Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
Pnin is is a deceptively short novel full of larger importance. Like the Gospel of John, it is a short work that reminds the reader both explicitly and implicitly that if all that was written could be written, all of the books in the world could not contain it. Do we chose to look at Pnin as an early example of several genres like the metafictional novel, the postmodern movel, or the campus novel? Such an approach offers considerable rewards. Do we view this novel in the scope of the author’s own writing , as a novel whose writing during the time that the author was working on the more famous Lolita helped ensure that readers and reviewers would not pigeonhole him as a writer of pornography but rather take him seriously? If so, the gambit worked, because although Lolita has been the source of considerable controversy for its sympathetic treatment of a pedophile narrator, Nabokov has nevertheless been taken seriously as a writer of considerable genius even with the controversial nature of some of his writings. And Pnin certainly serves as a very thoughtful contrast to Lolita in many ways, not least the fact that it has a narrator who fully engages the sympathy of the reader.
In terms of the structure and contents of Pnin, we have to remember that this novel is deceptively short. At 140 pages, the novel’s text contains 7 short stories that are nonetheless part of a larger plot where we have an unreliable narrator who clearly serves as the author (and who even occasionally appears as the author within the novel’s plot itself) and that are connected both by symbols (like squirrels), and a setting (Pnin’s experience working as a non-tenured instructor at a fictional stand-in for Cornell University), and connected through the themes of Pnin struggling to master English and maintain his dignity in the face of continual difficulties. Even the narrator himself seems to have a condescending way of viewing the protagonist, whose essential kindness and decency as a well-drawn character earns the readers support and sympathy. This is a novel that it might be easy to dismiss as a novel about a lonely and bumbling academic but with a deep degree of poignancy for its portrayal of the protagonist as an exile in a strange land with strange customs struggling for the warmth of human connection and for the respect of those around him, respect that the reader is likely very generous to give.
Although Pnin is an obscure novel, it has inspired a very Pninian degree of depth in research, as scholars have attempted to untangle its dense mass of proper names and unravel its hints and allusions to the real world of mid 20th century life. Although Pnin is a complex figure drawn from the author and others within his circle, it is not hard to imagine that there are many people of considerable intellect and moral sensitivity and kind and gentle spirits who find themselves vagabonds on the earth, struggling with intense loneliness and a struggle to understand the world around them and to make themselves understood by others, all the while fighting to maintain their dignity and honor as human beings in an unkind world. On the one hand, this is a novel whose deliberate artistry forces us to struggle with the fictional conventions of even our nonfiction literature, and to ponder the boundary between fact and fiction in this novel, but on the other hand this is a novel whose evident artificiality and deliberate awkwardness nevertheless induces in the reader a sympathetic identification with the awkward and clumsy protagonist of the novel who weeps about having nothing and no one and struggles to find a good place to live and a secure place as an instructor in Russian in a provincial American college environment.
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