When Nabokov’s wonderful, delightful, lovely novel Pnin opens, Professor Timofey Pnin is on the wrong train. The entire introductory chapter follows his misadventure (entirely his own fault, as it happens), as he gets off the train, loses his valise, misses his bus, has what appears to be some sort of nostalgic heart attack, merging him with his own past — and yet finally, against all odds, Professor Pnin winds up where he is supposed to be, on time, giving a lecture to the ladies of the Cremona Women’s Club. “Some people –” says the nameless narrator —

and I am one of them — hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I should have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival at Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next.

It is here, not 25 pages into the book, that we come first into the presence of the narrator — a narrator who professes to be objective, to write what he sees, but who does not apparently like Pnin very much. It’s too easy to forget about this narrator.

For who could not like Pnin? Nabokov gives us tragedy and comedy on the same pages: Pnin with his insurmountable language barrier (his institution, Waindell College, is delightfully transformed into Vandal College; whiskey and soda, in one heartbreaking scene, becomes viscous and sawdust.) Pnin with his utter fidelity to the woman he loves, the treacherous and cruel Liza. Pnin with his unstinting generosity, his sense of gravity and formality, his whimsy. Pnin’s utter obliviousness to the creeping tendrils of  academic conspiracies.

Many episodes follow the general shape of that introductory chapter. We are rooting for the lovable professor, with all his flaws; something almost goes horribly wrong; the avalanche stops mere feet above the town. For anyone who has read the book, I need not sketch the most breathtaking example of this, but need merely mention the punchbowl.

But things get worse for poor Pnin. His experiences become less a question of farce and slapstick — missed trains, wrong lecture notes — than of existential dread and personal sorrow about a desperately sad past. The narrator begins to intrude more and more often with his opinions, and we already know his feelings about happy endings. In the end, Pnin is actually forced to flee not just the college but the novel itself, destination unknown. (As a matter of fact, he winds up with a tenured position at John Slade’s college in Pale Fire, so that’s all right, but we’re not to know that here.) The narrator, with his penchant for doom, has driven him out.

Once again, just as with Pale Fire, I found myself dizzied with pleasure, reading this book. It’s not the same kind of book at all, nor does it give the same kind of feeling, reading it: it’s not a puzzle, and it’s not tricky. But at the sentence level, it’s totally brilliant, one thing after another sliding down toward you like… like joyous river-otters:

With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical instrument that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.

I mean! Or, what about this?

It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all that existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

And it’s not just the language. It’s about sympathy, and exile, and understanding. In a book by Evelyn Waugh, another prose master, that combination of sweetness and cruelty would have turned out quite differently.

I know my first reading of this, or any novel by Nabokov is going to be quite inadequate. Still, I feel so glad to have given it a try, and to be primed for the real business of re-reading. I can’t recommend this more highly. I was happily carried away; a masterpiece.

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22 Responses to Pnin

  1. litlove says:

    Not inadequate at all! It’s a lovely review of a book I recently bought and now – yay! – am looking forward to more than ever.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I read Lolita when I was much too young for it (though even at the time I suspected there was more to it), and nothing since, until this year. I feel as if someone had buried treasure for me.

  2. parrish lantern says:

    This sounds absolutely wonderful, Nabakov was enthralled by language, his use of it even with a character such HH in lolita amazes me, just those early lines – Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo.Lee.Ta. when I first read them I just kept saying just to check if he was right & he was 3 steps down. Great post, loved it

    • Jenny says:

      The language is astounding, and it’s almost the least of it. The structure! The mastery of character! The profound seriousness, even when he’s playing — oh, I can’t. He makes my head feel small. Complete delight.

  3. softdrink says:

    Huh. Delightful is not a word I associate with Nabokov. I think I’ve been reading the wrong books!

    • Jenny says:

      I think people get a bad impression from Lolita (which I will probably read next) and then never try anything else. Believe me, this one is totally delightful.

  4. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I discovered the first half of the beginning quote not too long ago and love it. I think it’s time I read Nabakov beyond Lolita.

    • Jenny says:

      Lolita casts a long shadow, doesn’t it? I think most people never get beyond it. I’ve only read Pale Fire and Pnin, which are completely different and both dazzlingly wonderful.

  5. Deb says:

    I haven’t read this, but (coincidently) I just finished KING, QUEEN, KNAVE, which I’d bought years ago at a book sale and had pulled sort of randomly from my tbr pile. Nabakov’s love of language, of puns, of inserting himself into the storyline (even in a small way), of having something totally unexpected happen (in KQKn, it’s quite a shocking event) made me wonder why I gave up on Nabakov after LOLITA and BAR SINISTER. Now I’ll have to give PNIN a try.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, do! I am now fairly convinced I’ll have to read everything he’s written. I think I might become a Nabokov reader the way Teresa is a Saramago reader.

      • Teresa says:

        Ha! Funny you should say that. Your recent Nabakov reviews have made me think I should read him because I’m clearly missing out. But I really don’t need a new author addiction at this point, so I consoled myself by saying I’m committed to Saramago for now, and the pleasures the two offer do seem comparable.

      • Jason Rihelovich Nabokov Addict says:

        As one who just finished my Nabokov tour– having now read every short story, every novel, his autobiography, and his collection of essays/interviews– I can assure you that it is worthwhile.

        Not only does he like puns, he likes “auto-plagerism” and self-punning. “Look at the Harlequins” is almost impossible to enjoy or even understand without reading his entire body of work.

        If you have to pick and choose, however, I think Ada or Ardor is his true masterpiece. From his Russian period, Despair was probably my favorite, although the Gift is clearly his most ambitious– and most impressive when you see what he does there. If you like the relative simplicity of Pnin, his Russian novels (except Invitation to a Beheading and the Gift) are much more straightforward reads than his more ambitious stuff.

        The only work that left me mostly indifferent is Glory, but even that one has a few turns of phrase and images that make it worth reading, too.

  6. softdrink – you haven’t been reading Wuthering Expectations, that’s the problem.

    Jenny – is Pnin forced to flee the novel, or does he successfully escape it? And when is the reread – you can keep track of the squirrels and so on. I plan to read it again whenever bibliographing nicole gets to it. Or earlier – the bits you select are so tempting.

    The punchbowl scene makes my “most sublime of the 20th century” list, or would if I were to make such a list.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it appears that he is forced to flee it, but if you cast it as a successful escape, then it fits the construct of the whole novel. Calloo, callay!

      The scene where Pnin gives the squirrel a drink from the water fountain was outstanding. And yes. The punchbowl scene is completely sublime. You should make your list!

  7. gaskella says:

    This has languished in my TBR pile for so long – your love of this novel makes it a must read soon now rather than later. I’ve only read Lolita too, so should definitely try some other Nabokov.

  8. anokatony says:

    Funny, I’m now reading ‘Despair’ by Nabokov. My favorites of Nabokov are Pnin, Laughter in the Dark, and above all, Pale Fire. Lolita has never been one of my favorites and probably has turned a lot of people away from Nabokov. Pnin is probably the best place to start with this author.

    • Jenny says:

      Pale Fire was dazzlingly brilliant. I think what I keep not expecting is how different each book is from the next, because so many authors seem to write the same book with different characters, or even with the same characters. What a joy to read such wonderful stuff.

  9. Kerry says:

    I agree with you and Tony, Pale Fire is just astoundingly good. Pnin is a masterpiece too. Thanks for reminding me of so many great points in this novel. I am just about to pick up Bend Sinister on my quest to read everything by Nabokov…..just slowly, so it lasts. Of course, I need to re-read everything too…..

    Great review!

  10. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog: November 10, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  11. Victoria says:

    ‘one thing after another sliding down toward you like… like joyous river-otters’

    The boundless enthusiasm of that simile has convinced me that Nabokov is missing from my life. I know Pale Fire is around here somewhere, but maybe I should start with Pnin? Can you believe my city library has neither in stock?!

  12. Joe says:

    Pnin is my favorite book. I’m now reading it for the 3rd time and am going to read it again in the winter. Each of Nabokov’s main characters is a slice of the author himself and Pnin is more Nabakov than many of the others. Nevertheless, we all can identify with the Professor Pnin. Who hasn’t been on a wrong bus or train and felt the desperation, who hasn’t been sandbagged by people one trusted, and who hasn’t at some point in his life left his own story only to blithly ride over a hill into a new one.

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