Review: Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
by Rich Horton
Pnin was his fourth novel written in English (not counting Laughter in the Dark, the much-revised translation he did of Camera Obscura) but the third of those to be published in the US, due to the difficulties Nabokov faced getting Lolita into print. Lolita was finished in 1953 or early 1954, and Nabokov began writing the sections of Pnin in January 1954. Some of the chapters of Pnin were published in the New Yorker, though the final novel is significantly revised. It appeared in 1957, and was quite successful -- finally resolving Nabokov's finances. (Lolita appeared in 1958 in the US, though a somewhat corrupt version had been published in France in 1955.) I read Pnin and loved it decades ago, and this is an overdue reread.
Timofey Pnin is a teacher of Russian at Waindell College. We meet him on the way to deliver a lecture at a women's club. Alas, he has gotten on the wrong train -- and when he realizes this his attempts to get back on course also go wrong, and he loses his lecture notes. Things work out, more or less, but we know our man by now: an often clumsy person, not entirely fluent in English, probably a true expert in Russian literature but so focussed on his own obsessions that he is treated more as a figure of fun than a serious scholar.
The chapters continue, detailing Pnin's adventures in his classes, his difficulty finding satisfying housing, his struggles keeping his teaching position amid a certain amount of academic politics. There is a weekend at a house in the country, with a number of other Russian emigrés. We also learn something of his history -- his youth in Russia, his escape to Europe and then to the US, and especially his marriage, to the psychiatrist Liza Bogolepov. He is divorced as the novel opens, and we learn that Liza has remarried, and has had a child, who Pnin is willing to accept as his own. Indeed, Pnin truly does act as a father to the boy, who by the end of the novel is an adult, and an artist of real promise.
Pnin is very funny -- Timofey's troubles are mostly quite comic to everyone but him (and sometimes to him.) But behind the comedy there is real pain (the name Pnin is purposely only one letter away from pain.) At the heart of the book, I think, is Pnin's relationship with the wholly unworthy Liza, even though it takes up a relatively small proportion of the pages. Also critical is the identity of the narrator -- who intrudes only rarely until the final chapter. Then he comes front and center, and certain allusions -- to the Russian writer Sirin, to another emigré named Vladimir Vladimirovich who is an expert on butterflies -- are suddenly not cute references but critical to the story. I won't detail what we learn -- but by the end this is not so much a comic novel as a wrenching tragedy with comic overtones. Needless to say, it's also gloriously written. It's one of the most moving novels I know, it is one of my favorites of that sometimes tired genre, the academic novel; and it is sometimes my favorite of Nabokov's novels.