First edition in book form
Pnin (Russian pronunciation: [pnjin]) is Vladimir Nabokov's 13th novel and his fourth written in English; it was published in 1957. The success of Pnin in the United States would launch Nabokov's career into literary prominence. The book's eponymous protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a Russian-born professor living in the United States. A refugee in his 50s from both post-Revolutionary Russia and what he calls the "Hitler war," Pnin is an assistant professor of Russian at fictional Waindell College, possibly modeled on Cornell University or Wellesley College, both being places where Nabokov himself taught.
The novel commences with the description of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a professor of Russian at Waindell College, who is hilariously "ideally bald" with a "strong man torso," short "spindly legs," and "feminine feet." Pnin is on a train en route to Cremona from Waindell, where he is to give a guest lecture. Unbeknownst to Pnin, however, is that he has boarded the wrong train and it is only during mid-journey that he realizes the mistake, proceeding to get off. When he frantically tries to board a bus to Cremona, he suddenly realizes he lost his luggage and has a mild heart attack that causes his consciousness to travel back to his childhood in St. Petersburg, where he is reminded of the love of his mother and the Russian Revolution, among other events.
In the second episode of the novel, Laurence G. Clements, a fellow Waindell faculty member, and his wife Joan, are looking for a new lodger after their daughter Isabel has married and moved out. Their new tenant happens to be Pnin himself, who has been informed of the vacancy by Waindell's librarian, Mrs. Thayer. Although at first skeptical of lodging a man with such an unfavorable reputation (Laurence refers to him as a "freak"), the Clementses grow to enjoy Pnin's eccentricities. Pnin's thickly accented mispronunciations and his idiosyncratic phrasings (such as an electric heater's "sonic disturbance") make for amusing English. There follows the history of Pnin's relationship with his ex-wife Dr. Liza Wind, who manipulated him so that she might come to America and marry another man, fellow psychologist Eric Wind. Liza visits Pnin at the end of the chapter, but it soon becomes clear that she is coming only to extract money from him for her son, Victor. Although Pnin is aware of her schemes, he obliges out of his still-present love for his ex-wife. Yet, as Liza leaves, Pnin breaks down from her cruelty, shouting "I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!"
Chapter three begins with Pnin alone at the Clementses' residence after they have gone west to visit Isabel. Descriptions are then given of Pnin's competency in Russian, and this is sharply contrasted with his bumbling English. He arrives at Waindell library, where he ignores Mrs. Thayer's attempts at small talk as he frustratingly returns a book requested by another patron. When the record shows the requester to be Pnin himself, agitated, he goes off to do research for his book, a "Petite Histoire of Russian culture." The chapter ends with the return of Isabel, newly divorced, in tears, so that Pnin is forced to find new a new home.
The fourth chapter opens with the dream of fourteen-year-old Victor Wind, who envisions a King of a foreign land who refuses to abdicate and is exiled (eerily sounding like Pale Fire, which was published five years later). Victor considers this King to be his real father, rather than his biological father Eric Wind, whom he has not seen for two years. Victor is described as an ingenious, nonconformist youngster with a voracious interest in visual arts. His parents, rather than delighting in this, psychoanalyze him as if Victor's artistic ability were detrimental, much to the boy's chagrin. The reader is then led to an account of Victor's time at St. Bart's, where he has been a bright but rebellious student. Victor appears to have little respect for his teachers, except for Lake the art teacher, "a tremendously obese man with shaggy eyebrows and hairy hands." Victor is to later meet with Pnin at Waindell bus station, and Pnin hurriedly buys him a soccer ball and the Jack London novel The Son of the Wolf. Pnin picks up Victor on a rainy day and is immediately surprised by the boy's physical and mental maturity. But Victor is not interested in soccer, and Pnin takes the entire encounter as a failure. However, unbeknownst to Pnin, Victor holds him in great admiration and believes he is the King in his dreams.
The fifth chapter begins with the freshly licensed Pnin driving to The Pines, the summer home of an émigré friend. At The Pines is an assembly of Russian intellectuals, and in this company, Pnin, who normally appears the fool in English-speaking society, transforms into a distinguished gentleman with an impeccable knowledge of Russian culture. Pnin's language and manners no longer seem out of place and he even excels in a sport—croquet. The conflict between these Russian émigrés and their American-raised children is shown at The Pines, where the younger generation seems to scoff at the traditional, old-fashioned ways of their parents. Pnin's backstory begins to unfold more clearly, revealing the tragic tale of Pnin's former sweetheart, the Jewish Mira Belochkin, who was incarcerated at Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp. There is also the first mention of Vladimir Vladimirovich, an expert on butterflies and later revealed to be the narrator of Pnin.
In the penultimate section of the novel Pnin has finally decided to rent a house of his own. To celebrate this momentous event, he invites the Clementses, Mrs. Thayer, several Waindell faculty members, and his former student Betty Bliss to a "house-heating party." Although the party proves to be relatively successful, Pnin is informed by Dr. Hagen, the chair of his department, that Pnin has just lost his job, and the chapter ends with Pnin writing a letter in broken English to his former boss.
Chapter Seven finally reveals the identity of the narrator—a Russian-American academic and lepidopterist who goes by the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich. V.V. reveals his relationship with Pnin, claiming that he has known him since childhood from a meeting with his father, Pavel, an ophthalmologist. V.V. had an affair with Pnin's ex-wife Liza just before Pnin's marriage and nearly drove her to suicide by insulting her "Akhmatovasque" poetry. V.V. appears to be a bit of a bully towards Pnin, and much of what he says appears to be unreliable inasmuch as it is hastily refuted by Pnin. V.V. is awarded a teaching position at Waindell and invites Pnin to stay, but Pnin flees the college for an unknown destination, taking a stray dog with him. The novel closes with Jack Cockerell, Chairman of English at Waindell, beginning to tell V.V. of the story of Pnin bringing the wrong lecture to Cremona (which the novel began with), thus bringing the narrative full circle.
Characters in Pnin
Timofey Pavlovich Pnin—The eponymous absent-minded Russian émigré Professor who teaches at Waindell College. Pnin's poor English (the narrator writes that "[i]f [Pnin's] Russian was music, his English was murder"), strange appearance and behaviourial oddities are the source of much hilarity. Pnin reappears in Nabokov's 1962 Pale Fire as a tenured professor at the fictional Wordsmith University.
Laurence G. Clements—A philosophy professor at Waindell College and Pnin's first landlord.
Joan Clements—Laurence's wife. Her name is mispronounced as "John" by Pnin.
Isabel Clements—The Clementses'daughter, who moved out after marrying and finding an engineering job in a Western state. She eventually gets divorced and moves back to her parents' home.
Dr. Liza Wind—Pnin's ex-wife and a psychologist who succeeds in manipulating Pnin, due to his ever-present love for her.
Dr. Eric Wind—Liza's husband for whom she left Pnin.
Victor Wind—Son of Liza and Eric, yet he despises his parents and their professions and views Pnin as his true father. He meets Pnin in Chapter 4, and although the encounter appears to be awkward, the aquamarine glass bowl that Victor buys Pnin (shown in Chapter 6) is a symbol of his admiration for the stubby Professor.
Betty Bliss—A plump woman in her early 20s who was formerly a student of Pnin's at Waindell. Pnin finds her attractive and once thought of courting her.
Vladimir Vladimirovich—The book's seemingly unreliable narrator who bears similarities to Nabokov himself, such as his interest in lepidoptery and his landed-gentry Russian émigré past.
Jack Cockerell—The Chairman of English at Waindell College, who considers Pnin "a joke" and does everything in his power to remove him from the faculty.
Mira Belochkin—Pnin's first love, a Jewish girl who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.
Pnin was originally written as a series of sketches, and Nabokov originally began writing Chapter 2 in January 1954, around the same time Lolita was being finalized. Sections of Pnin were first published, in installments, in The New Yorker in order to generate income while Nabokov was scouring the United States for a publisher willing to publish Lolita. It was soon expanded, revised, and published in book form.
Nabokov's original vision of Pnin, which he originally sent to Viking, consisted of ten chapters and ended with Pnin's untimely death from the heart problem he suffers at the beginning of the novel. However, editor Pascal Covici rejected the idea and Nabokov heavily revised the novel, then titling the work My Poor Pnin, before finally settling on the current title. According to Boyd, Pnin is Nabokov's response to Don Quixote, which he had read a year earlier. Nabokov lambasted Cervantes for his cruelty to Quixote, seeming to encourage the reader to be amused by the eponymous character's pain and humiliation. The title of the book, Boyd claims, lends even more credence to this theory, as it sounds like and nearly spells "pain."
The novel draws from Nabokov's experience at American academic institutions, primarily Cornell, and it has been claimed that it is "teeming" with people and physical details from that university. The main character is based, in part, on Cornell Professor Marc Szeftel, who may have "somewhat resented the resemblance." The description of the Waindell campus better fits Wellesley, while the geographic location is somewhere north of Ithaca.
Nabokov himself had his own fair share of Pninian moments at Cornell, as his student Alfred Appel remembers on a day where his teacher walked into the wrong classroom:
I entered the class to find Professor Nabokov several sentences into his lecture; not wanting to waste another minute, he was stooped over his notes, intently reading them to thirty stunned students, a shell-shocked platoon belonging to an even tardier don. Trying to be transparent as possible, I approached the lectern and touched Nabokov in the sleeve. He turned, and peered down at me over his eyeglasses, amazed. "Mr. Nabokov," I said very quietly, "you are in the wrong classroom." He readjusted his glasses on his nose, focused his gaze on the motionless . . . figures seated before him, and calmly announced, "You have just seen the 'Coming Attraction' for Literature 325. If you are interested, you may register next fall."
Gayla Diment also notes another Pninian anecdote of Nabokov's:
James McConkey, a writer and a professor of English Literature who inherited the European Novel course after Nabokov left Cornell, remembers seeing Nabokov, "his whole face flushed and red," running out of the classroom where he was lecturing and into the office of the (still existent at the time) Division of Literature. Nabokov appeared to be so agitated that McConkey actually worried that "he was going to have a stroke or something . . . He was stammering . . . I thought he might fall over." Apparently, this "Pninian-size rage" was occasioned by one of the students' pointed question as to whether, if Professor Nabokov refused to discuss Dostoyevsky, the student himself could.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Lolita that made Nabokov a well-known writer in the United States, but rather Pnin, which was published a year earlier (1957) in America. Although it did not become a mainstream novel as Lolita had, Pnin had a relatively wide readership in literary circles, garnering favourable reviews. Upon its second week of publication, Pnin had already begun its second printing, and Nabokov was referred to as "one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today" by Newsweek magazine. This was completely unprecedented for Nabokov, whose first two English-language novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1940) and Bend Sinister (1947), were largely ignored by the American public. Pnin was also a particular favourite of the southern writer Flannery O'Connor (who provides the blurb in the Vintage edition), who found the story of the humorous Russian Professor "wonderful." Pnin is also a favorite of British writer Martin Amis, who ranked it fourth on his list of best Nabokov novels. Pnin's success culminated in a nomination for the 1958 National Book Award for Fiction, the first of seven such nominations for Nabokov.
Behind the light-hearted, comical musings of nutty Professor Pnin lies another, much darker tale—the story of Pnin's first love, Mira Belochkin, a girl killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp for being Jewish (Nabokov's wife, Véra was also Jewish). Numerous Nabokov scholars, such as Boyd, Elena Sommers  and Leona Toker have pointed out the recurring motif of the squirrel in Pnin and the image of the squirrel seems to follow the professor everywhere, casting a shadow upon him. It is no coincidence, then, that the name Belochkin is derived from the Russian diminutive for "squirrel." William W. Rowe suggests that not only do the squirrels embody the "resurrections" of Pnin's former love, but that the spirit of young Mira can be found apart from the squirrels in the form of a "mysterious observer" who acts through the squirrels to oversee and influence the events in Pnin's life. In a sense, Pnin appears to Nabokov's subtle way of addressing the Holocaust, where many of his acquaintances and his own brother Sergey were killed. Boyd interprets Mira as the "moral center of the novel" and argues that in the confused reports of her last days "she comes to represent humanity at its best and most vulnerable." In a similar fashion, Sergey Nabokov, who was taken to Neuengamme, exhibited tremendous conduct. According to Ivan Nabokov, Sergey "was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering.”
Boyd has also noted Pnin's sharp contrast with Nabokov's most famous character, Humbert Humbert, from Lolita, which was written simultaneously with Pnin. Pnin is the anti-Humbert in every sense: where Humbert is described as tall, handsome and charming with a good grasp of English, Pnin is stubby, odd-looking and eccentric with a terrible brand of English. Whereas Humbert is a monster in disguise, Pnin is a saint in disguise. This is seen most vividly in the contrast between Humbert's treatment of his wife Charlotte Haze, whom he manipulates and Pnin's treatment of his ex-wife Liza Wind, whom he lets manipulate him out of his love for her. In addition, there is a stark difference between the treatment of Dolores Haze, Humbert's adoptive child and Victor Wind, Pnin's (in a sense) adopted child. Humbert plies Dolores with sweets and goodies in exchange for inappropriate sexual favors. Pnin buys Victor a soccer ball and a novel, in addition to paying for his schooling, yet cares only for Victor's well-being. The strength of Pnin and Victor's relationship is signified by the magnificent aquamarine glass bowl Victor purchases for Pnin in Chapter 6.
- Lodge, David (2004). Introduction to Pnin. Everyman's Library. ISBN 1-4000-4198-8.
- Nabokov, Vladimir (2004). Pnin. Everyman's Library. p. 132. ISBN 1-4000-4198-8.
- Galya Diment (1997). Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel. University of Washington Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-295-80108-7.
- Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Lodge, David (8 May 2004). "Exiles in a small world". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
- Boyd 1991, p. 270.
- Boyd 1991, pp. 271–272.
- Field, Andrew. VN, The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Crown Publishers, New York (1977), ISBN 0-517-56113-1.
- Lodge, page xi.
- Former Nabokov student who is familiar with both colleges.
- Appel, Alfred. "Memories of Nabokov," TLS, Oct. 7, 1977, 1138–42, repr. as "Remembering Nabokov," in Quennell.
- Diment, Gayla. "Timofey Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marc Szeftel," Nabokov Studies, vol. 3, 1996, pp. 53–75.
- Nabokov's letter to Doussia Ergaz, March 24, 1957.
- Newsweek, March 11, 1957.
- Brad Gooch (25 February 2009). Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor,. Little, Brown,. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-316-04065-5.
- "National Book Awards -1958". National Book Award. Retrieved 2015-04-03.
- Sommers, Elena. "The 'Right' versus the 'Wrong' Child: Shades of Pain in Bend Sinister and Pnin," Nabokov Studies, vol. 6, 2000/2001, pp. 35–50.
- Toker, Leona, "Self-Conscious Paralepsis in Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin and 'Recruiting',". Poetics Today, vol. 7, no. 3, Poetics of Fiction (1986), pp. 459–469.
- Rowe, W. W., Nabokov's Spectral Dimension, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981, ISBN 088233641X.
- Boyd 1991, p. 279.
- Grossman, Lev, "The Gay Nabokov," Salon, May 17, 2000, http://www.salon.com/2000/05/17/nabokov_5/.
- Boyd 1991, pp. 274–275.
Boyd, Brian (1991). Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-06797-X. Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovich (1957). Pnin. New York, NY: Vintage International, 1989 (reprint). ISBN 9780679723417.