Booklog: Pnin

May 19, 2007

Vladimir Nabokov
Read: 5.8.07
Rating: Very Good

I’ve been having a mighty hard time writing this booklog: I finished Pnin two weeks ago, after reading it in three days, and haven’t been able to muster up any worthy thoughts. I’m a little disappointed with myself, but figured it’d be best to just slap down a few reactions and get it out of the way. Please lower your expectations, and read on.

Pnin was originally published in segments in The New Yorker, while Nabokov was searching for someone brave or foolish enough to publish Lolita. It thus occupies a space in Nabokov’s timeline between his two masterpieces, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Sadly, though Pnin shares much in common, both thematically and stylistically, with these two novels, it does not read their level of excellence.

The strength of Pnin is its title character, Russian emigrate and professor, Timofey Pnin. A protagonist could hardly be more charming and lovable, and his cultural and linguistic difficulties in adapting to America afford Nabokov plenty of opportunity for jokes and puns. The novel is astoundingly amusing, and the prose a sheer delight.

The trouble with Pnin is its disjointedness. As I mentioned, the text was originally published in sections, and it reads more like a collection of related stories than a novel. The plot does develop, with a dash of Nabokovian intrigue, but the sum does not equal the whole of its parts. The good news, and the reason I would recommend Pnin, is that Nabokov was a master of English prose, and Pnin represents yet one more example of his accomplishment.



  1. I really like Nabokov, but I’ve read only Pale Fire and Lolita and Glory, his first novel, I believe, and I’m afraid that I won’t like his others quite as well. That’s the problem, I think, with reading a writer’s best work first — after that, it’s potentially all downhill.

  2. […] to try it because it may disappoint you? I was reminded of that problem when I read Ted’s post on Nabokov’s Pnin, which didn’t quite live up to his expectations. I’ve […]

  3. Quick response: Check out _Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin_ or just read it again eight times. Underneath, it’s not disjointed. There are all sorts of clever patterns and ties. It feels occasional, but it’s an illusion. And it’s as human as anything N. wrote. Well, it’s my favorite Nabokov anyway…

  4. Thanks for the quick comments, both.

    Dorothy, I was anticipating having this problem with Nabokov, but his prose is always so good that I’m still eager to read deeper into his catalog — it will always be fun, if not life-changing (Lolita is one of my all-time favorite novels).

    Tim, I’m definitely willing to read Pnin again, and I’m sure that there are plenty of interconnections I missed. I did go back and skim through the text again after the ending (and that’s all I’ll say about the ending).

    Since Pnin is under 200 pages, I’m sure I’ll find the time to read it once more — but until after I do the same thing with Lolita.

  5. Amazingly, they have Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov’s Pnin available for check-out at the Philadelphia Free Library. I’m going to give it a look-see.

  6. Like the new look. I’ve only read Nabokov’s nonfiction–a few essays and his lectures on Don Quixote. I’ve got Lolita waiting in the wings. Must make the effort to get to it. Pnin sounds interesting, I don’t recall hearing of it before.

  7. Despite the disjointedness I adore Pnin . I’m a bit of a muddle-brain myself and can identify with Pnin’s forgetfulness (double requesting library books etc) hehe. Just thought I’d share Graham Greene’s description of Nabokov’s novella which I think is quite apt:

    “Pnin is hilariously funny and of a sadness.”
    Graham Greene, The Guardian

  8. Now I’m intrigued. I’ve only read Lolita, but have both Pale Fire and Pnin waiting for me. I’ll be interested to see if you agree with Tim after reading the guide.

    By the way, I like the new look of your site.

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