Fifty-three year old Russian emigre Timothy Pnin is marked by his inability to fit in to western society as a professor at Waindell College. The plot largely functions as an episodic look at Pnin's many blunders that cause him misfortune. Examples include missing a lecture because he took the wrong train and failing his drivers test.
To make matters worse, his ex-wife, Liza Wind, soon re-appears in his life under the pretense of wanting to reconnect with him. However, the truth is that she plans to leave her current husband for a poet and no longer wants any responsibility for her child, Victor Wind. Oblivious that the child is not his, Pnin agrees to support him. Surprisingly, Victor admires Pnin far more than he ever did his birth parents, and the two share many characteristics.
In the end, to his surprise, Pnin is fired and replaced by the narrator when Dr. Hagen, the only Waindell faculty member that admired him, leaves his position. The novel ends with Pnin driving away. However, the tone is less tragic than it is optimistic, symbolizing the vulnerable and endearing nature of Pnin.
The title character of Pnin is a bald, myopic, middle-aged, spindly-legged professor of Russian at Waindell College, which is somewhere in New England. Timofey Pnin is a meticulous scholar who massages a multitude of details as he researches a long-standing project: A commentary on his native Russia’s folklore and literature that will reflect in miniature the major events of Russian history up to the Bolshevik Revolution. In his classes, Pnin wages Pyrrhic warfare against the English language, often digressing from his academic text to undertake mirthful excursions into his past.
Simple existence usually confounds Pnin. He manages to lose the soles of his canvas shoes in a washing machine; he fails his automobile driving test; he takes the wrong train after having carefully consulted an outdated timetable. It is not surprising that a cruel colleague, Jack Cockerell, makes a social career out of mimicking Pnin’s words and gestures. Pnin is a comically inept character, whose Chaplinesque, Quixotic qualities render him essentially harmless, gentle, generous, and pathetically vulnerable.
Life has punished him. In 1925, in Paris, Pnin married the melodramatic and severely neurotic Liza Bogolepov, to save her from threatened suicide after an affair with another man. In 1938, Liza deserted him for a German psychiatrist, Eric Wind. When she returned a year later, Pnin forgave her, and they reunited and took the boat together for America—only to have Wind show up on the same ship and depart with Liza after it docked in New York. When Liza reappears in Pnin’s life at Waindell, Pnin again forgives her and asks her to return to him; the sole purpose of her visit, however, is to ask him to help support her son by Wind, Victor.
Liza tells Pnin that she intends to forsake Wind for a poet and no longer wishes to be responsible for her son’s upbringing. In spite of these humiliations, Pnin still loves Liza. He would be happy “to hold her, to keep her—just as she was—with her cruelty, with him, her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul.” Illogically yet unconditionally, Pnin adores this histrionic, pretentious, destructively evil woman. Here Nabokov establishes one of his absolute, magical premises, akin to Luzhin’s madness and Humbert’s nympholepsy.
Pnin’s life could easily be considered a catalog of losses: his native land and its culture; his parents; his first love, Mira Belochkin, who died in a Nazi concentration camp; his wife; and, at the novel’s end, his position at Waindell. Nabokov avoids the temptation of satirizing him as the absentminded, sweet, pathetically unfortunate professor. He treats him warmly, endearingly, and respectfully. More important, he provides Pnin with several shields against defeatism and despair.
Pnin has energy, buoyancy, and...
(The entire section is 2,115 words.)