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Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
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Pnin (original 1957; edition 2004)

by Vladimir Nabokov

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2,853392,035 (3.9)1 / 123
Member:zvs
Title:Pnin
Authors:Vladimir Nabokov
Info:Everyman's Library (2004), Hardcover, 184 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:russian, usa

Work details

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (1957)

  1. 02
    Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith (bertilak)
    bertilak: Smith's book is a trifle by comparison, but both deal with eccentric academics.
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Perhaps it is foolish, but I like to ration out my Nabokovs: he’s written 18 novels (19 if you include the half-unfinished The Original of Laura). I read Ada at an impressionable age, and knowing, as children often do, that his prose would be a pleasure with limits, I decide to read the Nabokov canon slowly. I pick up one book every few years, and then devour it, satisfying myself with several re-reads. I finished Pale Fire (1962), and King, Queen, Knave (1928) and this year chose Pnin. Pnin was not entirely an accidentally choice; I’d already met the character Professor Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, in Pale Fire. What sealed the deal was the New Yorker podcast featuring Alexander Hemon introducing and discussing Pnin. He reads out the first chapter of the novel, and explains why it is that the loves the book, and Nabokov, so much. I was hooked.

Pnin, a short, absurd novel, is the story of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a minor assistant professor of Russian at the fictional college of Waindell. Pnin, morose, clumsy, full of half-fancies and sentimental notions, is a most unfortunate person. His entire life, as a Russian émigré in the United States, is so full of misadventures. After a particularly miserable episode involving a missed bus, the wrong train, misplaced lecture notes and an unhelpful baggage attendant, Pnin finally has a bout of good luck in getting a lift to his distant destination. The narrator, an unidentified voice who appears to know Pnin, is forced to confess that ideally, Pnin would meet with disaster en route to secure the integrity of the story, but Pnin reaches safely. This is possibly his only stroke of good luck.

Nabokov’s device of the narrator in this novel is fascinating. The novel begins in third person, until abruptly, the voice of the narrator is revealed as a character in the novel – someone who evidently knows Pnin. Hemon, in his comments, is asked by an editor at the New Yorker, about this – apparently it is intended to be Nabokov himself. Indeed, someone does refer to the narrator as Vladimir Vladimirovich during the novel. Through the novel’s chapters, as Pnin stumbles from vacation to work, from his estranged wife to his estranged sun to students and to sentimental memories of his Russian youth, we get no more indications of who the narrator is, until the last chapter, when the voice is entirely revealed. Pnin, who moves from being an entirely awkward professor, there at the behest of the kind head of the German department, transforms into someone who at the very least, is settled into university life. The novel ends, though, as Pnin’s adventures do, with him fleeing the university, driven out by the narrator (although I won’t tell you how).
Pnin is an intensely funny novel. True, it is sad as well, but for the most part, this is Nabokov’s deliciously cutting send-up of everything that concerns Russian émigrés and American universities. I can’t speak for the former, but when it comes to the latter, I can vouch for the fact that every hilarious, mocking episode concerning the politics of university appointments, the travails of researchers and graduate students and the dull faculty parties are all accurately, cruelly and amusingly reproduced. Zadie Smith attempted something like this in On Beauty, but Smith isn’t even a tenth of the writer Nabokov was, in my opinion. Take, for instance, Nabokov’s examples of outrageous grants gifted to scholars at the university: “Tristam W Thomas (“Tom” to his friends), Professor of Anthropology had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandeville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers…”.

Poor Pnin, left by his wife, fascinated by washing machines, reciting obscure Russian folk poetry to graduate students in entry-level Russian courses – I grew fond of Pnin, too soon. The book is full of charming little character sketches (one of the many things that I love about Nabokov) – for instance, “…I never cared much for Bolotov and his philosophical works, which so oddly combine the obscure and trite; the man’s achievement is perhaps a mountain but a mountain of platitudes; I have always liked, however, Varvara, the philospher’s exuberant buxom wife..” I know I’m a devoted Nabokov fan, so this is expected, but I give this work an unreserved recommendation. It’s funny, it’s well-written and it is by Nabokov, and of these three, the last alone ought to suffice!

Ps. On a purely facile note, I discovered through Hemon’s podcast that I’ve been pronouncing Nabokov’s name incorrectly all my life. He stresses the middle syllable, while I’ve been stressing the first. ( )
1 vote reva8 | Feb 5, 2015 |
There’s a term for this kind of literature. And I must confess, I had to go back to the Introduction to find it: ‘the campus novel’ is what it’s called. David Lodge, who wrote that Introduction, allows that “there are some austere readers…who consider it a trivial and introverted subgenre” (p. xiii) — and well it might be. But as most of the readers of Pnin will, I suspect, themselves have attended a comparable institution and spent a spring (or four )spread out on its shapely lawns or carousing in its comely quad, the notion of a ‘campus novel’ will not come as a rude shock or even as an unwelcome guest into an evening’s reminiscence upon those days of college lore.


That said, I must confess that this was not an easy work to read. There were many times when I wondered whether it was my lack of concentration, my inability to connect the dots, or simply my lack of intelligence. Don’t be dismayed if Pnin leaves you without a clue. Stylistically speaking, I assume that you’ll quite agree with me: Nabokov (properly pronounced naBOkuv, by the way) is sui generis. But where the integrity of this particular work is concerned, I’m at a loss.


And so, let’s instead take a look at Nabokov’s style.


The first paragraph of Chapter 3 gives us this delicious little characterization of the eponymous hero of our novel:

“During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings – for one reason or another, mainly sonic – about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody. The rooms of his Waindell period looked especially trim in comparison with one he had had in uptown New York, midway between Tsentral Park and Reeverside, on a block memorable for the wastepaper along the curb, the bright pat of dog dirt somebody had already slipped upon, and a tireless boy pitching a ball against the steps of the high brown porch; and even that room became positively dapper in Pnin’s mind (where a small ball still rebounded) when compared with the old, now dust-blurred lodgings of his long Central-European, Nansen-passport period” (p. 44).

Or — much later in the novel — say, at a point at which we might have a slight craving for an academic’s inside (and somewhat sardonic) observations on the animal instincts of other tillers (i.e., colleagues) in the fields of academe, we have the following:


"'He received a grant of ten thousand dollars,' said Joan to Betty, whose face dropped a curtsy as she made that special grimace consisting of a slow half-bow and tensing of chin and lower lip that automatically conveys, on the part of Bettys, a respectful, congratulatory, and slightly awed recognition of such grand things as dining with one's boss, being in Who's Who, or meeting a duchesse" (p. 115).


When I read the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the word “gossamer” comes to mind. I don’t know why, but it does. The man had a deftness and dexterity with the language that few native speakers/writers possess — and this alone makes his work well worth reading.


RRB
4/16/14
Brooklyn, NY

( )
1 vote RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
Enjoyed this, yet Nabakov's prose, however beautiful, can tend to be a bit acrobatic for me. A real work of art, though, as this is certainly not driven by plot. Just an endearing portrait of a kooky man.
Also, I catalogued this as Russian Literature. I know he wrote this in English while in America. Still. ( )
  BooksForDinner | Sep 1, 2014 |
Be sincere, love something, be alive! ( )
  Oskar_Matzerath | Aug 16, 2014 |
I loved this funny, touching, subtle, impressionistic short novel of the quintessential, yet unrepeatable emigre Russian college professor. I met many of Pnin's real-world epigones at Middlebury College summer language school, so I can attest that Nabokov's version both captures and transcends the type!

I could well relate to the hapless Pnin's [SPOILER, sort of:] professional demise at the end of the book. Nabokov makes it clear that, despite his often hilarious versions of English phrasing and pronunciation, Pnin knows his own language--as well as French--to perfection and is more a true scholar than any of the middlebrow Americans who surround him. Pnin's fine sensitivities are conveyed through trivial events that motivate weighty emotional recollections as, for example, a brief mention of his 1st love. All major events are presented obliquely, and so we discover in passing that Mira met an untimely end in a Nazi death camp.

The displacement of such past griefs in the new life of affluent, optimistic America is one of the book's fine achievements. Nothing is resolved as Pnin drives off into the sunset, having absorbed--we may believe, if we wish--his own measure of optimism. ( )
2 vote AnesaMiller | Mar 10, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vladimir Nabokovprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bayer, A. E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoog, ElseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Matthes, UrlichNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wood, Michaelsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zimmer, Dieter E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679723412, Paperback)

Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: "A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do." Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:04 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: "A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do." Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 3 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141183756, 0141197129

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