Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. Heinemann, New York, 1957. F; 11/15.
Occasionally maligned these days, Nabokov is among my couple or three favourite authors. This book is obscure, one of the early novels he wrote in the United States, publication preceding Lolita by a year, and I gather it was this one that made him famous. It’s marvellous, but for me there is a real leap forward in consistency, sophistication, and charm between this one and that other much better-known story.
These two books are both about pursuit of dream in one way, but Pnin is also pretty autobiographical, a Russian language academic finding himself out of his depth in a minor New England university department. Our hero is steadfastly conservative, Russian, literary, and ironic, caught in university politics and subject to the whims of a narcissistic ex-wife who blatantly uses him.
Nabokov-isms are everywhere, including potentially visionary experiences, fabulous figures of speech, and ironic overuse of alliteration.
… a pencil sharpener – that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes Ticonderoga ticon-deroga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.
Superficially this protagonist is unlike Humbert (used by his wife whereas Humbert uses his wife, a fine moral upstanding person whereas Humbert has been referred to as a monster), but they are both fish out of water. There is a narrator in Pnin who turns out to be another Nabokov figure. He only appears at the very end of the story and tries unsuccessfully to rescue old Pnin from being fired from his academic job.
More wonderful stuff from one of the most charming writers I know. 8.7/9.3.