Pnin — a Novel by Nabokov

When I was still a student at school (about a million years ago now), I read this book called Pnin, which is also the name of the main character. When my grandmother gave it to me, she said, “this is a book about a man with many intricacies and a narrator who hates everything about him so much so that he slowly becomes just like Pnin”. Though I liked the book, this description wasn’t quite as fitting as I had hoped. One day, I’d love to actually read something with that storyline but until then, I wanted to share some notes on the real story with you (which I just found in an email to myself from 2013).

Pnin, a refugee in his 50s from communist Russia, came to the United States in 1940 and is an assistant professor of Russian at the fictional Waindell College. At Waindell he has settled down to an uncertain, untenured academic life full of various tragicomic mishaps, misfortunes and difficulties adjusting to American life and language. Characters in the book include his departmental supervisor, various professors and university staff, his landlord and wife, his ex-wife and her son, and the narrator, who never identifies himself but can be discovered to be Vladimir Vladimirovich from evidence found in Chapter 5 section 3 and Chapter 7 section 2. Eventually a plot to oust him from his academic position succeeds. Pnin leaves Waindell, driving out of town with a dog as his companion.

Nabokov conveys the difficulty for Pnin, who has rather peculiar speech patterns because he has learnt English as a second language and has a Russian background, to fit in with Americans. He strives to improve his English and is oblivious to the snide comments of his co-workers and of the imitations of his ridiculous speech. He appears eager to learn, to socialize and to please which unfortunately means his generosity is abused, by his ex-wife among others, and it is not returned. When his ex-wife intends to elope with a third husband, she goes to see Pnin to ask him to take some interest in her son because his father won’t if, god forbid, something should happen to her. He agrees to help finance the boy’s education and takes genuine pleasure in befriending the lad: he prepares some activities for them when the boy comes to stay with him and buys him gifts such as a book and a football. Even then, his slightly pathetic nature is revealed through his over eagerness to please.
Unfortunately, his positive approach tolife is crushed as the novel comes to a close. The boy is taken away with his mother and Pnin is never to see him again. In addition to this, the staff at the university make sure he is unable to continue the Russian course and drive him out of the academy, ultimately because of his failure to fit in. His dream of owning his own place destroyed, Pnin disappears from the city never to be seen or heard from again.
Another aspect of America conveyed in the novel is the presence of small communities composed of people from a similar background. Most of the other characters with whom Pnin associates are also expatriates, immigrants or refugees from Russia. Even Pnin’s ex-wife, whom he met in Russia, has travelled to America and has remarried a European.

The style in which the novel is written is humorous and unusual. The narrator slowly enters the story until finally becoming the central character when Pnin is driven out of the university. The narrator insists that he met Pnin at a young age, but that Pnin denied ever having made his acquaintance when he met him again in his adolescence. Even at the very end of the novel when the narrator sees Pnin drive away with a dog, Pnin remains oblivious to his existence.

By replacing Pnin in the novel as the central character, the narrator does indeed push Pnin out of the limelight. He remains invisible to Pnin who might seem ridiculous and pathetic to those around him, but Pnin remains above their baseness, their nastiness and their gossiping.

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