I’m late to Andrew Sean Greer’s delightful Less and loved everything about it, including its sly Pnin-ish narratorial technique and equally Pnin-ish hapless protagonist, Arthur Less. There were other, more overt Nabokov nods:
Though he was once an endowed chair at Robert’s university, he has no formal training except the drunken, cigarette-filled evenings of his youth, when Robert’s friends gathered and yelled, taunted, and played games with words. As a result, Less feels uncomfortable lecturing. Instead, he re-creates those lost days with his students. Remembering those middle-aged men sitting with a bottle of whiskey, a Norton book of poetry, and scissors, he cuts up a paragraph of Lolita and has the young doctoral students reassemble the text as they desire. In these collages, Humbert Humbert becomes an addled old man rather than a diabolical one, mixing up cocktail ingredients and, instead of confronting the betrayed Charlotte Haze, going back for more ice. He gives them a page of Joyce and a bottle of Wite-Out—and Molly Bloom merely says “Yes.” A game to write a persuasive opening sentence for a book they have never read (this is difficult, as these diligent students have read everything) leads to a chilling start to Woolf’s The Waves: I was too far out in the ocean to hear the lifeguard shouting, “Shark! Shark!”
Here’s another, less overt Nabokov nod:
“I am sorry, I have something in my eye.” Javier’s right eye is now blinking rapidly: a panicked bird. From its outer edge, a rivulet of tears begins to flow.
“Are you okay?”
Javier clenches his teeth and blinks and rubs. “This is so embarrassing. The lenses are new for me, and irritating. They are French.”
Less does not fill in the punch line. He watches Javier and worries. He once read in a novel about a technique for removing a speck from another’s eye: you use the tip of your tongue. But it seems so intimate, more intimate than a kiss, that he cannot even bear to mention it. And, being from a novel, it is possibly an invention.