Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin

PninWhile searching for a publisher brave enough to put out Lolita, and laboring under the burden of financial necessity, Vladimir Nabokov published Pnin in installments in The New Yorker, and it has lived in the shadows ever since. It is, admittedly, a much less ambitious work than Lolita, failing to reach two hundred pages despite wide margins and generous line spacing and amounting, essentially, to a character sketch. Timofey (“Second syllable pronounced as ‘muff,’ ahksent on last syllable, ‘ey’ as in ‘prey’ but a little more protracted”) Pavlovich Pnin is a Russian émigré working as a professor at fictional Waindell College. He is divorced, estranged from his ex-wife, and though his kindness wins him affection at his new job, he has nothing resembling real friendship; he is alone, lonely, and unexceptional in every way except in innocence. Nabokov endows him with the kind of child-like purity that makes you marvel that anyone so naive, so unassuming, could survive into adulthood.

Pnin is not heroic, and his naivety provides fodder for much of the book’s humor, but his quiet dignity and high-mindedness make it painful for us to laugh at him. Nabokov unleashes this innocent creature in a world of duplicity and self-interest and compels us to witness the terrible consequences. The forces aligned against him (the university bureaucracy, for example) are not malicious but indifferent, and we hate them all the more for it. Here, for example, is Pnin’s ex-wife, meeting with him not, as Pnin hopes, to attempt a reconciliation but to get money from him for her son.

…somebody ought to send the lad a small sum now and then, as if coming from his mother – pocket money, you know – he would be among rich boys. She would write Timofey giving him an address and some more details. Yes – she never doubted that Timofey was a darling (“Nu kakoy zhe ti dushka”). And now where was the bathroom? And would he please telephone for a taxi?

Before she abruptly takes her leave, she manages to disparage his brown suit (“A gentleman does not wear brown”), the expensive one he purchased to look his best for what he thought was a date. Who could read this and not wince? Nabokov’s reputation is as a prose stylist, but this is a meaningless compliment divorced from the ability to convey meaning and emotion; his gift is in the harmonious interplay of sound and sense, his ability to do in a paragraph what lesser writers fail to do in an entire book:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his piece of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be suspected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.

It takes Nabokov a paragraph to slice his reader apart,  to bring us to our knees before both the inhumanity of the murder of a young woman and the humanity of a man who must put the very thought out of his mind if he is to “exist rationally.”

Ultimately, this is a playful novel. Nabokov is not aiming at tragedy, though sadness pervades it. The university setting affords Nabokov opportunity for plenty of clever commentary or petty revenge against faculty members he disliked (Pnin himself is said to have been recognizably based on a real person). I particularly enjoyed this little aside, spoken during a party in which all the participants are less than sober: “Tom thinks that the best method of teaching anything is to rely on discussion in class, which means letting twenty young blockheads and two cocky neurotics discuss for fifty minutes something that neither their teacher nor they know.” By using a third person narrator (a man who shares Nabokov’s initials and love of butterflies), Nabokov keeps his reader and his protagonist separate, the necessary distance to prevent the tragic elements from overwhelming the comic ones, but the attentive reader will discover in Pnin a character complex enough that he can only be called human.