Travels with Pnin

In college, I made the ill-advised decision to join the cross-country ski team. Slow, given to daydreams, and so lacking any sense of direction that my friends had taken to using me as a sort of reverse compass, I wound my way through the woods, miles behind, dreaming of another dreamer: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. 

Growing up in a family of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, I first knew Nabokov not as the author of the controversial novel Lolita, but rather as that rare Russian butterfly, the Friend of the Jews. I heard stories about how he ended friendships over anti-Semitic remarks, shopped in Nazi-boycotted Jewish stores, spoke up for Israel and against anti-Semitism. Nabokov had been born into an aristocratic Russian family with a tradition of fighting for Jewish rights. He fled the Bolsheviks for Europe, barely escaped Nazi Berlin with his Jewish wife and their son, and was deeply affected by the Holocaust, in which he lost his brother and many close friends. 

Which brings us to Pnin, the novel, and to its eponymous protagonist. Professor Timofey Pnin teaches Russian literature at a provincial American university. Although the novel’s events seem trivial—Pnin receives visits from an ex-wife and her son, crashes one party, hosts another—it asks a profound question: How can a man build a life while honoring the friends and family lost in the Revolution and the Shoah? Although Nabokov is rightly celebrated as a prose stylist, what is most compelling about this novel is its hero’s struggles with this question. 

It’s difficult to explain why I felt such immediate kinship with this elderly, male, gentile academic. Perhaps it was that at a time when I was feeling rather lost and lonely, he reminded me of people in my family—of my grandfather, who, like Pnin, was shocked at Americans’ ignorance of the work of that American author most widely published in Russia, Jack London; of my father, who shares Pnin’s pessimistic view of history; of my mother, who swims Pnin’s stately breaststroke. 

More than these echoes, though, it was Nabokov’s epic authorial understanding that seemed to embrace me. He is generous yet accurate in his depiction of Pnin (and, it seemed, of my family). Indeed, Pnin’s difficulties adjusting to life in the United States—which range from learning spoken English to having his teeth extracted—are similar to difficulties Nabokov himself experienced. 

Of course, there are other ways to look at people, to laugh at people, and Nabokov shows us those, too. When Pnin first appears, it is as a bumbling immigrant, taking the wrong train to a lecture, claiming the wrong bag at the station, thinking himself daringly Western for wearing floppy socks. Quickly, however, he transcends this caricature. Arriving at the lecture hall, and looking out at the audience, Pnin has a vision of the people he has lost:

“…shyly smiling, sleek dark head inclined, gentle brown gaze shining up at Pnin from under velvet eyebrows, sat a dead sweetheart of his, fanning herself with a program. Murdered, forgotten, unrevenged, incorrupt, immortal, many old friends were scattered throughout the dim hall.”

Our understanding of Pnin deepens, even as characters in the novel continue to see him only as a type. A professor trying to tempt another into switching colleges says, “We have a real lake. We have everything. We even have a Professor Pnin on our staff.” Other professors compete to imitate his “wild English,” with its over-reliance on the childlike present tense, its malapropisms, its incorrect slang, and its mispronunciations (in just one of many delightful examples, Waindell College becomes Vandal College). Nabokov shows his mastery of shallow wit and then insists on depth. Crashing a party, Pnin unknowingly interrupts a colleague performing a Pnin imitation, only to be interrupted himself by another colleague’s warm welcome. In a sense, this book is that friend, bringing us close to a man whom others exclude. 

In the novel’s most haunting sections, Nabokov takes similar care to give full humanity to Mira, Pnin’s Jewish sweetheart, who smiles at him in his vision in the lecture hall. One of the first things we find out about her is that she died in a concentration camp. If that were all we knew, if she were in this novel merely to lend a sort of tragic humanity to Pnin, that in itself would be an act of dehumanization. Instead, immediately after we find out about the manner of her death, Pnin has a vision in which his father and Mira’s father play chess. In this calm, bucolic scene, these two men, close friends, move in parallel. They are both doctors, both fathers, both chess lovers—what difference could their different religions possibly make? They continue their game, they eat, and later, Pnin meets Mira in the garden. They live ordinary, happy lives—it is Mira’s death that is the aberration. There is a moral dimension to this novel’s insistence on its characters’ unique humanity. 

Many years after I first read Pnin, I began trying to write a novel about a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and I saw then how easy it is to let characters become types. Types are good for a laugh—they’ll do anything, they’ll make pratfalls and then look up, limbs askew, and ask the reader, “Did you like that?” If you’re feeling a bit lost, as I was during those years, then a figure of fun with a funny accent can distract you for a while. It was Nabokov’s example (combined with my own horror when I read my original manuscript) that led me to write 52 drafts and make people out of those dancing dolls. They became real to me—I feel lucky to have found my way to them.

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