He is not a very nice person but he is fun – Nabokov describing the character of Pnin in a letter to his editor at The New Yorker
Readers of my third novel, The More Things Change, who at the current moment in time comprise a not entirely significant two, my current wife and my only daughter (though not a daughter to my current wife despite the fact she treats her like a second daughter), will recall – if they can cast their minds back to when they first perused the pages of said book, which neither will have looked at in several years, I have no doubt – my fondness for long, intricate and involved sentences like the one I am in the process of attempting to construct, and yet none of the sentences in that book or indeed the sentence you are currently in the process of reading can hold a candle to the ones Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian-American novelist, contrived to include in his thirteen novel – and the fourth written in English – Pnin (apparently pronounced ‘P’neen’); I am grateful to Charles Poore of The New York Times for that information since Nabokov himself neglects saying how anywhere in the book, and I don’t think I missed it because it is not a book one can rush reading, but his closest description is that when spoken (at least by the name’s bearer) the word sounds like a small explosion, although personally I might have described it as a stifled sneeze, but then who am I to correct such a great writer, particularly one with such a distinct talent for description, depiction and generally florid writing as is evidenced numerous times throughout this novel?
If, dear reader, my humble efforts with that opening sentence caused you some difficulty, then all I can say is you might want to think twice before picking up a copy of Pnin. On the other hand, those of you who enjoyed the journey and managed to resist the urge to obsessively check if I’d punctuated it correctly will probably relish the book; I certainly did. When I described the book to my wife I said, “There isn’t a sentence less than an inch tall.” It’s something of an exaggeration, but certainly in the opening chapters, Nabokov indulges himself; later on, he settles down.
Pnin is an odd book. It’s certainly an odd novel. It didn’t start life as a novel; in fact, the first the world got to hear from Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, professor of Russian Literature at Waindell College, which the aforementioned Pnin consistently mispronounces as “Vandal College,” is in what most readers would have regarded as a short story published in the New Yorker in late 1954; three more ‘stories’ appeared over the next year. The “Pnin novel,” as Nabokov himself referred to the book (which at the time he intended to be called My Poor Pnin), wasn’t published, however, until early in 1957, and he struggled to find a publisher, which puzzles me because whether you describe the book as a novel or a collection of sketches or stories doesn’t take away from the exceptional quality of the writing. Doubleday finally published the thing. I think, perhaps, he might have had less trouble had Lolita appeared first. Although written earlier and indeed already in print in France (in 1955 and in English) the first American publication wasn’t until 1958. I’ve read several books by Nabokov – Pale Fire, Transparent Things and Bend Sinister – but not his most (in)famous book, although I have, of course, seen Kubrick’s film. Pnin forms the centrepiece of what one might call Nabokov’s American Trilogy comprising Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire, all of which feature academics, although a Professor Pnin only appears in the last two. I say a Professor Pnin because the Professor Pnin who appears in Pale Fire, the head of the “bloated Russian Department” at Wordsworth college, is given a name check in Pnin, and it suggests that these may be separate individuals even if – however unlikely this prospect might seem – they bear the same cognomen.
The book is broken down into seven chapters – they are called ‘chapters’ – each covering a different episode or set of episodes from his life: he gets on the wrong train, has a mishap with his luggage and mixes up notes for the lecture he is travelling to; he rents a room and has his teeth removed; he meets with his ex-wife who persuades him to look after her (but not their) son, Victor; he teaches a college class, visits the library and watches a film; he is visited by Victor who, although polite enough about it, isn’t the slightest bit interested in the football Pnin has bought him as a present which Pnin ends up disposing of “by defenestration” presumably with a good right foot helping it on its way; he spends the summer with fellow émigrés in a Russian community in the country and he hosts a party during which he informs his guests that he is contemplating buying the house he is currently renting – believing that tenure is now within his grasp – only to be told at the end of the evening that he is about to lose his job if he can’t work under an old friend who is joining the staff – which he finds he can’t – and so Pnin packs up and leaves. And that’s the book. In addition to charting these mostly disconnected events – the only thing they really have in common is that they are contained within the chronology of Pnin’s life during 1953 and 1954 – the narrator, who I shall return to in a moment, also fills in quite a bit of Pninian history. Pninian is not my invention, it’s Nabokov’s – he employs it numerous times throughout the book as he does with Pninise and Pninist (once).
The bumbling university professor has been done before: Professor Brainard in the original The Absent-Minded Professor jumps to mind – although that’s not how Nabokov describes Pnin (“It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight.”) – or Professor Julius Kelp in the original The Nutty Professor but there are plenty of others like Professor Calculus from The Adventures of Tintin and Professor Kokintz in The Mouse That Roared. Pnin would best be described, at least if you restricted said description to a single adjective, as eccentric. He is that most beloved of characters, the outsider, and I don’t mean in a Camusian sense; I’m thinking more in a Mork-and-Mindian sense. Pnin arrives from Russia in 1940, the same year as Nabokov himself:
A special danger area in Pnin’s case was the English language. Except for such not very helpful odds and ends as ‘the rest is silence’, ‘nevermore’, ‘week-end’, ‘who’s who’, and a few ordinary words like’ eat’, ‘street’, ‘fountain pen’, ‘gangster’, ‘Charleston’, ‘marginal utility’, he had had no English at all at the time he left France for the States. Stubbornly he sat down to the task of learning the language of Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Poe, Edison, and thirty-one Presidents. In 1941, at the end of one year of study, he was proficient enough to use glibly terms like ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘okey-dokey’. By 1942 he was able to interrupt his narration with the phrase, ‘To make a long story short’. By the time Truman entered his second term, Pnin could handle practically any topic: but otherwise progress seemed to have stopped despite all his efforts, and by 1950 his English was still full of flaws.
America is a source of wonder to him and he delights in it, in the fact that he has become “an American” which, of course, he both is and will never be. He loves its gadgets and this affection is well expressed in how he takes to his new dentures (although it’s never explained why he felt the need to have his own teeth removed):
There were, as per plan, no lectures, nor did he attend the examinations given for him by Miller. Ten days passed – and suddenly he began to enjoy the new gadget. It was a revelation, it was a sunrise, it was a firm mouthful of efficient, alabastrine, humane America. At night he kept his treasure in a special glass of special fluid where it smiled to itself, pink and pearly, as perfect as some lovely representative of deep-sea flora. The great work on Old Russia, a wonderful dream mixture of folklore, poetry, social history, and petite histoire, which for the last ten years or so he had been fondly planning, now seemed accessible at last, with headaches gone, and this new amphitheatre of translucid plastics implying, as it were, a stage and a performance. When the spring term began his class could not help noticing the sea change, as he sat coquettishly tapping with the rubber end of a pencil upon those even, too even, incisors and canines while some student translated some sentence in old and ruddy Professor Oliver Bradstreet Mann’s Elementary Russian (actually written from beginning to end by two frail drudges, John and Olga Krotki, both dead today), such as ‘The boy is playing with his nurse and his uncle.’ And one evening he waylaid Laurence Clements, who was in the act of scuttling up to his study, and with incoherent exclamations of triumph started to demonstrate the beauty of the thing, the ease with which it could be taken out and put in again, and urged surprised but not unfriendly Laurence to have all his teeth out first thing tomorrow.
‘You will be a reformed man like I,’ cried Pnin.
Pnin’s love for America is not all it seems though. He seems to want to love America on his terms. When he buys the football for Victor it’s not an American football – a prolate-spheroid-shaped football – but a spherical European soccer ball; he struggles with American humour, its mores and its general exuberance; the one thing he looks for in any dwelling or room he rents is silence:
The sense of living in a discrete building all by himself was to Pnin something singularly delightful and amazingly satisfying to a weary old want of his innermost self, battered and stunned by thirty-five years of homelessness. One of the sweetest things about the place was the silence – angelic, rural, and perfectly secure, thus in blissful contrast to the persistent cacophonies that had surrounded him from six sides in the rented rooms of his former habitations.
Nabokov’s America although accurately described, painstakingly so, in the same way some artists present us with ultra realistic sculptures that look like they might just get up and walk away, it is also a little unreal, a little idealised or perhaps stylised might be a better word.
I mentioned earlier the book’s narrator and I should probably make clear why the identity of the narrator is important. Although he’s a third-party narrator he is not (or at least ought not to be if you’re playing by the rules) omniscient, there are times he gets inside Pnin’s head and I can’t see where he might have chanced upon the information. Pnin is not so obsessively private that he doesn’t share anything with his friends but neither does he share everything. The narrator has known Pnin since Pnin was “a thirteen-year-old gimnazist (classical school pupil)” although Pnin denies any knowledge of that first meeting in his father’s surgery; his father was an optician. The narrator’s memory is quite detailed though:
Do I really remember his crew cut, his puffy pale face, his red ears? Yes, distinctly. I even remember the way he imperceptibly removed his shoulder from under the proud paternal hand, while the proud paternal voice was saying: ‘This boy has just got a Five Plus (A +) in the Algebra examination.’ From the end of the corridor there came a steady smell of hashed-cabbage pie, and through the open door of the schoolroom I could see a map of Russia on the wall, books on a shelf, a stuffed squirrel, and a toy monoplane with linen wings and a rubber motor. I had a similar one but twice bigger, bought in Biarritz.
We don’t hear much from this narrator but every now and then he does stick his oar into the proceedings like in this section in the book’s first chapter:
I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a spacetraveller’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego. The sensation poor Pnin experienced was something very like that divestment, that communion. He felt porous and pregnable. He was sweating. He was terrified. A stone bench among the laurels saved him from collapsing on the sidewalk. Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it. My patient was one of those singular and unfortunate people who regard their heart (‘a hollow, muscular organ,’ according to the gruesome definition in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, which Pnin’s orphaned bag contained) with a queasy dread, a nervous repulsion, a sick hate, as if it were some strong slimy untouchable monster that one had to be parasitized with, alas. Occasionally, when puzzled by his tumbling and tottering pulse, doctors examined him more thoroughly, the cardiograph outlined fabulous mountain ranges and indicated a dozen fatal diseases that excluded one another. He was afraid of touching his own wrist. He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying the two he has.
So, he is – or may become at some time beyond those being currently related – Pnin’s doctor! Please, reader, don’t take things so literally. What is important to remember is that this narrator is telling his version of events. We cannot completely trust him but then neither can we entirely distrust his retelling of events. Hell, he might even be Pnin himself!
In the section above I mention Pnin’s suspected heart troubles. Evidence of this problem crops up a number of times in the book and we find out that he has in fact had his heart checked. A shame that his heart could not be as easily replaced as his teeth and replaced by another American “gadget.” We learn of his problem when, during his summer break, Pnin meets up with an old friend, Professor Chateau:
Finally, as they walked along a meadow path, brushing against the golden rod, toward the wood where a rocky river ran, they spoke of their healths: Chateau, who looked so jaunty, with one hand in the pocket of his white flannel trousers and his lustring coat rather rakishly opened on a flannel waistcoat, cheerfully said that in the near future he would have to undergo an exploratory operation of the abdomen, and Pnin said, laughing, that every time he was X-rayed, doctors vainly tried to puzzle out what they termed ‘a shadow behind the heart’.
‘Good title for a bad novel,’ remarked Chateau.
If this was anyone else writing you might think that Pnin was a bad novel but Nabokov’s pedigree is such that, as with Beckett, you know – you just know – that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Clearly here Nabokov is poking fun at himself – as Michael Wood points out in his afterword to my Penguin edition, that would have been “too mawkish a title for Pnin” – but he also notes this:
But there are shadows everywhere here, and it is the shadows, finally, rather than the haughty narrator and his hidden story, which remind us that this mournful and funny book is not a collection of sketches; that its very jokes contribute to its completeness, its fusion into an elliptical history of pain.
At first it seems as if this book might disappear under the weight of its own stylistic wit – some of those early sentences I really had to read carefully three times to know where to place my emphases – but Pnin rises out of the narrator’s loquacity and charms his way into existence. He may never quite be the book’s hero but for all he is frequently gently mocked (albeit affectionately by his colleagues and friends) he never completely loses his dignity even when, on holiday, he changes into a pair of Bermuda shorts expressly to play a game of croquet. As it happens he turns out to be the best player there which was unexpected considering the fact that he is something of a klutz the rest of the time.
Among the many tricks that Nabokov plays on us, probably the most puzzling one is in the last chapter where the narrator hijacks the story and Pnin is relegated to a couple of short scenes including his exit from the book. Very strange indeed. Especially when the narrator chases after Pnin’s car because how could that be Pnin chasing after himself but then how could the narrator know what Pnin was thinking unless he was Pnin? Unless Pnin is a fictional character and not a real professor but then that would make the narrator the author, wouldn’t it? Awww you’ll figure it out I’m sure. Or not. Or not care.
Nabokov wrote what would become the first chapter of the novel while he was struggling to complete Lolita partly as a relief from the dark obsessive world of Humbert Humbert – in his own words (in a letter to a friend) as a “brief sunny escape from [Lolita's] intolerable spell” in much the same way as Beckett took a break from his trilogy of novels to write Waiting for Godot (Beckett claimed that he “began to write Godot as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose [he] was writing at the time”) – but it is also not unreasonable to conjecture that Nabokov’s new project was also a kind of insurance against the difficulties that he expected to encounter in trying to publish a novel that meticulously charts the seduction of a twelve-year-old girl by a middle-aged man.
Nabokov did, however, break a cardinal rule when he wrote this book: he based Pnin on a real person:
There have been several suggestions for real-life models, the most plausible being Marc Szeftel, an émigré Russian historian, who was a colleague of Nabokov’s at Cornell (which is recognisable as “Waindell College” in Pnin, according to those who know both the actual and the fictional campus). It is certainly significant that Szeftel was Jewish, because it is Pnin’s association with his Jewish sweetheart Mira, and his anguish at her tragic fate that dignifies his character more than any other single trait. But there were other things Pnin apparently had in common with Szeftel, such as his imperfect English, which would have seemed less flattering to the putative model.
It is fairly obvious that Pnin was not an instantly recognisable portrait or caricature of Szeftel, for this would have been impossibly embarrassing for both men, who were not only colleagues, but also collaborators on a scholarly project (a study of a medieval Russian epic, The Song of Igor’s Campaign) and met socially in private life. There is evidence, however, that Szeftel suspected the character of Pnin was partially based on himself, and somewhat resented the resemblance, without ever explicitly complaining about it.
But it’s not as simple as that. Nabokov also owes a debt to Cervantes:
[O]nly a few months before conceiving Pnin, Nabokov had reread Don Quixote and lectured on Cervantes at Harvard. He had reacted with outrage to Don Quixote’s cruelty, to the book’s implicit invitation to its readers to enjoy Don Quixote’s pain and humiliation. Pnin is Nabokov’s reply to Cervantes. It is no accident that the book’s risible name, that “preposterous little explosion,” almost spells “pain.”
“The history of man,” says Pnin, “is the history of pain.” Pnin is not a fool (and only a very shallow reader will conceive him as such) but he is often fooled and often hurt. A penguin out of water looks funny and is usually at its most vulnerable when waddling about on land.
When it was first published – and the reviews were generally favourable (you can read Charles Poore’s review for The New York Times below) – it did sell, but mainly because of the notoriety that was brewing concerning Lolita which was hard to get in the States and this must have seemed like the next best thing. I wonder how many were disappointed by the complete lack of sex in the book. No doubt a few. I think the most lascivious Pnin ever gets is noticing – I don’t even think he actually admires – “a girl’s comely nape” in a library. When Lolita was subsequently published in America in the following year, it went on to sell millions, worldwide, and completely eclipsed poor Pnin in the public consciousness.
As Lodge points out, “a formidable body of commentary and exegesis has by now accumulated around this slim volume,” which is nice and deserved and necessary but far more than I can hope to cover here. If you love language and delight in what can be done with the humble sentence then you should read this book. You will not be disappointed.
One last thought: there are eleven squirrels in the book, now that can’t be a co-incidence, can it?
Charles Poore, ‘Books of the Times’, The New York Times, 7 March 1957
The entire text online.
TV Tropes (don’t let the title fool you but don’t be too sure they’ve got the narrator right either)
Jerome H. Katsell, ‘Pnin: The Perils of Repetition’, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, No.27
Akiko Nakata, ‘Rose and Aquamarine: Liza in Pnin’, The Nabokovian 48, pp.15-19
Priscilla Meyer, ‘Review: Gennadi Barabtarlo, Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin’, WesScholar
Galya Diment, Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szefte
Paul Bruss, Victims: Textual Strategies in Recent American Fiction, chapter 2
 David Lodge, ‘Exiles in a Small World’, The Guardian, 8 May 2004
 Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, pp.271,272 quoted in Stephen Casmier, ‘A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation’, Nabokov Studies, Volume 8, 2004, pp.71-86
–Jim Murdoch, author of Milligan and Murphy (2011)