After my disappointment with Pale Fire, I did not have high hopes for Pnin. I suppose it is unfair to the author when his readers all expect another Lolita, and as there can be only one, all else pales in comparison. I must say, however, I did enjoy Pnin more than anticipated and perhaps that is due to some current Russian Collegiate experiences or perhaps because it was a well written, albeit self-deprecating and presumed autobiography.
Set at the fictitious Waindell college in New York state, we follow a 50ish Russian professor teaching his native language and dealing with academia politics, disinterested students and transit snafus. It is both comical and sorrowful and delivers just the right level of discomfort that most readers can relate to. My frustrations center on the many unresolved character conflicts and at times, a pedantic tone, although that was likely intentional.
The book’s namesake, Professor Timofey Pnin, attempts to navigate America by way of its rail system while attempting to circumnavigate a profession in academia. His attempts are amusing, but he usually comes through somewhat unscathed. Through narration, we learn of his childhood, his education, his first love, his ex-wife and his move to the US. His treatment by others is oftentimes cruel, yet he seems unaffected or unawares and carries on, never seeming to harbor any grudges, yet his pain seemed nearly palpable.
Pnin’s ex-wife, Dr. Liza Wind, is a self-serving woman who gives little, if any thought to the feelings of others, including her husbands, former and current, as well as her son. She believes she is superior to others and doesn’t let her critics detract her one iota. We all know this person and we all try to avoid him/her.
…but something that Pnin had half heard in the course of the day, and had been reluctant to follow up, now bothered and oppressed him, as does, in retrospection, a blunder we have made, a piece of rudeness we have allowed ourselves, or a threat we have chosen to ignore.
They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all–but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.
I would love to hear more about Mr. Nabokov’s time at Cornell and attempt to sort the fact from the fiction of Pnin. What I would not attempt is to speak any Russian, beyond da and nyet for fear of a severe scolding. That he could write, and oh so well, in more than one language is astonishing and hopefully, I’d get a little insight into his processes.
My rating for Pnin is an 8 out of 10.
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