Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Despite having lived in America for many years, conservative and eccentric Russian professor Timofei Pnin has never fully grasped the subtleties of the English language. This, along with his rather comical appearance, peculiar habits, set routines and rather limited social skills, has resulted in Pnin being a constant source of humour for his colleagues at Waindell College.
The story consists of various episodes in our protagonist’s solitary, academic, cocoon-dwelling life being recounted by an unreliable narrator. These episodes include losing his teaching notes on a train, a visit from his ex-wife, a weekend with other Russian émigré intellectuals, and a party that he organises for his fellow teachers.
Though this short novel has a potentially dull subject matter and very little in the way of plot, the author successfully employs non-events and pathos to elicit sympathy for its sensitive protagonist, as well as mild amusement, of the wry and intellectual variety. An air of pretentiousness pervades the text with the ever self-indulgent Nabokov showing off his knowledge of literature and entomology, in addition to his remarkable linguistic abilities (there are French, German and Russian references). A sensation of melancholy is adroitly evoked through the utilisation of long sentences and a gentle, ornate, almost poetic prose style.