Pnin (1957): The invention of an adjective
I love Nabokov, and the best way to explain my particular affection for his writing is that I find it really, truly rewarding. The process of reading a Nabokov novel is, by far, more important than its destination, and every sentence absolutely begs you to read it--no, stop, don't go on just yet--read it again, and maybe one more time before you venture forward and study the next phrase for the same several moments. It's like dangling joyfully on a single monkey bar before gathering the strength to swing onto the next one. It's a playground of syntax. And I am enchanted every time.
Before working my way around to Pnin, I read Lolita, Despair, Pale Fire, Transparent Things, "Signs and Symbols," "The Vane Sisters," and what little there is of The Original of Laura. I, like so many readers, was lured into Lolita by a scandalized curiosity and a dazzling, lyrical first chapter (brief though it is), but since delving into Nabokov's other writings, I've decided that Lolita is far from his best work. It earned him infamy, which is wonderful, as it likely drew in more of a loyal readership than, say, the complex Pale Fire or some of his lesser-known books would ever have been able to do. But if Lolita is the catchy #1 radio hit, Pale Fire is the true devotee's favorite tune off the album, and Pnin--well, I think Pnin is an underplayed symphony.
The plot is the hardest aspect of Pnin to address, oddly enough. First published serially in The New Yorker while Nabokov was working on finding a publisher for Lolita, Pnin was eventually revised and reshaped into the short novel we have today. And while it has been falsely and unfortunately called plotless, it is, admittedly, a little less driven by a storyline than some of Nabokov's other works.
Pnin discusses the life and mishaps of Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, professor of Russian at a fictional upstate New York college named Waindell, likely modeled after Nabokov's own experience at Cornell or Wellesley. Since that's not much more than Wikipedia tells you, let me try to do a better job. Pnin begins on a train (one of my personal favorite settings for movies, novels, video games--don't know why) with the untenured Professor Pnin on his way to give a lecture. But we soon discover that it is inherently "Pninian" for certain things to go wrong--and for Pnin to expect it. He anticipates that he might misplace his lecture (which he would be useless without, as his fragile grasp on the English language does not enable him to ad-lib effectively), so he weighs his options. Should he place it in his luggage, which might get stolen on the platform? In the coat he's wearing? In the coat he intends to wear that evening? But although he knows his luck and has the sense to think ahead, Pnin doesn't anticipate that he could have gotten on the wrong train. Which he has.
This and other funny incidents always seem to happen to Pnin. He once won over a woman, Liza, and made her his wife, only to lose her to another man, Eric, then win her back, then lose her to the same man again, then briefly inherit Liza and Eric's child. He struggles to buy the child (Victor) a soccer ball, but later discovers Victor has no interest in sports.
On the eve of the day on which Victor had planned to arrive, Pnin entered a sport shop in Waindell's Main Street and asked for a football. The request was unseasonable, but he was offered one.
"No, no," said Pnin, "I do not wish an egg or, for example, a torpedo. I want a simple football ball. Round!"
And with wrists and palms he outlined a portable world. It was the same gesture he used in class when speaking of the "harmonical wholeness" of Pushkin. (IV.6)
He settles into a happy teaching placement at Waindell just to discover soon after that they are making department cuts and have no need for a professor of Russian--and that he's too qualified to teach French.
Hagen, playing his last card, suggested Pnin could teach a French language course: like many Russians, our friend had had a French governess as a child, and after the Revolution he lived in Paris for more than fifteen years.
"You mean," asked Blorenge sternly, "he can speak French?"
Hagen, who was well aware of Blorenge's special requirements, hesitated.
"Out with it, Herman! Yes or no?"
"I am sure he could adapt himself."
"He does speak it, eh?"
"In that case," said Blorenge, "we can't use him in First-Year French. It would be unfair to our Mr. Smith, who gives the elementary course this term and, naturally, is required to be only one lesson ahead of his students. Now it so happens that Mr. Hashimoto needs an assistant for his overflowing group in Intermediate French. Does your man read French as well as speak it?"
"I repeat, he can adapt himself," hedged Hagen.
"I know what adaptation means," said Blorenge, frowning. "In 1950, when Hash was away, I engaged that Swiss skiing instructor and he smuggled in mimeo copies of some old French anthology. It ook us almost a year to bring the class back to its initial level. Now, if what's-his-name does not read French--"
"I'm afraid he does," said Hagen with a sigh.
"Then we can't use him at all. As you know, we believe only in speech records and other mechanical devices. No books are allowed." (VI.3)
This is Pninian. This is the funny type of misfortune that seems to befall our titular hero--so much so that it earns itself an adjective. Pninian. I love that, I love the look of it, the sound of it, and the color it brings to the story. What the novel lacks in typical narrative-based plot, it makes up in the most interesting, vivid episodic telling of a character's life that I've ever read in fiction. Maybe Pnin is somewhat inspired by Nabokov and his real-life colleagues, but that doesn't matter; it takes a special kind of observational writing to produce such a well-rounded, believable character, whether inspired by actual people or not.
I don't want to go on too much about Pnin, partially because I'm so in love with it that I don't want to even try to analyze it, and partially because I don't think I could do it justice. Instead, I think I'd rather leave this with one more quote from the book that, to me, sums up not only the beauty of the writing, but the essence of the character, and the hilarity of the narrative.
Upon having all of his teeth removed, Pnin reflects on the missing pieces of his mouth:
It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a flat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.
Then, when he discovers that he likes his dentures:
And one evening he waylaid Laurence Clements, who was in the act of scuttling up to his study, and with incoherent exclamations of triumph started to demonstrate the beauty of the thing, the ease with which it could be taken out and put in again, and urged surprised but not unfriendly Laurence to have all his teeth out first thing tomorrow.
Oh, darling Pnin. It's such a rare thing to feel for a single character respect, pity, admiration, amusement, fascination, and love--not simply over the course of a story, but all at once.