Critical Evaluation

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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 accurate. The novel thus confronts questions of the nature of truth and the motives of Pnin or his narrator for distorting that truth.

This problem becomes especially acute in the final chapter, when the narrator suddenly focuses the story on himself and his own experiences. Nabokov’s handling of this narrator and of his relation to Pnin stands out as one of the most intriguing aspects of the work. The narrator claims to be Pnin’s friend, yet he often describes Pnin in terms that are condescending or tinged with mockery. When readers learn that the narrator had an affair with Pnin’s wife just before she married Pnin, they may conclude that this is the reason Pnin refuses to work under him at Waindell. It is also possible that Pnin distrusts the narrator’s very attitude toward Pnin, and in his suspicion of the way the narrator talks about Pnin’s past, Pnin may be expressing the anxiety any literary character might have about the control exerted over him by his creator, the author. According to clues scattered in the novel, the narrator is an urbane Anglo-American writer named Vladimir Vladimirovich, and he is an expert on butterflies. These are the very traits of Nabokov himself: His full name was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, he wrote both in English and Russian, and he was a specialist in Lepidoptera.

(This entire section contains 914 words.)

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This problem becomes especially acute in the final chapter, when the narrator suddenly focuses the story on himself and his own experiences. Nabokov’s handling of this narrator and of his relation to Pnin stands out as one of the most intriguing aspects of the work. The narrator claims to be Pnin’s friend, yet he often describes Pnin in terms that are condescending or tinged with mockery. When readers learn that the narrator had an affair with Pnin’s wife just before she married Pnin, they may conclude that this is the reason Pnin refuses to work under him at Waindell. It is also possible that Pnin distrusts the narrator’s very attitude toward Pnin, and in his suspicion of the way the narrator talks about Pnin’s past, Pnin may be expressing the anxiety any literary character might have about the control exerted over him by his creator, the author. According to clues scattered in the novel, the narrator is an urbane Anglo-American writer named Vladimir Vladimirovich, and he is an expert on butterflies. These are the very traits of Nabokov himself: His full name was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, he wrote both in English and Russian, and he was a specialist in Lepidoptera.

The narrator is not, in fact, the real Vladimir Nabokov. Any figure depicted in a work of fiction, even a first-person narrator, is a fictional creation, just as much subject to the control of the real author as any other character in the work. At the end of the novel, it appears that the long-suffering Pnin is allowed his freedom from the control of the narrator and escapes the bounds of the text, whereas the unsympathetic narrator becomes trapped in Pnin’s former position, both at Waindell and within the text itself.

Thus, although the world created in Pnin looks very much like a plausible academic setting with a plausible set of people inhabiting it, Nabokov salts the text with several reminders of the overall artificiality of the work. These include sets of characters with similar names such as Christopher and Louise Starr, Louis and Christina Stern, and Chris and Lew, the pair of Englishmen who prevent Liza’s suicide. A second set includes Bob Horn in the United States and Robert Karlovich Horn in Russia. This doubling and tripling of names could be a sign of the narrator’s laziness when it comes to inventing such names, but it is surely a sign of Nabokov’s presence as designer and creator. Another indication of the fictionality of the work is the role given to recurring images of squirrels in the text. While some readers have seen the squirrel as suggestive of the survival of Mira Belochkin’s spirit after death (belka in Russian means “squirrel”), others have simply viewed it as a marker of the author’s penchant for patterning. Nabokov’s Pnin offers ample evidence of the power of fiction to capture the poignant and fleeting experiences of life and to mold them into shimmering and timeless works of art.

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Critical Context