Vladimir Nabokov is best known for his novel Lolita (1955), which he was just completing when he began work on Pnin. The two books could hardly be more different in their subject matter, however. Whereas Lolita tackles the difficult topic of an adult man’s affair with a young girl, Pnin offers a warmly humorous portrait of the travails and triumphs of a Russian émigré professor at a small American college. Parts of the novel appeared as individual stories in The New Yorker magazine, but the full complexity of the work only became apparent when Nabokov published it in its entirety in 1957. It was nominated for a National Book Award, marking the first of five such nominations for Nabokov.
At the center of the work stands Timofey Pnin. To many at Waindell College, Pnin seems to be something of a joke—a bumbling fool who has major difficulties with the English language. To those who take the time to get to know him better (and to readers as well), Pnin emerges as a kind and noble individual who strives mightily to find peace and harmony in a difficult world. While one may laugh at such traits as his fascination with gadgets (which leads him to put his canvas shoes into his landlady’s front-loading washing machine just to see what will happen), his innate kindness—whether to his former wife’s son or to a stray dog—is truly touching. When his memories of the past touch on the dreadful fate of his first love, Mira Belochkin, a victim of Nazi atrocities, the true pathos of Pnin’s experience comes into clear focus.
Memory itself is one of Nabokov’s favorite themes, and in this novel, as in many of his other works, one becomes aware of the importance of memory as a way of preserving and reviving the past. This task carries special significance to those, like Pnin, who have been forced to leave their homelands and experience the difficult dislocation and loss that emigration entails. The novel also exposes the limitations of memory, however, and the fact that one’s memories may be unreliable or false. In fact, certain things that Pnin says about his past do not jibe with the narrator’s account, forcing readers to determine for themselves which account is...
(The entire section is 914 words.)