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For those of you who acknowledge the existence of spoilers, be advised that they may exist below.


Short novel by Vladimir Nabokov, published in 1957, between--chronologically speaking--Lolita and Pale Fire, his most comercially successful and most critically acclaimed novels, respectively. Though not perhaps as ambitious, nor as momentous a literary achievement, as either of those works, it is, like all of Nabokov's works, a masterpiece in its own right, serving just as well as his more famous books to induce what Nabokov called (in, incidentally, his afterword to Lolita) "aesthetic bliss," the induction of which is (sez Nabokov) literature's true purpose.

Originally conceived as a collection of short stories, Pnin consits of a series of vignettes--anectodes, of sorts--concerning Timofey Pnin, Russian expatriate and professor at Waindell College. Pnin is, at first glance, a comic character, something of a buffoon, due mostly to his abysmal and hilarious English (though he is fluent and quite skilled in, besides Russian, German and French) and inability to come to grips with his adopted surroundings ("unpredictable America," in the words of the narrator). This is evident from the first chapter, a quite funny account of Pnin's misadventures whilst attempting to take the train to a lecture he is to deliver.

At the same time, we're made privy to the pervasive tragedy of Pnin's person. During the aforementioned incident (with the train etc.), Pnin is overcome by "that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality" that characterizes the heart problems by which he is plagued (though said problems aren't explicitly identified as such but are made to seem somewhat mystical, as is more appropriate). Thereafter a childhood incident, in which Pnin is extremely ill with a fever and confined to a hospital bed, is recounted. Laying in bed, young Pnin beomes tortured by the wallpaper pattern. Says the narrator, "It stood to reason that if the evil designer--that destroyer of minds, the friend of fever--had concealed the key of the pattern with such monstrous care, that key must be as precious as life itself and, when found, would regain for Timofey Pnin his everyday health, his everyday world; and this lucid--alas, too lucid--thought forced him to persevere in the struggle."

Such is Pnin's life in America: a struggle, in which he has no choice but to persevere. Seen in this light his character is one of tragedy--his life is characterized by the lack of a home (he changes lodgings more or less yearly, boarding with various Waindell faculty), close friends (though he does see friends from Russia, also émigrés, this occurs seldom), and other necessities of happy living. In the end he has to move yet again, this time from Waindell, having been (sort of) replaced by the narrator of his story. In the last scene Pnin impersonator extraordinnaire (and chair of Waindell's English department) Jack Cockerell, with the narrator as his audience, says, "And now, I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women's Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture"--the story, more or less, with which the novel begins.

Pnin's life is thus shown to proceed cyclically, devoid, for the most part, of any semblance of progress. His story reflects both the absurdity and comedy of his wanderings through life as well as their essential sadness, combining the two in a poignant fashion which, along with Nabokov's stylistic genius, gives Pnin its considerable appeal, which appeal is arguably just as great as that of any of Nabokov's works.