To bring in money while he sought a publisher for Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov wrote short stories for The New Yorker about an absent-minded professor named Timofey Pavlovich Pnin. Then he collected the stories and added a few chapters to make a book. Its origin as short stories explains Pnin’s unusual quality—it doesn’t have the cohesive plot of a novel, although that’s how it’s classified. Perhaps the most accurate description is a character study—one of a Russian expatriate who reveres American culture but doesn’t fit in.
Nabakov may have drawn from some of his own experiences in portraying Pnin, who like his creator teaches at a college. But where Nabakov was a master of his nonnative language, Pnin never learns to speak correct English. He is the butt of jokes for his linguistic and other mishaps. Pnin’s is a lonely and insecure life—he’s untenured, has no family, and incessantly moves to another rented room—but his generous and forgiving nature keeps him from seeming pathetic. Readers inclined to laugh at first may gradually feel protective of Pnin and transfer their derision to the academics who ridicule this kind and decent man. With the concluding chapter, the depiction of Pnin itself is in question as the narrator shows himself less than reliable. Maybe Nabakov wasn’t intending this to be a simple character study after all but a comment on the limitations of knowing another person.
Regardless of how one interprets the book, it’s a pleasure to spend time in Pnin’s company and heartrending to read about not only his present misfortunes but also his past in Russia assailed by Hitler and then communism. This book is Nabakov’s most accessible, and for readers turned off by the pedophile Humbert Humbert of Lolita, the character of Pnin is a lovable antidote and the book an opportunity to experience Nabakov’s beautiful English prose.
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