"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.