Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

What a great book. An unexpected great book. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in an exceedingly precarious position: trapped at work with no book. OH the horror! It's one of my worst nightmares, actually. Luckily, I was trapped on the upper floor of a LIBRARY, so it was all OK. No reason to panic. No reason to become tearful or sharp. I just ran downstairs and started browsing. Due in part to the fact that my attention span is nearly nil, I chose the first slim volume I ran across. Pnin.

I am a Nabokov admirer. I read Lolita a few years ago (after a first failed attempt), and loved it--as much as a person can love a book about a pedophile.

But I digress. I loved it.

Loved Nabokov's style, his wit, his talent, his mastery of English (not his first language if you hadn't guessed by the name). Despite my admiration and high marks for Lolita, I can't say that I really *got* it the way I might get it now. Now I would pick up the annotated version (big, scary), and I would probably generally understand more given my post-graduate school proclivity for textual spelunkery. I always thought my next foray into Nabokov's world would be The Eye or Invitation to a Beheading, but Pnin seemed a good place to start given the size.

Dear GOD, he can pack a lot of literary shtuff into 140 pages. The story in brief:

Russian immigrant professor is a bumbling mess for the most part. Displaced, changes lodgings every semester (at least), reads his lectures verbatim from a typed sheet of paper excluding his almost unintelligible asides in broken English. He's just a mess. Poor guy. An endearing, sweet mess. Nabokov describes the conditions under which professor Timofey Pnin came to the United States and his overwhelming nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia. The reader is given back story on selected Pninian loves and losses, his budding relationship with his son, his academic struggles and foibles.

All in 140 pages.

In addition to a sweet plot and a nice academic novel, Nabokov does some delightful things with form. He's what my friend C. might've called "very Postmodern." And C. would be right. Nabokov plays with form in a number of ways, the most striking of which is the book's narrator. As the story begins, Nabokov drops a few hints that this story is not told my some nebulous voice from the sky, but someone Pnin actually knows (knew, more like). However, as the story moves along, the nebulous voice becomes more of a presence, eventually taking over the story completely and revealing his identity and relation to Pnin. Really, besides being a cool bit of literary trickery, it helps underscore the ways in which Pnin is completely devoid of control. He can't stay grounded in one living space, he can barely teach his classes and carry out his research, he can't even tell his own story! He becomes a character in his own story.

I read the Everyman's Library edition of this novel, and David Lodge writes a great intro. He explains some of the striking similarities between one of Nabokov's colleagues and Pnin. And, surprisingly, striking similarities between Nabokov himself and Pnin (the tendency toward reading lectures verbatim, an overwhelming absentmindedness, etc.). I'm usually not one for introductions--I often skip them completely--but this one was nicely written and gave an interesting peek inside Nabokov's life, as well as a timeline explaining how this book related to Lolita (published after, but the first easily accessible Nabokov novel in America since Lolita was banned). It's also nice to know that Pnin appears, happy and bumbling as usual, in a later novel.

8.5/10 - An enjoyable, rich novel. It took me a long time to read it because Nabokov's writing, for me, is just slow, even when I'm diggin' it.


In other news, I'm not nearly as pissy as I was last night. AND, I forgot to tell you all that the DA reduced my ticket to a speeding violation: 34 in a 25. Woot! And I was the 2nd person they called, so I was in, out, and done in about 30 minutes. Wheee!

If I don't type at you before Thanksgiving, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday! To those not celebrating, I still hope you have a good day. Preferably filled with books and/or revelry of some sort.


  1. I read Lolita several years ago and enjoyed once I got passed the pedophile part (although I kind of thought the pedo-stuff was symbolic). I also read Invitation to a Beheading and the whole time I kept thinking that I read this before. As I kept reading, I thought that it reminded me a whole lot of Kafka, but could not remember the title. In fact, I think the reviews kept saying "oh, this (Nabokov) is so like Kafka," to which he did not take to kindly to. That is interesting about Pnin possibly modeled on Nabokov, I read that his lectures were fabulous, he did not really like teaching, but everyone loved his classes. I may have to reread that source.

  2. I found this book literally on a bush when I was walking to work my first day. Naturally, I helped myself.

    Now, I can't wait to read it.

    Good on you for the ticket reduction. Don't they have better things to do???

    Have a great Thanksgiving, Andie.

  3. Fem, everything is symbolic with Nabokov. Everything is intertextual and mystifying. Thus, the scariness of that darned annotated Lolita. Maybe someday. lol

    I was listening to NPR yesterday and Ha Jin was talking about his new book, Free Life, and it was partially inspired by Pnin! Woot! Another reason to buy a new book.

    Must read Kafka. Must.

    LK, too funny. How many people can say they found a book on a bush? Not many, I bet. And, yes, I fear they had bigger criminals than me to fry. Yayyy!

  4. I have to be honest...

    I have a map of misreading of this post and comments.

    For one thing you say "I really *got* it" and to steal a carterism that carter stole from me when I argued with her as a first year, there is NO IT to get from a book. Read Pnin tomorrow and you will *get* a different *it*. You are so smart you point out your different interpretions. Map the misreading...

    Two, Lolita has little to do with pedophila. It was written about his homosexual brother who died in a concentration camp in Neuegamme. To him Pedophila was a back drop to trying to describe his brothers persecution, however, by the time he was writing homosexuality was an accepted unaccepted that you did just not talked about. A 12 year old was more revolting, and his point (although I think he missed it by a LONG mile) was to write about obsession in a manner that made so called "perversion" humanized.

    So here is the REAL point...

    Lets discuss MY map of Misreading...

    THEN, When everyone gets time lets discuss Ada and talk about colors expressed as Language.

  5. T. true, regarding the "it" to get from a book. However, damn you all to hell for bringing Carter up on my blog. I'd almost gotten over the trauma.

    And thanks for sharing the concentration camp/persecution bit. I hadn't read that. I haven't read much background on Lolita, as a matter of fact.

    Stay strong. Keep misreading!

  6. I can relate - people wonder why I have such a large purse, but if I get caught somewhere without a book, it is a traumatic experience for me.

    Read "Pale Fire" - it's AMAZING.

    I was in your state! (See blog for details.)

    Hope you had a great holiday love.

  7. Ooh, Soj! I wanna read PALE FIRE so badly!


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