I first read Pnin as a teenager. It was my father’s recommendation that I start exploring the scintillating world of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels with this particular one.
Set in the early 1950s Pnin narrates the peregrinations of its eponym character in New England academia. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is a Russian immigrant who fled his native St Petersburg as a young man in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. There begins a life of exile, first in Prague, then in Paris, then finally in the United States as a non-tenured professor teaching Russian and Russian literature to mostly clueless American students. But Pnin doesn’t really mind. He is first and foremost a scholar and his research keeps him absorbed and pleased, if somewhat out of touch with his surroundings.
The narrator of the novel, who turns out to be a more worldly fellow Russian professor not unlike the real Nabokov himself, weaves Pnin’s absent-mindedness, his social clumsiness, and his idiosyncratic English into a delightful tapestry.
If his Russian was music, his English was murder, writes Nabokov. The novel is full of comical examples of mispronounced and misused words met with various degrees of puzzlement in native speakers. Here is a short exchange with his landlady Joan Clements:
“I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust,” he said tragically.
“I am afraid there is no soda,” she answered with her lucid Anglo-Saxon restraint. “But there is plenty of whisky in the dining-room cabinet.”
Nabokov’s own English was, of course, anything but murder. He grew up a privileged boy in tsarist Russia speaking Russian, English and French at home. He studied in Cambridge. He wrote masterfully in Russian and English, a language he switched to as an author after moving to America in the 1940s. But I do see a connection between Nabokov’s chiseled English and Pnin’s clunky one. They are two diametrically opposed language creations by non-native speakers. I believe Nabokov’s extraordinary English, precise and shimmering at the same time, could not belong to someone speaking only English.
Pnin is a quintessential uprooted immigrant. He is somewhat lost in America, even though it is quite possible he would also have been somewhat lost in a what if Russia untouched by Communism evoked in the novel. In any event, his patent lack of adjustment is comically compounded by his sense of being well adjusted:
It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence.
As alien and clumsy Pnin may come across to Americans, what are the chances they would be well adjusted themselves if they had gone through half of what he has experienced? Joining the White Army during the Civil War. Fleeing his country and being torn apart from his Jewish sweetheart in the turmoil. Losing his parents to Bolshevik persecution. Being a stateless immigrant in Europe for two decades. Learning his former sweetheart was exterminated by the Nazis. All of this conveyed in subtle brushstrokes throughout the novel. Pnin’s life carries the weight of history in a way most of us cannot really grasp.
I hope you will let yourself be enchanted by Pnin if you have not read it yet. It is a hilarious and poignant novel I have admired for many years. It has also become more relevant to me after I moved to America. Nabokov’s ironic description of the interactions between his European hero and kind, perplexed Americans somehow does not sound unfamiliar… Whichever opalescent facet draws you in first, Pnin is a priceless gem.