Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov

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Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage International, 1989, ISBN 0-679-72341-2, $11.00, 191pp.

I needed the annotated version of this short novel by Nabokov, because I’m sure that I missed many of the things that were happening here. Basically the story of a Russian exile who teaches at an American university (something Nabokov was quite familiar with, in the grand “write what you know” tradition), the top story is quaint and humorous, the title character being a likeable, if somewhat eccentric, man. He’s close to the “born loser” in his relationship with his University and his ex-wife, but he’s not just a simple sad sack. There’s meat on his bones, and while he seems oblivious to the tumult of his life, he remains fairly proud and retains a reassuring naivete.

The story under this is what I could not quite catch. I’m sure that Nabokov was making some sly comments on University life and expatriats, but every time I thought the dawn was about to break, the sun slipped behind another mountain. The prose is enjoyable, and, had I not read two other books by Nabokov, I might not have felt a loss.

My favorite part here is a party that Pnin throws as a house warming, inviting over his supervisor as well as friends (ex-landlords) and acquaintances (including one fellow that he merely says hello to daily on his walk across campus). Following the party, his supervisor has to tell him that Pnin’s job is not very secure, as the supervisor is taking a position at another university and his replacement may not be as open to keeping Pnin in his current position. After the joy of his party, this deflates Pnin, and he verges on becoming angry. Picking up the party debris and cleaning dishes, he is washing a prized gift from his son when it slips out of his hand and drops into the suds-filled sink.

He almost caught it–his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped to propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunger.Then, with a moan of anguished anticipation, he went back to the sink and, bracing himself, dipped his hand deep into the foam. A jagger of glass stung him. Gently he removed a broken goblet. The beautiful bowl was intact. He took a fresh dish towel and went on with his household work.

Here is Pnin’s strength, I thought. His life is that bowl, occasionally being dropped, but, strangely, he never breaks.

[Finished July 1998]

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