For those of you who acknowledge the existence of spoilers, be advised that they may exist below.

Short novel by Vladimir Nabokov, published in 1957, between--chronologically speaking--Lolita and Pale Fire, his most comercially successful and most critically acclaimed novels, respectively. Though not perhaps as ambitious, nor as momentous a literary achievement, as either of those works, it is, like all of Nabokov's works, a masterpiece in its own right, serving just as well as his more famous books to induce what Nabokov called (in, incidentally, his afterword to Lolita) "aesthetic bliss," the induction of which is (sez Nabokov) literature's true purpose.

Originally conceived as a collection of short stories, Pnin consits of a series of vignettes--anectodes, of sorts--concerning Timofey Pnin, Russian expatriate and professor at Waindell College. Pnin is, at first glance, a comic character, something of a buffoon, due mostly to his abysmal and hilarious English (though he is fluent and quite skilled in, besides Russian, German and French) and inability to come to grips with his adopted surroundings ("unpredictable America," in the words of the narrator). This is evident from the first chapter, a quite funny account of Pnin's misadventures whilst attempting to take the train to a lecture he is to deliver.

At the same time, we're made privy to the pervasive tragedy of Pnin's person. During the aforementioned incident (with the train etc.), Pnin is overcome by "that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality" that characterizes the heart problems by which he is plagued (though said problems aren't explicitly identified as such but are made to seem somewhat mystical, as is more appropriate). Thereafter a childhood incident, in which Pnin is extremely ill with a fever and confined to a hospital bed, is recounted. Laying in bed, young Pnin beomes tortured by the wallpaper pattern. Says the narrator, "It stood to reason that if the evil designer--that destroyer of minds, the friend of fever--had concealed the key of the pattern with such monstrous care, that key must be as precious as life itself and, when found, would regain for Timofey Pnin his everyday health, his everyday world; and this lucid--alas, too lucid--thought forced him to persevere in the struggle."

Such is Pnin's life in America: a struggle, in which he has no choice but to persevere. Seen in this light his character is one of tragedy--his life is characterized by the lack of a home (he changes lodgings more or less yearly, boarding with various Waindell faculty), close friends (though he does see friends from Russia, also émigrés, this occurs seldom), and other necessities of happy living. In the end he has to move yet again, this time from Waindell, having been (sort of) replaced by the narrator of his story. In the last scene Pnin impersonator extraordinnaire (and chair of Waindell's English department) Jack Cockerell, with the narrator as his audience, says, "And now, I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women's Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture"--the story, more or less, with which the novel begins.

Pnin's life is thus shown to proceed cyclically, devoid, for the most part, of any semblance of progress. His story reflects both the absurdity and comedy of his wanderings through life as well as their essential sadness, combining the two in a poignant fashion which, along with Nabokov's stylistic genius, gives Pnin its considerable appeal, which appeal is arguably just as great as that of any of Nabokov's works.

"My first recollection of Timofey Pnin is connected with a speck of coal dust that entered my left eye on a spring Sunday in 1911.”

The narrator has an interesting relationship with the title character. He seems to possess a good deal of knowledge about Pnin’s life without ever being very involved with him for any prolonged period of time. Their relationship is unclear, and hinges on this one tiny speck of coal dust that could have lodged itself in anyone’s eye, but found itself, most fortunately for the novel, in the eye of the entertaining and well-spoken narrator.

My first recollection of Timofey Pnin is connected with a day on which we both happened to be riding the train to unfamiliar destinations. It was a disconcerting feeling for me to be sitting down in my seat, hoping my travel plans were well-enough researched that I would reach my destination without incident, only to start my travel reading and find it to be about a man who is on the wrong train, but doesn’t know it. It was an omen. As it happened, my plans for the day went awry as much as poor Pnin’s. It was then that I realized Timofey and I were kindred spirits.

Unlike the narrator, who relates the adventures of Pnin with an air of pity for the clueless title character, I associated with Pnin as a peer. His cluelessness and his inability to ever be integrated into his surroundings echo my own plight. Plus, we both get on the wrong train sometimes.

Frankly, I wish I could be more like the narrator. I like him. He seems to have pretty good grip on what’s going on. He’s intelligent and well-educated.

At first glance, and for a long time after that, I felt a certain aversion to the way Nabokov writes. The writing is thick; full of unfamiliar words in three or four different languages, on top of which is the problem of Pnin’s trademark speech impediment. For the most part, it was a chore to read. But at the same time, I felt like I was undertaking a task of the utmost importance, as though reading this book would make the difference between damnation and salvation. Sometimes, I think it did. Sometimes I think perhaps I might have given up on the world if not for these two sentences: “I wonder where that speck is now. The dull, mad fact is that it does exist somewhere.” The idea that a speck of coal dust that had been caught in one’s eye for a few hours in one’s youth still exists somewhere on this planet is at once the most elementary thought and the most brilliant revelation one could possibly conceive of. Of course that speck of dust is still around. Where did you expect it to go? But when you consider where that speck has been, where it came from, where it is now, to say nothing of what sort of life form it was before it turned into coal, it illustrates the vastness space and time.

So, the moral is, wading through the thick language and the indecipherable sentences (e.g. “Pnin and Oleg Komorov were usually in a subdued state of war, but meetings were inevitable, and such of their American colleagues deemed the Komorovs ‘grand people’ and mimicked droll Pnin were sure the painter and Pnin were excellent friends.” I have no idea…) is all worth it when you finally reach one of the numerous clever insights peppered throughout the book, which become significantly more dense the more you understand Nabokov’s writing, until, at some point, it becomes clear that the entire book, is, in fact, an epiphany.

I found a great deal to admire in Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, but I found it a difficult read because I found the narrator so unpleasant. I never found the novel to be light-hearted, as many readers and reviewers apparently have, and I mostly connected with the sadness in it that becomes more prevalent as the book moves on. I disliked the narrator's contempt towards Pnin, who's a truly decent character, but I also realize that employing a narratorial voice that treats the protagonist viciously while simultaneously conveying Pnin’s goodness and humanity is something only a writer of tremendous skill can manage. The ongoing symbolism of the squirrel as the ghost/metaphor for Pnin's lost love Mira is quite remarkable, too.

But the scene that interested me the most was the one in which Pnin flashes back to the time when he was sick as a boy and became obsessed with the wallpaper in his room:

He had always been able to see that in the vertical plane a combination made up of three different clusters of purple flowers and seven different oak leaves was repeated a number of times with soothing exactitude; but now he was  bothered by the undismissable fact that he could not find what system of inclusion and circumscription governed the horizontal recurrence of the pattern; that such a recurrence existed was proved by his being able to pick out here and there, all along the wall from bed to wardrobe and from stove to door, the reappearance of this or that element of the series, but when he tried traveling right or left from any chosen set of three inflorescences and seven leaves, he forthwith lost himself in a meaningless tangle of rhododendron and oak.

I wondered if Nabokov was deliberately evoking "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was written 65 years before Nabokov's novel. In Gilman's story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the floridly ugly wallpaper in the bedroom of the country manor her husband has rented for the summer. She first tries to make sense of its weird, conflicting, confounding patterns – much as she’s trying to make sense of the complex, illogical rules and double standards of the patriarchal world she's trapped in. Then she starts to see malign eyes moving inside the pattern. As her madness progresses, she starts to see the image of a lurking woman trapped inside the pattern, and the narrator becomes obsessed with getting her out.

Pnin, on the other hand, doesn't fall prey to insanity as he tries to make sense of his own wallpaper, although whoever designed the paper is described as "the destroyer of minds, the friend of fever". But as a metaphor, the wallpaper in Nabokov's chapter could function in much the same way as Gilman's: Pnin has become aware that he's trapped in a world he cannot fully understand or navigate despite his best efforts. Does he escape insanity because he, as an educated man, is not oppressed by society to the same extent that Gilman's female protagonist is? If Nabokov was deliberately riffing off the themes and images of Gilman's story, that conclusion seems likely. 

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