Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov [Book Thoughts]

Pnin is a neat little trick; short and deep, sly and funny, just a touch of brilliance. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare it to Nabokov’s best because Pnin is entirely lovable.


Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Pity Vladimir Vladimirovich isn’t around, or he’d tell us who Pnin really is. Vlad Nabokov wrote Pnin after his first masterpiece, Lolita, and before his other masterpiece, Pale Fire. It joins the canon of his 8 English novels written after his 9 Russian novels and is about a Russian… who speaks English (Pninian English, I might add).

I first met Pnin in the opening chapters of this book when he wanted to know where is located the public telephone (he was on his way to give a lecture at Cremona). You see, special privacy is now absolutely necessary to Pnin since he fled from his native Russia for uncomfortably foreign America (with its strange American humour) around the time of the Hitler War. Professor Timofey Pnin has since taken up a post at Waindell college, teaching Russian in the German department to a class of under 10 students. Apart from this, Pnin has to deal with other trials such as returning library books and dealing with sonic disturbances in his newly rented flat.

And did I mention that Pnin struggles a little with English? He’s always Pninizing words and sounding like he’s from Pningrad. And in this second-handedly narrated book (that sneaky narrator, not telling us much about himself) we come to see Pnin’s struggle of adapting to American life. It’s a short work, under 200 pages, composed of a series of episodes in Pnin’s new life. And it’s funny. And pitiable. Pnin is overwhelmingly a character that we are groomed to pitying.

But is Pnin of maximum standard? Well the writing is certainly of quality, and the sketches are funny, and Nabokovianingly enough there’s more to it than that. At first Pnin feels like a light portrait of a Russian refugee, and at times it morphs into a homage to Russian literature (having only read some Russian literature I was only able to catch some, but not all, of the jokes and references) and by the end perhaps its something else entirely.

I feel that when compared to his greater works, Pnin, like it’s titular character, seems short in stature. But perhaps this is unfair because on it’s own its a fine work. It even has that touch of Nabokovian brilliance that takes it a higher level than mere portrait or sketch comedy, and like Nabokov’s other works it has depth enough to greatly reward more than one reading.

After reading six of Nabokov’s works I think I’ve picked up on his style and his tricks (and come to greatly admire him for it). Nabokov was a designer of chess problems, a lover of puzzles; and Pnin is just that: a puzzle to be solved (and far easier to solve than Sebastian Knight or Transparent Things). Give it a shot.

Pnin is a neat little trick; short and deep, sly and funny, just a touch of brilliance. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare it to Nabokov’s best because Pnin is entirely lovable.

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