“There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark.”
So Nabokov introduces Liza, the ex-wife and persistent object of Professor Timofey Pnin’s affection, with the poetic prose that permeates all of his writing. But Nabokov’s novel Pnin is set apart from the rest; his usual serious lyricism is tempered with an uncharacteristic quantity of humor in the story of a Russian literature professor at a liberal arts college in the northeastern United States.
Professor Pnin is a bumbling, good-natured, awkward intellectual whose speech matches his personality: his stilted, grammatically incorrect English, peppered with distinctly academic vocabulary, is always spoken in earnest and frequently with hilarious consequences. Pnin is underwhelmed by his students, oblivious to the depth of departmental politics and his colleagues’ disdain, tragically still in love with his ex-wife, and leads a remarkably plain yet eccentric life. In Pnin, Nabokov created his most humorous character: bald and toothless, brilliant and awkward, and impeccably tanned (after immigrating to the United States, Pnin avidly takes up sunbathing). But Pnin is also Nabokov’s most autobiographical novel; besides the thinly veiled parallels to his own professorship at Cornell, the author echoes his feelings of displacement as an émigré through his protagonist and his compatriots: “Young émigré poets, who had left Russia in their pale, unpampered pubescence, chanted nostalgic elegies dedicated to a country that could be little more to them than a sad, stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic. . . .”
The story centers around Pnin’s more or less peaceful life at Waindell College, interrupted only by the occasional drafts from faulty radiators in his rented rooms, taking the wrong trains, and once, though with great significance, the reappearance of his ex-wife. As they reconnect, he forms a bond with her son (from another marriage), which serves as a bittersweet look at love in all its contexts and as an impetus for Pnin to reevaluate his life. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Russian professor, academic conspiracies—with his future in the balance—are developing behind the scenes. But, “the cat, as kindly Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag,” and everything is revealed at a faculty party.
For any reader who studied humanities, Pnin will stir up nostalgic feelings and recollections of your undergraduate years as it lovingly recounts the sights, scents, and sounds of university life. The novel is, in many ways, a window into Nabokov’s own experience as a professor in an adopted country. But it is also a satire of the academe, mercilessly poking fun at the pretension inherent in higher education and the petty competition among colleagues, often at the expense of education. At the heart of it all, Pnin is a highly amusing, darkly comic story of an eccentric, kindly intellectual wrestling with his own understanding of his place in the world.
Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: "A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do." Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.