Vladimir Nabokov first appeared to me as a stranger’s name on a Cornell t-shirt. A quick search online showed me that he’s a big deal—big enough to be printed on the same shirt as Ginsburg, Sagan and Morrison. Curious about his work, I found his novel Pnin at Olin Library. My first puzzle was learning how to pronounce the title. According to Nabokov from an interview, “To get the ‘pn’ right, try the combination ‘Up North,’ or still better ‘Up, Nina!’, leaving out the initial ‘u.’ Pnorth, Pnina, Pmn. Can you do that?”
The eponymous protagonist in Pnin is a professor at Waindell—which could very well represent Cornell, where Nabokov taught Russian and European Literature from 1948 to 1959. Mirroring Nabokov’s own history, Pnin is an expatriate of Russia trying to find his place in the elite American university. Pnin is a funny character. He is toothless, physically inept and full of unintelligible mutterings. His health is impossibly unworldly: in a cardiograph, doctors found “a dozen fatal diseases that excluded one another.” The narrator lacks words to capture Pnin’s idiosyncrasies, so he invents new adjectives such as the tautological “Pninian” to describe Pnin. In my favorite scene, Pnin gives a feverish squirrel a drink from the water fountain by holding down the handle to keep the water flowing. All the while, he looks away in order not to maintain eye contact with the menacing rodent. In short, Pnin is serious about himself, but neither the narrator nor the reader can reasonably take him seriously.
Yet for all his simplicity, Pnin is a complex man. I learned about Mira, Pnin’s former lover who died in a concentration camp. I learned about Pnin’s proposal letter to Liza, the woman he won over who would later betray him: “I am not handsome, I am not interesting, I am not talented. I am not even rich. But Lise, I offer you everything I have…” Clearly this Pnin is not the Pnin I originally thought lacked dimension and self-awareness. He is a character I want to defend rather than laugh at as he faces the sneers and whispers of his peers at faculty parties. Yet I find myself laughing at him at the most inopportune times.
Equally rich in the novel is Nabokov’s jabs at the education system and the demands it imposes upon young students. Pnin teaches at a university where the “typical American college student…does not know geography, is immune to noise, and thinks education is but a means to get eventually a remunerative job.” Cornell isn’t like this, right?
As a novel, Pnin should be remembered as a staple of good writing. Nabokov’s elegant prose turns the most ordinary subjects—a college professor’s lonely existence—into imaginative digressions replete with meaning. A pencil being sharpened in a spinning contraption leads our narrator to muse about how it “ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.” Deep.
Although I cannot say that I met Nabokov in person at Cornell, the author I’ve encountered through Pnin has left me wondering how to say goodbye to a school I’ve called home for four years. For Pnin too leaves his campus in the end. He too stares at the gaping space of the future. But the narrator, who we cannot forget was complicit in turning Pnin into a laughingstock, closes with a serious thought about Pnin, as one does in leaving a familiar friend. For he notes that despite Pnin’s departure, “there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.”