Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

January 16, 2010

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.