Notes on Pnin

by / Filed under Thinking

As I might be on Radio Suffolk tomorrow to discuss two books (Nabokov’s Pnin and Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans) I thought I’d write something on Pnin just to get my thoughts in order. I am in no way nervous at all.

I guess I’ll be asked something along the lines of:

  • What’s the book about?
  • Why do you like the book?

So here goes—Pnin reduced to its basics.

What’s Pnin about?

The book’s about a Russian professor working at Waindell, a fictional American university. The story’s told by Vladimir Vladimirovich N–, an apparently successful academic whom Pnin has encountered in his “staid European period”. The narrator also claims to have been treated by Pnin’s optician father as a child in St Petersburg (a fact Pnin denies. Importantly, we’re inclined to believe him over the narrator).

Pnin is a figure of fun—even his name is awkward. At the start of the book he’s stuck on the wrong train, blissfully ignorant of his predicament. The narrator amusingly (if somewhat cruelly) describes his bald head and over eager fondness for American clothing and informal manners in fine detail.

Over the course of the story the narrator relates Pnin’s tragicomic past—as in all of Nabokov’s American work, memory is key. Pnin’s wife leaves him for a psychiatrist on the journey to America, while his idiosyncratic and unintentionally hilarious English means he’s unable to assimilate fully into American life (unlike the narrator, who effortlessly uses idiomatic English and writes beautifully).

We’re invited to laugh at Pnin’s mishaps by an urbane narrator who shares Humbert Humbert’s highly amusing but ultimately too cynical view of the world. It’s an uneasy laughter. Pnin is fundamentally a good person: he patronises a dismal, failing restaurant because he feels sorry for the owners, and has a warm, moving relationship with his son. Conversely, the narrator reveals himself to be cruel, having driven Pnin’s wife to attempt suicide before Pnin married her.

At several points in the novel, Pnin escapes his narrator’s clutches to reveal himself as a generous, capable person. He allows a squirrel to take a drink of water in a park before himself. During an emigre countryside retreat, he ruthlessly beats everyone at croquet.

Pnin loses his job. He’s offered a position working in the narrator’s new department at Waindell, but unexpectedly refuses. At the end of the book, we see him driving away into the hills, an image of freedom, while the narrator is left to a “British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish”.

Pnin (probably) re–emerges as a “martinet” department head in Pale Fire.

Why do you like Pnin?

To my mind, only Joyce can rival Nabokov in the suppleness and pure pleasure of his prose. He is quite literally a pleasure to read.

The book is both very clever (see the tricksy narrative structure, further complicated by Pnin and the narrator’s similarity to Nabokov himself) and warm. It’s cruel, laugh out loud funny and immensely generous at once.

Finally, no–one evokes the energy, humanity and brashness of America’s heyday better than Nabokov, a man who had fled both “Leninized Russia” and the nazis.

Sound about right? I’ll improvise Madeline to no doubt hilarious effect.