(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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a washing machine; he fails his automobile driving test; he takes the wrong train after having carefully consulted an outdated timetable.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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Timofey Pavelovich Pnin has taught Russian at Waindell College for several years; his odd ways, his restlessness, his difficulty with the nuances of the English language, and his gnomelike features make him the brunt of endless cruel anecdotes and imitations. The story laid out for the reader, however, is one refashioned after the fact from these unkind stories, by the narrator, a scholar who replaces Pnin at Waindell College and who makes of the anecdotes a sympathetic biography of a true humanist, in love with the infinite variety of life and its ability to give pain, in love with his simple surroundings, constantly changing, and impervious to cynicism and incapable of ill will.

The novel follows a series of displacements as Pnin moves from dwelling to dwelling in the college community, first displaced by a returning landlady’s daughter, again by a mistaken sense that permanency is on the horizon, and finally by loss of his position at Waindell, when he is replaced by the narrator, who assembles from a residue of anecdotes a portrait of Pnin himself. Pnin’s restlessness is an externalization of his own inability to adjust to any circumstance, an outward sign of an inner discomfort with his situation. Having begun his adulthood with exile and emigration, Pnin seems destined to continue it past the novel’s last page.

Three incidents give the novel a structure based on human contacts made and broken: Pnin’s former wife Liza returns to...

(The entire section is 441 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Timofey Pnin, an instructor of Russian at Waindell College, is taking a train to give a lecture to the Cremona Women’s Club. Sadly, he is on the wrong train. The discovery of his mistake and his subsequent attempts to get to Cremona in time for the lecture cause him to undergo a sinking spell: He plunges into a recollection of a time in his childhood when he suffered from a fever and struggled in vain to find the key to the recurring pattern of foliage on his wallpaper. The spell passes, but when he is about to begin his lecture he has a fleeting sense that some of the beloved people from his past, including his parents, are in the audience.

Pnin moves into a room rented to him by Joan and Laurence Clements. The room has been vacated by the Clements’ daughter Isabel, who has married and moved away. Pnin learns that his former wife, Liza Wind, wants to visit him. Pnin’s marriage to Liza ended when she abandoned him for Eric Wind. When Liza arrives, she tells Pnin that she would like him to send some money in her name to her son Victor at boarding school. After her departure, Pnin is devastated with sorrow, and he resists all attempts by Joan Clements to cheer him up.

Pnin continues his routine at Waindell College, teaching classes and conducting research on the history of Russian culture. The librarian indicates to Pnin that Isabel’s marriage is in trouble and that he might have to relocate, but he does not pay full attention to her words. In the evening, Pnin watches a Soviet propaganda film and imagines himself back in the Russia of his youth. As he falls asleep that night, he is awakened by the noisy return of Isabel, who is about to burst into her old room until she is stopped by her mother.

Lisa’s son Victor visits Pnin in Waindell. Victor has a recurring dream in which his father is a king who is forced into exile by a...

(The entire section is 768 words.)