Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov


Pnin is a story about making a home. For Timofey Pavlovich Pnin this isn’t easy. The Communists force him to flee Russia, The Nazis force him to flee Europe, and his absent-mindedness make assimilating in the United States (Soedinyon nie Shtati) difficult. I found Timofey sympathetic, however his friends and students were more interested in ridiculing the poor guy.
The plot of the book is weak- there really isn’t one. Nakokov wrote a series of short stories for the New Yorker; they were expanded and revised to form the book. The plot may be weak but the theme is strong and the characters are rich and varied. Nabokov is in fine form, his writing is crisp and his words roll off my mental tongue while reading.
I’m still not sure how his name is pronounced. He’s introduced at one point: “Tonight we have here, I am proud to say, the Russian-born, and citizen of this country, Professor — now comes a difficult one, I am afraid — Professor Pun-neen.” But Pnin isn’t paying attention to correct her, and Nabokov as the books narrator is simultaneously making fun of her.

The book is a good read, working as a light satire of 1950’s college life (Waindell College a fictionalized Cornell) and a flashbacks to Pnin’s boyhood in Russia and his expatriate love-life in Europe, with a woman who haunts his life; with a son not his own.

184 pages

Amazon Book Preview of Pnin

Quotes From The “Pnin”

It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence. He was inept with his hands to a rare degree; but because he could manufacture in a twinkle a one-note mouth-organ out a pea pod, make a flat pebble skip ten times on the surface of a pond, shadowgraph with his knuckles a rabbit (complete with blinking eye), and perform a number of other tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves, he believed himself endowed with considerable manual and mechanical skill. On gadgets he doted with a kind of dazed, superstitious delight. Electric devices enchanted him. Plastics swept him off his feet. He had a deep admiration for the zipper. – location 88-94

He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her — just as she was — with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. – location 594-96

He was still at the blissful stage of collecting his material; and many good young people considered it a treat and an honour to see Pnin pull out a catalogue drawer from the comprehensive bosom of a card cabinet and take it, like a big nut, to a secluded corner and there make a quiet mental meal of it, now moving his lips in soundless comment, critical, satisfied, perplexed, and now lifting his rudimentary eyebrows and forgetting them there, left high upon his spacious brow where they remained long after all trace of displeasure or doubt had gone. – location 804-8

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying.’ He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick. – location 1474-76

The sense of living in a discrete building all by himself was to Pnin something singularly delightful and amazingly satisfying to a weary old want of his innermost self, battered and stunned by thirty-five years of homelessness. One of the sweetest things about the place was the silence — angelic, rural, and perfectly secure, thus in blissful contrast to the persistent cacophonies that had surrounded him from six sides in the rented rooms of his former habitations. – location 1560-63

‘You, Lise, are surrounded by poets, scientists, artists, dandies. The celebrated painter who made your portrait last year is now, it is said, drinking himself to death (govoryat, spilsya) in the wilds of Massachusetts. Rumour proclaims many other things. And here I am, daring to write to you. ‘I am not handsome, I am not interesting, I am not talented. I am not even rich. But Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy. I want you to write poems. I want you to go on with your psychotherapeutic research — in which I do not understand much, while questioning the validity of what I can understand. Incidentally, I am sending you under separate cover a pamphlet published in Prague by my friend Professor Chateau, which brilliantly refutes your Dr Halp’s theory of birth being an act of suicide on the part of the infant. I have permitted myself to correct an obvious misprint on page 48 of Chateau’s excellent paper. I await your’ (probably ‘decision’, the bottom of the page with the signature had been cut off by Liza). – location 1995-2004


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3 Responses to Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. craigmaas says:

    The book mentions ‘Akhmatova’ – a poet/translator who’s life was brutalized by the Soviets. In her final years she lived with the Punin family in Leningrad. Look up Anna Akhmatova in Wikipedia for an interesting story of a brave woman fighting the Soviet State from the inside. If the State is willing to do this to a simple poet, image what they would do to you.

  2. craigmaas says:

    p’neen as in Up Nina without the U or a.

  3. Pingback: Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson | Cold Read

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