnin and begin Sir Kingsley.” I no longer aspire to tell my father something he doesn’t know about literature, but to remind him of something he has forgotten is a small satisfaction.
Nabokov, who (like my father) lost his father in his 20s, was keenly aware of life’s ability to snatch things from us, and that awareness made him particularly alive to those moments when life declined to do so—as when Pnin does not break that punch bowl while washing up after the party. Pnin, we are told, believes “dimly” that a “democracy of ghosts” supervises the living: “The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.” Nabokov must have liked this idea, for he had already used a version of it in his memoir, where he gives thanks to “tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” In my case, it feels more like tender ghosts humoring two lucky mortals.