“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and at his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator are of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark L. Levinson on November 29, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    It could be fifty years since I read Pnin. I think that the reader’s sympathy for Pnin is all the greater because the reader feels like the source of spontaneous sympathy rather than responding to an explicit demand of sympathy on the narrator’s part. By the way, Wikipedia has a good article about the book.


  2. Very illuminating post – I loved ‘Pnin’ and you’ve helped some of rather fragmented thoughts I have about it crystallise a bit!


    • Thanks. I’m not sure my thoughts have entirely crystallised either: I think I need to let the work settle in my mind a bit longer. But even as it is, it seems an extraordinary achievement.


  3. The narrator is not Nabokov himself, but “Nabokov himself,” a parody of Nabokov himself, who is, for example, crueler than Nabokov himself. Pnin is right to flee the novel. It is his final triumph. And as we know from Pale Fire, he lands on his feet.

    Imagine how this work looked to the readers of the New Yorker, where it was serialized, chapter by chapter, but not labeled as a serial. Another adventure of Prof Pnin would just appear once in a while. I wonder how many readers figured out the complexity of the game, the depth of the achievement.


    • “The narrator is not Nabokov himself, but “Nabokov himself,” a parody of Nabokov himself, who is, for example, crueler than Nabokov himself.’

      Yes, that is indeed a good distinction. I wish I’d thought of saying that.

      I still wonder to what extent the depth of the achievement is recognised. I’ve heard it described merely as a “campus novel”. Well, I suppose it is. In the same way that “Hamlet” is a ghost story.


    • Posted by Janet on November 29, 2017 at 10:50 pm

      Well, this was timely. I have a stack of to-read nexts, among which is Pale Fire. I have been meaning to read both Pnin and Pale Fire and picked up Pale Fire at a used book sale not knowing they are related novels. I am saved. I will remove Pale Fire from the end of year candidate short list and go get Pnin. 2018 may be the year of Russian novels.

      Thanks for this lovely reflection on the novel and its trickster author.


      • I don’t know why, but I have not read much Nabokov. The inevitable Lolita, and his lectures on literature – and that’s about it. (And now Pnin, of course.) I am not sure why, as he is clearly a very great writer. I shall certainly try to read more, but sadly, the pace of my reading, never very spectacular in the first place, has slowed down even further of late!

  4. I loved this novel and have read it twice, whereas I started Lolita twice and couldn’t get past page 10 either time. Pnim is the man who can’t fit in. At first, it seems because he is an immigrant in a strange culture. We see this when is stays with the other Russians in the summer. But Pnim’s disquiet in the world is deeper than his migration as we gradually come to understand. Nabokov’s “cruel” narrator is a stand in for the world which does not appreciate Pnim.


  5. Posted by Mark on November 29, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    One of the best novels of the twentieth century in my view. It’s worth noting that in a later Nabokov masterpiece, Pale Fire, Pnin is glimpsed again, installed happily in a suitable academic post.


  6. Posted by alan on November 29, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    A fantasy:
    To me it reads like a confession. Nabokov was a writer and an immigrant. For a writer to be any good at his art he has to believe to some extent in the reality of his characters. I suspect that Pnin is not so much Nabokov’s former self but a representation, given life, of those parts of himself that he felt he had to bully out of himself in order to become an American. It’s not surprising that Pnin is without sin.
    For me a significant moment is when Nabokov writes about Russian emigre culture in Paris: “an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals, for whom the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, titled ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.”.
    In part this is Nabokov damning American intellectuals, of a piece with the various satirical moments in the book, but I also get the sense of a man who perhaps felt he hadn’t done enough.


    • Your reading is very different from mine, but the novel is sufficiently multi-faceted, I think, to accommodate both. Generally, I try not to interpret a work based on what I know of the author. If we take an interest in the author at all, it is to find if knowledge of the author can throw any new light on the work (and even that seems to me a highly dubious form of literary criticism). But to examine what light the work casts on the author does seem to me to be putting proverbial cart before horse.

      However, this does not invalidate your point, as it can be taken, I think, in a more general sense. Exiles – émigrés, migrants, immigrants – have to reject aspects of themselves in order to fit into their new environment. And it is, on reflection, a coherent reading, I think, that Pnin and the narrator are personifications of two parts of the émigré – one, the part that has to be rejected, and the other, the part that remains after the rejection. And, in this case, the personification of the part that is rejected seems a saint, and the other part merely cruel and nasty. This is possibly too schematic a reading for so complex a work, but, as far as it goes at least, it’s certainly coherent.

      I am myself, of course, of immigrant stock (although I think I shall refer to myself henceforth as an “émigré” – it sounds far more distinguished). I haven’t really had to reject anything, as my migration happened when I was five, and I had not yet had enough time to absorb much that needed rejecting. But the passage you highlight depicting the failure of Western intellectuals to understand the nature of Pnin’s culture, and the ignorant assumptions they make about it, certainly did ring a bell with me also.


  7. I bought a copy a few days ago. I’m in for a treat, I see.


  8. I just listened to a podcast about Pnin. Having read only Lolita long back, i was surprised by the description of the trickster author and then went back to re-reading parts of Lolita. It’s time to buy a copy of Pnin now. Thank you.


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