By Vladimir Nabokov

Original Publisher: Doubleday & Co.

Current Publisher: Everyman’s Library

Amity Gaige writes:

Pnin is the eponymous hero of Vladmir Nabokov’s fifteenth novel, his fourth in English. For the two hundred pages in which we get him, Pnin is a fifty-two-year-old adjunct professor of Russian at the fictional Waindell College. He is a formidable, heavily-accented man with “tawny teeth,” and for most of the novel, he roams the upper floor of a house in which he’s rented a room, “more of a poltergeist than a lodger.”

What happens in the book? Who knows? Pnin boards the wrong train on his way to a lecture; sometime later, his ex-wife comes and goes; he agrees to aid her genius son; he bores and alienates people, endears himself to a few, throws a party, and eventually is released from his teaching post, after which a stung Pnin drives away toward an unknown future and we never hear of him again. Nabokov himself couldn’t care less what “happens” to Pnin. Because Pnin isn’t just a man, or even a character. Pnin is a disposition. Pnin is a system. Pnin is a culture of one.

Pnin is, above all, the failure of assimilation. He takes no pains to hide his otherness. “I cannot understand American humor even when I am happy,” Pnin laments, trying to decode an American cartoon. He is so distinct, so himself, that Nabokov applies his name into other parts of speech: when he moves into his new lodgings, he starts “Pninizing” his quarters. His American hosts begin to “appreciate Pnin at his unique Pninian worth.” How does Pnin manage to be so large that his very name becomes a way of being? Maybe because he is attempting to bring Russia with him wherever he goes. You can feel him trying to cram it through doorjambs, into the faculty lounges and cocktail parties.

For me, the subject of Pnin is much the same as it is in Pale Fire—that is, Nabokov’s mixed feelings about exile, and about the desperate impulse of the exile to keep clutching the past. Often, Nabokov seems to want to tease and ridicule a cultural purist like Pnin who can’t adjust to his new home. But with at least as much fervor, Nabokov respects such a purist. He respects the stubborn, the entrenched, the eccentric, the irrationally devoted, all those who gently boil in the heat of their own passions, as, surely, Nabokov boiled every minute of his day. 

The novel ends with a party. Pnin has rented a small brick house, and is finally living in a discrete building “all by himself” after “thirty-five years of homelessness.” He imagines this house as the one he would have had in “Kharkov or Kazan,” had there been “no Russian Revolution, no exodus, no expatriation in France, no naturalization in America.” Having found his first true home, he does something rather unPninian and decides to host a party. Perhaps the reader starts to dread the party’s outcome when hearing of the menu: cabbage tarts, a punch made of “chilled Chateau Yquem” (Yquem?), and Bulgarian cigarettes. At the end of the poorly attended party, Pnin is told by a colleague that Waindell is letting him go. So the exile—finally happy, finally at home—is cast out again.

Much gets made of the unidentified narrator of this novel, who occasionally asserts his presence with off-handed remarks and foreshadowings (“Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train.”). To my ear, this narrator is somewhat colorless, even irrelevant. It is not this narrator’s voice but Pnin’s that shades every word of the book. It is Pnin’s voice that arises in the middle of otherwise innocent backstory about an apartment “between Tsentral Park and Reeverside.” The narrator arrives to Waindell just as Pnin is making tracks out of town, full of anger and resentment at being rejected. The narrator must content himself not with Pnin, but with stories about Pnin.

But in a way, such character-driven novels as this concern the effects and aftereffects of “personalities” like Pnin who make a permanent if random imprint upon our lives. We (by “we” I mean most of us) need to be around people who refuse to compromise and conform. No—we need to be around people who are constitutionally unable to compromise and conform. For me, as a writer, all of Nabokov’s work serves this Pninian function. Here was someone whose intelligence and artistry resulted in ravishingly unpredictable works. Even his sentences—every single one—run an inimitable, rebellious course. As Pnin is remembering the various rooms he’s rented over his eight years at Waindell, the accumulation of rooms begins to resemble “those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.” 

Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling (2005), The Folded World (2007), and Schroder, which is forthcoming from Twelve Books in 2013. She was the recipient of the Foreword Book of the Year Award for 2007, and in 2006, she was recognized as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Amity is the winner of a Fulbright Fellowship, fellowships at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and a Baltic Writing Residency. Her short stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, O Magazine, the Literary Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the current Visiting Writer at Amherst College.

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: John Cheever for The Wapshot Chronicle

Fiction Judges That Year: Van Wyck Brooks, Albert J. Guerard, Mrs. William W. Johnson, William Maxwell, Francis Steegmuller

The Year in Literature:

  • A Death in the Family by the late James Agee also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: Nabokov never won the National Book Award, but he was a Fiction Finalist six more times: in 1959 for Lolita, in 1963 for Pale Fire, in 1965 for The Defense, in 1973 for Transparent Things, in 1975 for Look at the Harlequins!, and in 1976 for Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories.

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