Although Nabokov’s reputation rests in large measure on the successful publication of Lolita two years before he published Pnin, the later novel offers special pleasures to his readers that the more self-conscious and lustier best-seller lacks. Termed a “fictitious biography” by critic H. Grabes, who discusses the English novels of Nabokov independently of his novels in Russian (which Nabokov himself later translated into English), Pnin is distinguished by a narrative strategy that can be traced to the eighteenth century novel, though Nabokov gives it a modern twist. The narrator of Pnin falls between the omniscient narrator of traditional fiction and the so-called unreliable narrator of William Faulkner and his imitators; by inserting his own character into Pnin’s story, the narrator deliberately limits his knowledge of the man and, unlike a true biographer, selects from truth and fancy those elements that seem to illuminate his subject without undue attention to accuracy. By depicting Pnin as a concentration of central traits, the narrator seeks to show the “real life” of Pnin rather than the true one. While almost all biographers claim accuracy and neutrality regarding their subject, a fictitious biographer is bound by no such stricture, and can paint in whatever strokes and colors best present his fictitious invention.
The reviews of Nabokov’s novel about the life of the exiled professor did not accord Nabokov unqualified praise. Some critics thought Pnin a slight accomplishment after Lolita. Pale Fire, on the surface a more ambitious work, followed close after and gave the character Pnin a tenured position as “professor of Russian.” In time, however, it has become apparent that the novel’s charms, like the those of Pnin himself, are more enduring than the attractions of some of Nabokov’s flashier books, which gained a cult following for reasons unrelated to their own literary excellence. Close textual studies of Pnin have turned up all manner of obscure literary and personal references, etymological oddities, hidden allusions to other novels, and the like, but no amount of superficial “scholarship” of the kind Pnin both practiced and transcended can obfuscate the book’s basic charm and grace.