Continuing on my Russian kick, I have to confess that I am something of a newcomer when it comes to Nabokov. I read “Lolita” some years ago, quite quickly, and I don’t think I did it justice, as my recent reads of this writer (“Gogol” and “Pnin”) have been very illuminating!


“Pnin” is one of Nabokov’s most popular books, consisting of seven chapters which were originally published as short stories in the New Yorker magazine. He wrote these at the same time as he was working on “Lolita” and I believe they were regarded as a bit of light relief in contrast to the darker subject matter of that novel. The Pnin of the title is Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a professor at Waindell College in the USA, teaching Russian to indifferent students and attempting to deal with loneliness and exile. The stories deal with various events which take place in his life – taking the wrong train on the way to a lecture, staying with fellow Russian emigres in the country, his relationship with his ex-wife and her son, and his attempt to make a life and home for himself in a strange country.

We see Pnin against an ever-changing background – his colleagues at the College, his students, a succession of landladies and rooms, his ex-wife Liza and her son Victor, the American landscape that at times reminds him of Russia. We watch him grapple with the complexities of the American way of life and it’s amusing but we also empathise with his difficulties. However, although there is much humour and wit in “Pnin” is it also laced with tragedy.

An underlying sense of loss and exile runs through the book, coupled with Timofey’s obvious loneliness. We are told the sad tale of his marriage and separation in stages, as well as getting glimpses of his youth. The saddest and most harrowing chapter cover the loss of the love of Pnin’s life, Mira, who perishes in a German concentration camp. Nabokov’s writing here is beautiful, evocative and so very moving. It is tempting to conflate author and character , owing to Nabokov having much in common with Pnin – exile from Russia, life in Europe, coming to America and becoming a college lecturer – but VVN is careful to distance himself from Pnin, who was apparently based on a college colleague of his. However, the sadness and displacement of exile is very convincing and I couldn’t helping feeling this came from the heart. Pnin’s attempts to build a relationship with Victor are also very touching and it is typical of the book that this plan also comes tumbling down as Liza whisks him away to the other side of the continent.

One of the main joys of reading this book was Nabokov’s playfulness – he is constantly experimenting with the form of the novel, suddenly bringing in the personal and reminding us that as well as being the narrator, he also exists in his own right. He claims to be friend of Pnin’s, then his doctor, then later is actually referred to by one of the characters as Vladimir Vladimirovich, who is a lepidopterist! However, this appearance of the author in the fiction tends to actually make us question the whole concept of the novel itself, as Nabokov is shown to be increasingly unreliable, reporting Pnin as disputing his claims about their contact in his youth.

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What constantly struck me about this book was the language – it was only when I was reading Nabokov’s “Gogol” that I realised what a unique and wonderful command of English he had. His sentences, with their amazing juxtapositions and unusual pairings of words, are just a complete joy to read. Nabokov is a brilliant, clever writer, but this does not detract from the story he’s telling – rather, it makes it more of a delight to read. As for the tale of Pnin itself, Timofey is such a wonderful character – slightly bumbling, very precisely drawn and although humorous, also full of sadness. As we watch his rise and fall, we inevitably become concerned about his well-being – and as the narrator takes a more central stage in the story and we watch Pnin riding off into an uncertain future, there is a poignancy in not knowing what will become of him. I loved reading “Pnin” and feel very eager now to read even more of Nabokov’s work.