The title character of Pnin is a bald, myopic, middle-aged, spindly-legged professor of Russian at Waindell College, which is somewhere in New England. Timofey Pnin is a meticulous scholar who massages a multitude of details as he researches a long-standing project: A commentary on his native Russia’s folklore and literature that will reflect in miniature the major events of Russian history up to the Bolshevik Revolution. In his classes, Pnin wages Pyrrhic warfare against the English language, often digressing from his academic text to undertake mirthful excursions into his past.
Simple existence usually confounds Pnin. He manages to lose the soles of his canvas shoes in a washing machine; he fails his automobile driving test; he takes the wrong train after having carefully consulted an outdated timetable. It is not surprising that a cruel colleague, Jack Cockerell, makes a social career out of mimicking Pnin’s words and gestures. Pnin is a comically inept character, whose Chaplinesque, Quixotic qualities render him essentially harmless, gentle, generous, and pathetically vulnerable.
Life has punished him. In 1925, in Paris, Pnin married the melodramatic and severely neurotic Liza Bogolepov, to save her from threatened suicide after an affair with another man. In 1938, Liza deserted him for a German psychiatrist, Eric Wind. When she returned a year later, Pnin forgave her, and they reunited and took the boat together for America—only to have Wind show up on the same ship and depart with Liza after it docked in New York. When Liza reappears in Pnin’s life at Waindell, Pnin again forgives her and asks her to return to him; the sole purpose of her visit, however, is to ask him to help support her son by Wind, Victor....
(The entire section is 718 words.)