Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Penguin no. 1491: Pnin
by Vladimir Nabakov

     A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwind margins; one of Pnin's shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snow-flakes before settling again.
     'Pity Vladimir Vladimirovich is not here,' remarked Chateau. 'He would have told us all about these enchanting insects.'
     'I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.'

Poor hapless Timofey Pnin, uninspiring teacher of Russian to very few students at Waindell University - this is how we are introduced to him, and how we are gently encouraged to view him, with his comic appearance, his awkwardness and naïveté, and his propensity for making the wrong choice. His experience of life has been characterised by loss: the beloved Russia of his childhood swept away by the communists, his faithless wife leaving him for another man, her heartless removal of the prospect of parenthood, and then a second escape from Paris to America with some of those left behind killed by the Nazis.

His journey seems to be a search for somewhere to belong. It is represented at the simplest level by his frequently changing accommodation. We watch as he moves through a series of small and inadequate rooms in other people's houses, until finally he seems within reach of a home of his own, and hopes of tenure. In the small brick suburban house he sees the attainment of some approximation of the life he would have lived without the rupture of revolution and escape. But the reader knows his plans are to be thwarted; fortune seems never to be on his side.

It is his struggles with the English language which mark him as figure to be mocked, and someone for his academic colleagues to laugh at and look down upon. Although he has adapted a little to his new American surroundings, this is one adaptation he doesn't make easily, for his world is still largely Russian: it is Russian literature that he loves, Russian croquet at which he excels, and the thoughts and memories triggered by the things he observes invariably recall the Russia of his boyhood. And so he still thinks in Russian, measures distances in Russian units, and retains his Russian syntax and pronunciation. He seems to be perceived entirely in terms of this one difficulty

And yet despite the condescending tone of the narrator we are given glimpses of a rather charming personality: someone calm, caring, well-meaning and loyal, cultured and knowledgeable, thoughtful and witty, and happiest in the company of his books. This is perhaps his greatest loss: the chance to be understood and accepted.

But why is the narrator so condescending? He is Russian himself, simply more successful, more Americanized; perhaps it is a case of the strong attacking the weak. It is as though we are being given the opportunity to watch a curious game being played between the author as narrator, and his struggling character Pnin. And so as you read on, there is this growing suspicion about the narrator's version of events. His is the only viewpoint we can access, and his story emphasises Pnin's eccentricities and misadventures. And when his identity is finally revealed it is a suspicion confirmed: his knowledge of these events is secondhand, and his source prejudiced. His detailed descriptions of Pnin's thoughts and hopes and indecisions, and of quiet moments spent alone, must be conjectures. Perhaps it is all made up.

Pnin is a satire with many targets: the mediocrity of American intellectuals, the extravagant pointlessness of academic research, the vacuity of American culture, and the pretensions of aspiring poets. And then there are psychiatrists, portrayed as having an unshakeable faith in tests, and an enthusiasm for seeing the world through their theories, losing interest when it refuses to correspond. There is always a sense that Nabakov is amusing himself, such as in the passage above, in which he enters his own story and presents himself as a contemporary of his characters.

It was short, compelling, amusing and perplexing, enjoyable to read and interesting to reflect upon.


  1. I read this book a few weeks ago. Your last paragraph sums the book up perfectly.

    I grew up knowing a good number of Pnin-like Eastern European emigre academics. Timofey Pavlovich is a very true portrayal of these wonderful - often completely misunderstood - people.

  2. Great job summing up the narrative play in Pnin. This is one of my favorite books by Nabokov. Pnin comes across as so pathetic (those few students, the teeth, that perfect moment early on when his unshakeable faith in train schedules fails him) and hapless a character, is such a pleasure to read about, but we still get that classic Nabokovian play with the narrative structure and authorial attitude.

  3. This is one of those books that I've been intending to read for ages and your (beautifully written) review has made this even more so. Thanks.



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