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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Vladimir Nabokov, a native of Russia who wrote primarily in English, was fascinated with the possibilities of manipulating language and with the idea of artifice. Pnin is often considered the maximum expression of his manipulation of these two concerns. The primary theme of the novel is the instability of literary forms, especially the novel. Closely related is the theme of the writer’s dishonesty. Pnin seems to be the central character of the novel, but at the end the reader realizes that the narrator is also a character and left to wonder about the validity of everything they read.

While the first-person narrator is traditional called “unreliable,” Nabokov takes this idea further by giving the narrator his own name, profession, and hobby. The very idea of a reliable narrator, he makes us admit, is preposterous in a work of fiction because the entire enterprise comes from the author’s imagination. The postmodernist idea of the reader’s complicity in textual interpretation is supported here, but Nabokov goes further in suggesting that the concept of “truth” is inherently problematic.

Affected by traditional Russian literature as well as modernist, deconstructionist currents, the expatriate Nabokov embodies the contradictions of early-mid-20th century literature. His flagrantly self-conscious, often playful use of language is a hallmark of all his writing. The use of first-person narrator for an unpleasant protagonist—used to outstanding effect in Lolita—is skewed in Pnin, where the narrator appears for most of the book to be amiable and benevolent. He expresses affection for the eccentric Pnin, relating numerous anecdotes showing his unorthodox attitudes and kindness to animals. The growing condescension in these remarks, however, begins to reveal an underlying current of envy or even hostility.

In the end, Pnin leaves his once-comfortable academic home at a prestigious university, and sets out on the road to reinvent himself. Here Nabokov plays with the quintessentially American trope known to readers from Huck Finn and Jack Kerouac. But Pnin has not only left the college, but he has also left the story and thereby escaped the author. The narrator is shown to be Vladimir, a literature professor and writer, and a lepidopterist—all of which Nabokov was in real life. This narrator will now take up Pnin’s former academic post. But even more so, this Vladimir is a character in the novel that Nabokov has written. Pnin has left the college, yes, but he has also left the story and escaped the author. Is the characterization of Pnin by the narrator Vladimir any more false than that of both characters by Nabokov himself? The author forces the reader to admit that by enjoying reading a novel, they have deliberately allowed themselves to be lied to by the author.

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