Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Superlatives are ineffectual to convey the genius of Vladimir Nabokov. The man is a literary giant, perhaps unrivaled in receiving almost universal acclaim. (As Juliette Tang of XYZ has pointed out: “Literary merit is in certain ways contingent, as beauty is, on the taste of the beholder. Nabokov’s established literary merit, however, happens to be much less contingent on anyone’s opinion than any other writer that comes to my mind.”). If you have not read Nabokov, I encourage you to do so at the first opportunity. The first opportunity happens to be now.

There are many brilliant works from which you might choose. Lolita is oft considered his greatest achievement. Pale Fire is also oft considered his greatest achievement. Speak, Memory is too, but falls in a separate category. Alright, you also have Ada as a contender, though it is a longshot. So, why start with Pnin?

Well, you should start with Pnin (pronounced: P’ neen) because it is “…considered the most accessible of the novels Vladimir Nabokov composed in English.” Considered by whom? Most immediately, by me. David Lodge, whose introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition I read was also published in The Guardian, pointed out: “[I]t was Pnin which first established [Nabokov’s] reputation as a writer of distinction and originality in the medium of English, and as an American rather than an émigré author.

While Lolita and Pale Fire are greater accomplishments, Pnin was the book that first put Nabokov on the American literary map. It contains brilliant sentences, a surface story that is straightforward, comic, and enjoyable, and depths sufficient to please literary-minded bibliophiles. In other words, Pnin is neither too demanding nor too slight. That is not to say you are guaranteed to like it.

While John Self over at The Asylum is an admirer (“It is clever, funny, elegantly Nabokovian and beautifully written.”), you will find among his commenters the occasional dissident. The reason usually being that the narrative feels disjointed. The book did begin as a collection of short stories for the New Yorker focusing on the purported protagonist Timofey Pnin. Nabokov, it turns out, wrote the pieces as both a break from the much darker Lolita and as a means of raising funds while he finished that work and found a publisher. The book is not a typical novel with a smoothly seamless narrative, but it is a success. Nabokov had his rest, received his money, and produced a nicely rendered “comedy of academic manners in a romantically disenchanted world.” (New York Times)

You can follow any of the foregoing links to wonderful discussions of Pnin. I doubt my ability to add anything erudite to the discussion. I will indulge, though, in a brief summary of my reasons for loving this novel and recommending it as an entry point. Nabokov writes sentences as beautiful as anyone’s, brilliantly filling in characters and mining their psychology for wit, irony, or malignancy.

Prior to the nineteen-forties,…to reveal a glimpse of that white underwear by pulling up a trouser leg too high would have seemed to Pnin as indecent as showing himself to ladies minus collar and tie; for even when decayed Mme. Roux, the concierge of the squalid apartment house in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris – where Pnin, after escaping from Leninized Russia and completing his college education in Prague, had spent fifteen years – happened to come up for the rent while he was without his faux col, prim Pnin would cover his front stud with a chaste hand. All this underwent a change in the heady atmosphere of the New World. Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sun-bathing, wore sports shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin.

Pnin, the character, is both ridiculous and heroic. He opens the book on a train, happy with himself for having found in the timetables “a more convenient train” than he had been advised to take.

Unfortunately for Pnin, his timetable was five years old and in part obsolete.

The train no longer stops where Pnin would like.

The narrator relays this information very soon, letting the reader know that this tale is told from an interested viewpoint. PninIs not merely the story of Pnin, but the story of Pnin as told by an interested party. I will not bang on about it, but I love Nabokov’s use of an unreliable narrator. With Nabokov it is not a gimmick, it is a tool wielded splendidly.

The light touch Nabokov uses in this novel is an excellent introduction, but should most definitely not be the last Nabokov you read. His masterpieces are just that.

I will let David Lodge sum up:

Pnin…ultimately…is…uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them.

*For an engaging discussion of Nabokov and his work by one of the best critics alive, click here.

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13 Responses to Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. Sasha says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve been trying to finish reading Lolita–I have a third to go!–but no luck so far. Maybe “stray” to this book, before I go back to Humbert Humbert? Haha, still–thank you! :]

    • Kerry says:

      I have to admit to not having read Lolita yet. It is on my list for this year. I am looking forward to it.

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, uncertainprinciples, the subject is what has kept me at bay so far too. I love everything I read by him, so Lolita is a must. I look forward to reading your and Sasha’s thoughts on Lolita later this year.

      And thank you. If/when you do read Pnin, I would be thrilled to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. I attempted reading Lolita in 2007-08, but, I just couldn’t deal with the subject. Since, I’ve been a little tentative of trying another Nabokov, specially as I really do want to finish Lolita! It’s one of those things….

    I’m going to try reading Lolita again this year, and hopefully two years would’ve done the trick!

  3. Sarah says:

    I was going to try to get hold of Pale Fire for my next Nabokov, Pnin was not a contender. I realise now, ridiculously, that I was put off by the title and the apparent unpronounceability. So now that we have that cleared up… Thank you, Kerry!

    I am curious as to which Nabokov you have liked best (subjectively) so far?

  4. I thought Pnin was exceptional.

    Partly because I initially hated it, I found it trying, and the question of who the narrator was increasingly irritating. Just as I was about to get irritated beyond being able to continue, it turned, and I don’t think that was accident. I think Nabokov played with me as a reader, challenging me to stick with it and then as that challenge grew too great moving with remarkable accomplishment to resolving the book’s issues.

    Unreliable narrators crop up a lot in fiction, but I think Pnin is one of the more skilled examples, it’s funny, but it’s also questionable how accurate any of it is. In the end, we’re not really learning about Pnin at all, we’re learning about the narrator.

    Brilliant stuff.

  5. Here’s the comment I made over at The Asylum when John wrote about it, I note I used the word exceptional there too:

    I thought this a hugely clever novel, and one that on finishing I really enjoyed even though there were times when reading it I found it quite alienating.

    And those things were connected, as John says it’s the unreliability of the narrative that’s fascinating. There came a point when I read it when I found myself frustrated with Pnin’s utter absurdity, and with increasing and obvious authorial interjections, and then I realised (I suspect round about when Nabokov intended me to) that the authorial interjections were because there was another author between me and Pnin and the absurdity was a function of that other author’s own take on events. And that, that transformed the novel for me.

    I think the novel dances with irritating the reader in places, intentionally, but if you trust it (and I agree with John also that Nabokov merits some trust) there is a point to that and the trust is repaid. Whether Nabokov liked it or not I can’t say, but I thought it quite exceptional.

  6. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Always happy when something I wrote has been helpful. My favorite Nabokov is, easily, Pale Fire. However, I hasten to add that it is not the easiest. I found it uproariously funny on multiple levels, extremely clever (in a good way), and deliciously dark.

    Speak, Memory is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books and is, I think, less intimidating than Pale Fire. So, it is a favorite in a category. The more categories, the more favorites.

    Thanks for asking, Sarah!

  7. Kerry says:

    Max,

    That is a great take on the novel. In my opinion, Nabokov has incredible control over his novels and is a master at sending the reader precisely where Nabokov wants the reader to go. Of course, it was Nabokov who famously said, contrasting his own view with those who say their characters take on lives of their own, that his characters were “galley slaves”.

    I agree that the brilliance of Pnin is, in part, due to the slow shift in focus from Pnin to the narrator. As you so ably describe, this shift is handled masterfully and to great effect.

    Thanks, Max, for your very insightful comments.

  8. M says:

    Pnin is one of those rare books that actually causes me to choke with emotion at times. When the narrator leads us to believe, albeit briefly, that Pnin has indeed broken his beloved bowl that Victor gifted him, well, frustration and despair wells up inside me just as Pnin throws his dishcloth down and turns toward the dark hallway. I always despise Nabokov (or the narrator) so much at that point in the text for giving Pnin that horribly lonely moment.

    What strikes me when reading Pnin is how out-of-place our hero feels, and how deftly Nabokov handles this. As if you can palpably feel Nabokov giving away his memories and experiences as an emigree to Pnin.

    Anyway, I just found your blog today and have been enjoying reading your writing. Thanks!

  9. Kerry says:

    M,

    Thank you very much for your great comment. I recall that scene and, like you, felt absolutely terrible that Pnin had broken the bowl. It is one of those moments that make you angry at the author (or narrator), over a bowl.

    I really enjoyed your comment, and not just the part about me. Thank you for improving the quality of the discussion with your astute observations and analysis.

    I will look forward to exploring your blog.

  10. Ted Cook says:

    Reading this reminds me of my old room mate. That guy was one of the smartest men I know, but he was a little beatnik for my tastes though. Anyways I loved reading this, thanks. Will give me something to talk about when I see him.

  11. Kerry says:

    Ted,

    Thanks for stopping in and sharing your impression. I am very pleased if my review had any sway in your choice. At any rate, I am always happy when someone else enjoys one of my favorite books.

    Thanks again for the comment.

    Kerry

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