The plot unfolds as a series of droll vignettes in which Professor Timofey Pnin tries to find suitable living quarters, teaches class, does research in the library, receives visits from his former wife and her precocious son, summers with fellow emigres at a country house, and, thinking that he will finally be able to settle down, gives what he calls a “house-heating” party.
Those critics who complain of the novel’s episodic structure have missed the architectonic detail, characteristic of Nabokov, that ultimately makes PNIN such a cohesive fiction. This detail is visible in replicating motifs (squirrels, reflections, gardens and floral imagery) that may or may not contain meaning but demonstrate continuously the control of the artist responsible for the novel.
Nabokov comments on his own activity by introducing a number of artist figures into the action, including an emigre painter named Gramineev, an art teacher named Lake, and Lake’s star pupil, Victor Wind (son of Pnin’s former wife). There is also the novel’s sly and manipulative narrator, who is not to be confused with Nabokov himself, despite a superficial resemblance. The closest of these figures to their creator is Victor Wind, and the reader who studies the author’s account of Victor’s artistic activity will gain much insight into Nabokov’s technique.
Like many of Nabokov’s fictions, this one concerns the condition of exile. With his odd mannerisms and his labored locutions, Pnin is a funny and pathetic figure. Yet he is also tragic, and it is Nabokov’s balancing act between these extremes that makes reading the novel an extraordinarily entertaining and moving experience.
Appel, Alfred, Jr., and Charles Newman,...
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