Book Review: Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov (1957)

Pnin is a complicated, but mild and melancholy character. It is perhaps a sad reflection that he seems inherently less interesting as protagonist than another, roughly contemporaneously written, middle-aged academic, Lolita’s sexually predatory Humbert Humbert.

Pnin is a rather sad quiet account of a Russian émigré academic, scraping his insecure living as an untenured assistant professor.  The tone is often lightly comic thanks to Pnin’s idiosyncratic English, and various set pieces and anecdotes showcasing Pnin’s ineptitude.  The core of the novel though is the effect of Europe’s tragic twentieth century history on those who fled from it to the US. 

The focus is the forced dislocations and their effects on those fleeing the horrors of the Russian revolution. Pnin’s journey from Russia, via a Western Europe about to devour itself, to final safety in America is common to many of his associates – and of course Nabokov himself.  There are beautiful elegiac passages reflecting on childhood memories.  Pnin seems psychosomatically affected by these, hit in his heart when a scene brings on such reveries.  

The mood builds to the brutally effective description of Pnin’s attempt to seal off and cope with his youthful love Mira’s fate, bringing home just what they have fled and lost:

‘In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind […] but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible’.

The exact details of her death in an extermination camp are unknown to Pnin, somehow making it worse as she dies again and again in his imagination as he considers all the cruel possibilities.

Pnin’s driving search for quiet security is symbolised through his peregrinations through various lodgings, each one inadequate for varying reasons of noise, or draughtiness. 

Towards the end of the novel he finally finds an isolated house to rent.  Pnin dares to imagine gaining the security of tenure at his college and with this, the means for the purchase of the house. All of this is, ineluctably, stripped from him.  We are left with Pnin moving on once more, a proud, independent, unhappy spirit.

The university setting and Pnin’s moribund existence within it brought John Williams’ Stoner to mind, though there the dislocation is class based and the escape is from a life of grinding poverty, not geographic and a flight from torture and cruel death.  This setting also allows Nabokov to briefly reflect on the fatuousness of ‘modern’ educational methods – amusingly apposite even now with the faux novelty of debates in education circling round with every new technology.

Hagen, the chair of Pnin’s department is discussing modern education:

‘ the only way to escape from the morass […] is to lock up the student in a soundproof cell and eliminate the lecture room. [….] Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal”

To which is put the objection: 

“But the personality of the lecturer,” said Margaret Thayer.  “Surely that counts for something.”

“It does not!” shouted Hagen.  “That is the tragedy!  Who, for example, wants him” — he pointed to radiant Pnin — “who wants his personality?  Nobody!  They will reject Timofey’s wonderful personality without a quaver.  The world wants a machine, not a Timofey.”

Pleasingly we also get comments on the precursor to the current fad for ‘flipped learning’ and the lecturer as facilitator:

“Tom thinks that the best method of teaching anything is to rely on discussion in class, which means letting twenty young blockheads and two cocky neurotics discuss for fifty minutes something that neither their teacher nor they know.” 

Pnin is a complicated, but mild and melancholy character.  It is perhaps a sad reflection that he seems inherently less interesting as protagonist than another, roughly contemporaneously written,   middle-aged academic, Lolita’s sexually predatory Humbert Humbert.  I enjoyed Nabokov’s Pnin, it is quietly effective,  but I only just sustained my interest over the relatively brief span of the novel.