A review of Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

There are some wonderful classic novels which are well worth reading and re-reading. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin is one of those, and guest reviewer Tom Frenkel, turns his analytical eye on Pnin. Nabokov is most famous for his novel Lolita, but he has also written a number of wonderful and original works, from the seminal Lectures on Don Quixote and other works of great literature, to the numerous and intricate works of translation, fiction, autobiography, short stories and more. Written in 1957, Pnin is a Russian lecturer at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master.

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

I’ve always felt a certain kind of connection to Vladimir Nabokov, because my sister took courses from him while he was at Cornell. I’ve
learned from her that Nabokov had some rather strange literary ideas. He had no use for certain writers, for example Dreiser, Mann and
Dostoyevsky, calling the last a “hack detective story writer”. He felt that the plot of a novel was unimportant; one should read the book one time to get the plot out of the way, and then re-read for the details, which are what really matter.

I’m pretty much at opposite poles from these opinions. Dreiser, Mann and Dostoyevsky are three of my favorite writers; and the plot is
usually the central thing that holds my interest. Small wonder, then, that I have always have had trouble truly getting into Nabokov’s works.

I started reading Nabokov many years ago, with Lolita (published 1955), no surprise since this is the book of his with the sensational story, and the one that I would guess is most popular. (This is the book that sold so well that it enabled him to give up college teaching!) With an un-likeable central character and (especially later in the book) a contrived plot, I’ve found it hard to warm up to this novel. I realize that Nabokov should not be faulted for an un-realistic story, since he doubtless has other goals of a less traditional kind, but it just didn’t work for me. This despite my admiration for a virtuoso literary performance.

More recently I read his Pale Fire (published 1962) which I did prefer to Lolita. The first part of the book consists of a long poem; then comes an exegesis of the poem which also provides a story line. Again the plot, especially toward the end, is so unlikely as to defy normal belief; but the poem and its analysis are so clever and funny that I really didn’t care much. Or am I finally coming to terms with literary innovations half a century old?

Like Pale FirePnin (published 1957) is a novel set in the world
of adademia. (But is it really a novel? I’ll get to this later.) And like Pale FirePnin explores the world of the emigre or exile coming to America from the Old World. What makes Pninwork as well as it does is the title character, who is a professor of Russian at a
fictitious college in New England. (I had first thought that Pnin was modelled after Nabokov himself, but both from internal evidence and
from what my sister told me, this character is inspired by one of Nabokov’s teaching colleagues.) Pnin has not conquered the American tongue, and his “wild” English is accompianied by a repertoire of Russian gestures. He does not understand American humor. He loves gadgets. He is clumsy and always seems to be blundering into something or making a pratfall. He is particularly sensitive to noise and always hopes that the next rooming house he moves to will be free of this nuisance. He is charming in his rambling lectures, but cannot deliver a prepared talk without burying his head in the text and reading in a soporific monotone. He can be obsessively careful but still manages to get himself into awful jams.

So Pnin himself is lots of fun to read about — a great character. But this in itself does not, in my opinion, a novel make! There is no question of a non-traditional plot; there is simply no overall plot or development at all. A possible attempt to stretch the book by introducing a chapter about Victor, the son of Pnin’s ex-wife, is in my opinion unsuccessful. The front matter of the book reveals that certain chapters of Pnin first appeared separately in the New Yorker magazine, and perhaps it would have been better if things were
left this way. The first chapter of the book, amazingly funny, is my favorite, and I think could well stand on its own … as could, probably, several other chapters also.

There is no question that Nabokov is a terrific stylist. But often I have the feeling that reading him is more a question of witnessing a performance than simply enjoying a book. A case of this is the hard words that Nabokov loves to use. I noted them down for a while, to be looked up later, but eventually just got tired of this. For Nabokov — like for Joseph Conrad — English was a second language. Perhaps some of the over-exotic quality comes from this?

I also find Nabokov’s treatment of American culture (or lack of same) to be, while often very funny, also somewhat on the cold, unsympathetic side. Along with being a writer, Nabokov was also famously a student and collector of butterflies. Sometimes I feel like he pins his human specimens into the “album” of his novel, achieving a brilliant display but not one that you could always call humane.

Would I recommend Pnin? After all of my criticisms you might not think so; but actually I would say, give it a try. Nabokov is
undeniably an important writer. The central character of Pnin himself is rendered with great warmth, compassion, … even love. The book is
not long, and despite the occasionally difficult vocabulary is not really hard to read. Is it a novel, as its cover proclaims, or a collection of stories knit together by a common character? See what you think.