- Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 07 December 2000
- Modern & Contemporary
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I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted to work their way slowly into Russian Literature. It is a light-hearted story about a school teacher who meets with some difficulties. It is humorous and a relatively easy read. I thoroughly enjoyed Pnin.
Teaching this book has been a real pleasure: beautiful writing--and, even better, Nabokov's calculated "bad" writing as well. The fifth chapter is one of the most interesting and weighty meditations on fiction, memory, and history I've read in the last few years.
Pnin, like much of Nabokov's work, is simply brilliant. The novel is a character sketch of Timofey Pnin, a Russian scholar teaching in America. Each chapter is an episode from his time teaching at the fictional Waindell College. Pnin is a rather hapless figure, and his exploits are commonly comedic. Indeed, this is a really funny book, and could be enjoyed simply on that level. Nabokov is not just a poetic writer, he is unmatched in his literary wit. There are always more subtle jokes and turns of phrase to pull out of the text.It is quickly obvious, however, that there is a lot more to the story and to the character of Pnin then the comic story might lead us to believe. His past is only on occasion discussed directly, but it is intrusive. Part of Pnin's humor is that he is a "fish out of water," so to speak (not to mention that he follows in the long tradition of the academic with his head in the clouds, as in Aristophanes' play). Yet, the memories of his past, frequently tragic, are a constant reminder that there is an environment in which he does fit more naturally. Not only does it flesh out his character with detail, it makes us take him seriously. Right from the offing, we are not merely laughing at Pnin, but aching for him at the same time. As a result, we are constantly invested in Pnin, we feel protective of him, even as we enjoy the book's charms. As a consequence, the novel works superbly as a character sketch, instead of just a comedy built on a cliche.The stories are also wonderfully and subtly constructed. Take, for example, the third story. Pnin has been a lodger in a local home (with the family of another Waindell College Professor), and the early parts of the story focus on Pnin's frustration with having to return a library book that has been recalled before it is due (as a fellow academic, I could sympathize!). Yet, it is clear to the reader that other things are a foot with his lodging arrangements, which will obviously come to a head before the end of the story. Nabokov is able to make us aware of this whilst still making the story ostensibly one about Pnin's trip to the library. This comes off beautifully, as we are privy to Pnin's clueless behavior without having the narrator keep reminding us of it. It's also a moving, at times heart-rending novel. The moment, at the end of a disastrous dinner party, when Pnin thinks he has broken a crystal bowl received as a gift is crushing. The moment that follows, when Pnin realizes it is intact, brings palpable relief. It's the simplest of moments, but told as it is, placed in a story as it is, and with a character we care about like Pnin, it sticks with you. I've found that simple moment on my mind, over a week since I read it. The novel is also, as we would expect from Nabokov, brilliantly written. It is difficult for me to describe his prose without simply layering on supleratives, so instead I will just quote a pair of passages that reflect his eloquence and playfulness so well:"Doffing his spectacles, he rubbed with the knuckles of the hand that held them his naked and tired eyes and, still in thought, fixed his mild gaze on the window above, where, gradually, through his dissolving meditation, there appeared the violet-blue air of dusk, silver-tooled by the reflection of the fluorescent lights of the ceiling, and, among the spidery black twigs, a mirrored row of bright book spines" (56)."On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exact spot where Gramineev's easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouetted against the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin's fading day" (101).The latter passage is particularly brilliant, with the way it moves seamlessly between the narrative and the meta-narrative, with the delightful pun about the "last page," as this is the final sentence of this particular story. <i>Pnin</i> is fun and it is beautiful, and I recommend it without reservation to any reader.
My teacher John O"Conner once described his response to Nabokov as "I just want to read a novel, I don't want to be tricked." <i>Pnin</i> retains much of the trickester's apparatus, but their significance is suppressed, and one can enjoy it more or less straight as story perfectly balanced between pathos and bathos.
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