Pnin is an Old World scholar misplaced in a New World academic community; his charming scholarly habits go unappreciated among his colleagues, most of whom are inadequate to their tasks (the head of the French Department cannot speak French and believes that Chateaubriand was a great chef). It is a mistake, however, to label Pnin as a typical absentminded professor. The narrator describes him as overconscious of his surroundings, attentive to details, inconveniencing only himself as he struggles to adjust to the bewildering world of reality. His digressions on details of information constitute an attempt to be helpful, and despite his confusion over the American idiom, he knows intuitively when his help is needed.
His former wife, Liza Wind, every bit as restless as he, moves from husband to husband as Pnin moves from place to place, living a desperate version of romance, possibly begun by a brief affair with the narrator in their youth. On the surface unworthy of Pnin’s affection, she is equal to his ardor because her quiet intensity, aimless but complete, echoes Pnin’s own aimlessness and intensity. It is appropriate that her son by the man who stole her from Pnin should appear, like a gift, in Pnin’s life just when it is most inappropriate and, at the same time, touching.
Young Victor, unsporty, part-orphan, awkward in Pnin’s presence, shy and gracious at the same time, shares an uncanny resemblance to Pnin without sharing blood, as...
(The entire section is 438 words.)