(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Appel, Alfred, Jr., and Charles Newman, eds. Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations, Tributes. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970. A good introduction to Nabokov’s writing, including a varied sampling of material about the man, about the writer, and about his several unique works. Perhaps a hodgepodge, but an early collection that contrasts dramatically with later criticism, which suggested that Nabokov was a humanist if also a kind of verbal magician.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Vladimir Nabokov. Essays on Nabokov’s handling of time, illusion and reality, and art. There are separate essays on each of his major novels, as well as an introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. The first volume of the definitive biography, fully researched and written with the cooperation of Nabokov’s family. Boyd has an extraordinary command of the origins of Nabokov’s art. This volume includes a discussion of Nabokov’s years in Europe after he left Russia.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Boyd concludes his masterful biography. As with volume 1, his work is copiously illustrated with detailed notes and an invaluable index....

(The entire section is 451 words.)