29 January 2013

Pnin by Nabokov, 1957

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 7:39 am

“Incidentally,” she said, as he was helping her into her coat and as usual searching with a frown for the fugitive armhole while she pawed and groped, “you know, Timofey, this brown suit of yours is a mistake: a gentleman does not wear brown.”

He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her — just as she was — with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution to the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like movement, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eying him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.

The water father continued upon his way, came to the end of the path, then turned into a side street where there was a small bar of log-cabin design with garnet glass in its casement windows.

*  *  *

I finished Pnin last night: entertaining, keenly observed, finely crafted. The storytelling is perhaps more traditionally Russian than many of the stories Nabokov wrote in his native tongue while in European exile twenty years earlier. Even the narrator, tangentially involved in the lives of the characters but also detached in ironic reflexivity as he looks back on events that unfolded some time before the telling, seems Chekhovian. The style fits perfectly, since the titular character Pnin is old-school nostalgic Russian to the point of endearing parody, displaced into bourgeois-democratic America as scrutinized by the satirically observant eye of the sophisticated intellectual expatriate. Timofey Pnin is Humbert Humbert’s good twin.



  1. oh, I love Pnin – my favourite Nabokov.


    Comment by duncan — 29 January 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  2. I liked it a lot too, Duncan. You brought Pnin into a December discussion thread of a Nabokov short story, which is what prompted me to request the book from the library. Here’s what you wrote then:

    “Re: parallels between Nabokov’s narrators and Nabokov himself – have you read Pnin? [spoilers, I guess.] It’s not particularly foregrounded, but in the final chapter the seemingly omniscient narrator is revealed as a Vladimir Vladimirovich N—, and painted in a thoroughly unflattering light. As N— arrives on campus Pnin leaves, driving off over the hill, out of the town and out of the book. Pnin’s escape from the narrator’s physical presence is also escape from the narrator’s character portrait (or, it’s implied, caricature). So there’s an interesting play with the inadequacies of N’s art – and the cruelty of his character portraits. It resonates with the double capture (in real life, and in art) of Lolita by Humbert Humbert. A longstanding preoccupation.”

    Yes, this last chapter throws a monkeywrench into all that precedes it. Vladimir remembers details from Pnin’s childhood which Pnin denies ever happened: is Pnin obfuscating for some reason, or is the narrator unreliable? Vladimir is quite vague as to why Timofey would give up his teaching job and his dream house rather rather accept a position in his old friend Vlad’s new Russian department — we must presume that Tim doesn’t hold Vlad in high regard. Yet even after Pnin turns down the job the narrator chases his car on foot in hopes of engaging him in conversation. I wonder if our narrator regards Pnin as embodying some aspect of his old, true, Russian self that, to his regret and perhaps also to his shame, he has had to efface or repress in order to achieve career success in America and that he can never recapture. Certainly I didn’t notice it at the time I read Pale Fire, but I understand that in that later novel Pnin reappears as the Chair of the Russian Studies Department at Wordsworth University. This is the same high-prestige institution that extends a job offer to Hagen, Pnin’s Chair at Waindell, crushing Pnin’s dreams of bland academic security and propelling him in his small blue pale sedan down the road and over the hills toward his grander destiny.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 January 2013 @ 5:37 pm

  3. Yesterday was a very slow day on Ktismatics. The hitrate was by far the lowest of the month, only a third of what it had been just six days earlier. I don’t pay for historical data, but I’d guess that yesterday was the slowest in at least two years. But then the day before yesterday and two days before that had already shown the lowest counts of the month. Traffic in the first three weeks of January had been steady and comparable to the prior few months. Each of these three very recent drops in traffic has corresponded with my putting up a new post — coincidence, or a message from the readers? I see that the hits on my Ouroboros post have also been plummeting the last few days. That post attracts mostly people googling on the cool graphic, so the traffic it generates is independent of the rest of the blog’s content. So now I’m entertaining two alternative hypotheses to sudden desertion by most of Ktismatics’ readers: either the automatic blog hit trackers are using a different algorithm, or else hits are down precipitously across the blogosphere. I wonder if other bloggers have been experiencing the same precipitous drop in hitrate over the past week.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 January 2013 @ 5:51 am

  4. Oh, I’d forgotten that conversation about Pnin – I’m especially happy you enjoyed it, then. :-)

    W/r/t Tim’s attitude to Vlad: unfortunately I don’t have my copy of the book with me here – but isn’t there an implication that Pnin’s wife was jilted by the narrator, and that some of the narrator’s knowledge of Pnin comes via that relationship?

    I can’t speak to slow blog traffic, as my own blog has sufficiently few hits that almost any reduction would fall within the margin of error. Still – I saw people complaining about unfollows on twitter, too. Perhaps a tipping point has been reached; a weariness has settled in; the web’s inhabitants have taken stock and chosen to withdraw to inner sustenance, instead of worldly chatter.

    Or, if your readers receive your posts via emails and rss, a new post might be precisely when they don’t bother clicking through, since they’ve already received the content. If nothing has been posted for a while, however, your readers might click through to the site itself, to see if any comment threads are live.

    Or it’s a statistical anomaly. One could presumably test for the likelihood of that. :-)


    Comment by duncan — 31 January 2013 @ 3:57 am

  5. The narrator had an affair with Pnin’s future wife Liza while all three were exiled in Paris. The sense is that LIza and Vladimir used each other for selfish ends — she in the hope that he would get her bad poetry published, he for the pleasures of the flesh — whereas Pnin loved Liza. Again we get this contrast between Vlad’s pragmatism and Pnin’s Romantic soulfulness. It’s certainly possible that Vlad is dissembling, that he loved Liza more than he let on, but heartless exploiter is the narrative identity he’s ridden into success in the West.


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 January 2013 @ 9:11 am

  6. Regarding the statistical dropoff in blog hits, I think I’ll write a separate post about it after I’ve got a few more days’ worth of data. Briefly though, yesterday was just about as slow as the day before, and today looks like more of the same. I suspect a structural externality rather than the cumulative effect of multiple individual vectors formerly aimed toward Ktismatics now suddenly heading off in other directions.


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 January 2013 @ 9:58 am

  7. You’ve got me feeling guilty for leaving you to soldier on alone, so here’s a few sleepy thoughts on Nabokov.

    I can’t remember if I ever read Pnin. I read Pale Fire at least 25 years ago, and was well underwhelmed by it – an unfunny spoof within an unfunny spoof, the heart of it being a bad spoof of the old boys’ adventure pot-boiler, the Prisoner of Zenda – I thought so at the time anyway. I think now I may have been wrong about the amount of Zenda in the ‘poem’ at the heart of it (if my memory serves me, and it might not). But still I’m pretty sure if I ever could face reading it again I would not be won over to the over-the-top praise I have since encountered for it. In fact, the reviews I’ve looked at seem to describe a book I don’t remember reading. Weird.

    But maybe I was prejudiced because I’d read some of his literary and general observations beforehand. I don’t like him, obviously, and I don’t imagine you do Ktism, but his assessments of the worth of various novelists are at least flamboyant, well-developed and entertaining, if a bit arbitrary – I think it must have been ‘Lectures on Literature’ I read.

    I’m tempted to read Lolita, because I hear that the movie with Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain (thoroughly recommend) is very faithful to it. I wonder if the film improved on it, or if Nabokov really could write as well as this.

    But what’s ever since been somewhere on my to-do list (at the back of my mind) is to check out the short stories on Nabokov’s list – I’m not sure if my memory of this comes from ‘Lectures on Literature’ or somewhere else. Nabokov reckoned that ” right now, here in the USA” is the all-time golden-age of the short story, and he listed a few – Salinger’s ‘bananafish’ is the only one I remember, but the others were by the likes of Carver and the usual suspects.

    I suppose you’ve got a post on the blog somewhere about the short story? Any thoughts on Nabokov’s taste there? Or did you ever read his list?

    Anyway, I couldn’t find anything online by Nabokov on the short story, but I did find this short and amusing anecdote:



    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 3 February 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  8. https://ktismatics.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/spring-in-fialta-by-nabokov-1936/

    I’ve read three of the novels now, and many short stories, as well as his fascinating autobiography Speak Memory, and of these I have fond memories of all but Pale Fire. That one is more explicitly written for lit’ry insiders, and while I got it that the “commentator” on the poem being a pompous blowhard, it struck me as too much of an inside joke about a cohort of academicians that I regarded as comprised almost exclusively of pompous blowhards. Maybe I’ve veered more in that direction myself since then, so I could snicker knowingly more often. Nabokov just can’t seem to help snarking at other writers — must be jealous. In Pnin he has someone remark casually about how foolish it is for so many people to deem Thomas Mann a great writer.

    Re: soldiering on alone, as you know, L, there are various interpersonal intrigues at play. I’ve stopped visiting the Parody Center and have stopped responding to Dejan’s comments here, so that cuts down on the interactions. I can’t say whether your appearance on the threads increases or decreases the Ktismatics hitrate or comment action. Let’s just say that I’m keeping the comments moderation function on.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 February 2013 @ 6:22 pm

  9. of these I have fond memories of all but Pale Fire

    For what it’s worth, I tend to think that Pale Fire is a ‘tipping point’; I find Nabokov’s later work hard to enjoy. Basically as soon as Lolita becomes a hit, his work loses something, for me.

    My amateur diagnosis is that Nabokov’s arrogance is always profoundly unlikeable, but in the great middle period works it is tempered by his lack of worldly success – and the pains of displacement. Pnin is exemplary, I guess, in that N the author (both inside and outside the novel) is hugely obnoxious, but that unpleasantness is balanced against an awareness of other ways of living. I think you’re right that there’s a strong element of envy in the portrayal of clumsy Pnin. In the later works, I think, the unreliable narrators of the middle period increasingly collapse, in their perspective, into the authorial voice, and something important is lost. That collapse seems even stylistic, to me – a sort of fractal self-indulgence and willingness to give internal fantasy priority over external banality, or pain. Though I realise Ada, and the later shorter works, have their admirers.

    Nabokov just can’t seem to help snarking at other writers

    Yes – the parody of Akhmatova in Pnin is shockingly unpleasant. Still, I love the book – and swathes of the poem ‘Pale Fire’ lodge in memory, despite the overall movement towards aristocratic solipsism.


    Comment by duncan — 8 February 2013 @ 5:36 am

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