Remember when books meant something? Remember when authors were celebrated for their extensive vocabulary and detailed descriptions? If you do, then Pnin is the book you need to read.
Filled with slapstick comedy, political undertones and a tragically destined protagonist, Nabokov intertwines the mundane living of a college professor with the absurd and the disastrous.
Pnin was initially serialised in The New Yorker and published as a book in 1957. Nabokov had already written Lolita by this point but struggled to get it printed, citing it as too controversial. This led him to write Pnin (his 4th English book) in the meantime, which ironically gave him his first taste of success in the US.
It brought him his first National Book Award nomination and made him a popular figure amongst specific audiences. This popularity was then used to finally get Lolita published and set the stage for one of the most remarkable English language writers.
He had first arrived in the US in spring 1940, leaving France after the German invasion. Despite writing nine novels in his native Russian, he had to start his journey over again in English – aged 40. It’s this reinvention that most people point towards when they describe Nabokov’s true genius.
By 1960, Nabokov was more than a writer; he was a celebrity.
Pnin – A Bumbling Buffoon
Pnin is a professor at Waindell College teaching Russian. However, Pnin only has a slight grasp of the English language and often confuses the words of others – often for comical effect – or completely butchers English words to make them sound more Russian.
Upon his first introduction, where he’s on a train to his first lecture, he inadvertently got onto the wrong train (his timecard was a couple of years outdated) and found himself in a completely different city. Realising his mistake, he gets on a bus back, only to then realise he’s left his suitcase (containing his teaching materials etc.) at the station.
Eventually, he arrives back via a lift from a truck driver. He is about to give his lecture when he has strange hallucinations concerning his deceased parents. And that’s all confined to the first chapter.
As you can tell, there’s a simplistic slapstick methodology that Nabokov uses to create empathy towards Pnin. He’s also a short, bald, bespectacled man muddling his way through life.
A Tragic Flaw
However, halfway through the book, the approach of comedy changes to its polar opposite; tragedy. By invoking the holocaust, Nabokov invokes a connotation of struggle and belonging into a seemingly straightforward novel.
Equally, Pnin is lampooned by his colleagues and students alike and often ends up being the butt of everybody’s jokes. For them, someone struggling with the language is not somebody daring to step outside of their confides escaping war, but an idiot who doesn’t know his arse from his elbow.
A lot of the Pnin character parallels Nabokov’s own life. Making little to no eye contact during lectures can be seen in countless videos of Nabokov lecturing. Nabokov, too, was apparently absent-minded and did as Pnin by entering into the wrong classroom and beginning class.
As with most of Nabokov’s work, the structure is tight – in this case, the book is only 184 pages (Everyman Hardback). The descriptions of the world he inhabits are both opulent and rhythmical.
Philip Roth writes with similar characteristics to Nabokov. And I don’t just mean the common elements of college/university environments or Jewish representation (at least in Pnin).
They both use similar language to convey their messages, a subtle linguistic art that’s relatively easy-to-read and coherent.
However, it’s amusing that Nabokov believed in the proponent of ‘art for art’s sake‘. In contrast, Roth clearly wanted to tell a story about a greater society, often stemming from a Jewish immigration perspective slanted on sexual preoccupations and death.
Pnin is an excellent addition to any reader looking to read Nabokov. It’s much more straightforward than Pale Fire, even if it does have many similarities with narration.
You would never know that Nabokov isn’t an English native, given that his use of literary structural devices is so precise and his vocabulary incredibly extensive.