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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pnin is a 1957 novel written by famed Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. It is the author’s thirteenth novel and tells the story of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a middle-aged Russian assistant professor who teaches Russian at a fictional college named Waindell.

Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.

The main protagonist is said to be based on a colleague of Nabokov—Marc Szeftel, a Cornell professor who didn’t really appreciate the comparison, as Pnin is described as a “bald man” with “spindly legs” and “feminine feet.”

This stood for the Evolution of Sense, his greatest course (with an enrollment of twelve, none even remotely apostolic) which had opened and would close with the phrase destined to be over-quoted one day: The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.

Pnin is also partly based on Nabokov himself, as he draws inspiration from the experiences he had while teaching at American colleges, universities and academies. The story is narrated by Vladimir Vladimirovich, a Russian academic and lepidopterist, who starts and finishes the story by explaining how Pnin brought the wrong lecture papers to Cremona.

Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler's helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion.

Waindell College is loosely based on Cornell University and Wellesley College, which were some of the universities where Nabokov taught. Pnin was originally written as a series of sketches, and it is the book that, essentially, popularized Nabokov in the United States. It received great commercial success and was even nominated for the 1958 National Book Award for Fiction.

“It is nothing but a kind of micro-cosmos of communism—all that psychiatry,” rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?”

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