I often think I should have kept that copy of Pnin I took from a bar in Heidelberg. I’m not sure whether I stole it or whether it was more of a “take a penny, leave a penny” kind of situation. One night after several Hefeweizen, upon spotting it among an odd assortment of books in the back of the bar, I was seized with want. The small, uneven line of paperbacks was an anomaly beside the darts board and beneath the flatscreen TV, playing whatever soccer (ahem, football) match was demanding the continent’s full attention.
This sort of half-assed lending library was in the back of a sort of half-assed bar called The Brass Monkey, named for a nearby statue and Heidelberg landmark. The bar had been the site of one or two orientation events for international students, and had proclaimed itself “the” international student bar in town, probably mostly for its weekly Tuesday International Student Stammtisch.
Whether “the” or merely “a” bar, it had also been included on one of those cursory, touristy “Things To Do” lists, printed on loud yellow or green or magenta paper that welcome wagons are always handing out. (Also on the list was the thoroughly inexplicable i-Punkt, a club whose name seemed to mean literally nothing, and whose nightly playlist frequently included, inexplicably, Stevie Wonder’s 1981 single, “Happy Birthday.”)
Up until the night in question, I hadn’t read a page of Nabokov, and yet the moment I laid eyes on this book seemed an opportune time to start. Whether the Stehlenlust that took hold of me was a function of my love for used books or some wee, misguided thrill fueled by alcohol I’ll never be sure, but in any case I picked it up. I tapped my friend David on the shoulder. “Keep this with you, I want it.” “Okay,” was all he said, and tucked it into a pocket.
And then it was mine. It sat on the shelf next to my desk for the next three months. The most I ever read of it was the back cover, which could never quite entice me to migrate to the front of the book. Still, I thought about it once in a while.
When it came time to pack up my apartment, I was forced to leave behind many of the little treasures and talismans I’d acquired in five months. With me came three tiny Reclam paperbacks—Goethe’s Faust in two volumes, and Camus’s L’Étranger, in the original French but bizarrely (for me) annotated in German—one exceptionally charming wooden cheese box, once belonging to an unexceptional Camembert; an empty can of bilingual baked beans—“Baked Beans” on one side and “Gebackene Bohnen” on the other—that I used to collect change; and two small teacups from a set of six, the other four of which, along with the teapot, I left to my upstairs neighbor Tina. Pnin I gave to another neighbor, but I can’t remember who, or why.
Possibly it was guilt that made me leave it—taking it from a bar was one thing, but to leave the country with it seemed quite another. Possibly it was a superficial aversion to the title. Pnin. That ugly, unnatural “puh-nin” collision—unless Pnin’s “p” was like that of “pneumatic” or “psoriasis” (that is, not a “p” at all) and the title was in fact “nin.” I’d never heard anyone actually say the title. Possibly it was self-consciousness that bid me abandon the book, as well as the confusion surrounding its title.
Yesterday I saw a new copy of Pnin at Barnes & Noble, and wished I’d kept the one I kind of maybe stole—or kind of maybe had stolen. Last winter I read Lolita and fell in love with Nabokov’s prose.
“All I know is that while the Haze woman and I went down the steps into the breathless garden, my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like sand […]”
I’m struck by the power certain books have to appear out of nowhere—or from somewhere very specific—and change everything. It’s like using a winning lottery ticket as a bookmark; the prize is there, but you haven’t cashed it in. Probably you had no idea it was a winner.
I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I’d read him sooner. If, somehow, in those three months I spent sharing a studio apartment with every printed word of Pnin, all the delicate prose stacked and folded and bound together, if I’d had occasion to open the front cover to wade through the ink and imagery, what might have changed in me. My fatalism would have me believe that, despite the opposable thumbs and Bier-soaked sticky fingers, it’s really the books that steal us, and not the other way ’round.