Study Guide

Pnin

By Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin Introduction

When you think of Nabokov, you might think "literary virtuoso," "lush prose," "morally compromising little girls," or maybe even "butterfly fan," but what you probably don't think is "ROFLMAO funny." But that's exactly what Pnin is. First released in 1954 as a series of episodic texts in the New Yorker, Pnin is an example of a literary genius letting his hair down.

It follows an aging Russian émigré (named, you guessed it, Pnin) who bumbles through his new life in America. Despite having lived in the United States for several decades, Pnin still lacks a basic understanding of English and American culture, which leads him to be pretty much an outcast, even amongst his friends. Unfortunately for Pnin, he loses his job just as it seems that everything is going okay. And that's where the novel ends.

Nabokov wrote Pnin while he was working on his slightly more famous novel, Lolita. Controversy was already swirling around the unfinished book, and Nabokov didn't know that it would catapult him into the literary canon. So to make sure he still had some money in his pocket, he wrote Pnin.

That probably explains why it's so strange in the context of Nabokov's other novels. Pnin could be considered more of a character sketch than Nabokov's other action-packed works. Unlike the other main characters of Nabokov's novels, Pnin was the first one to be relatable and not a madman. Obviously, we are supposed to feel sorry for him, because the original title was My Poor Pnin. We'll be honest, we found ourselves thinking this exact phrase dozens of times throughout the novel.

After its release in the New Yorker, Nabokov attempted to get Pnin published, but nearly everyone refused its unconventional form. After three years and some editing, Doubleday decided to publish Pnin in the form that we know it today.

In just the first six months after publication, there were 77 reviews, and that's just the ones in English. Sure, not all of them were positive. Just like those picky publishers, many reviewers said Pnin was too unconventional and nothing more than a series of character sketches. Since then, the novel has not really been in the limelight.

Just like poor Pnin, the novel gets passed over for its more illustrious siblings like Lolita. Sure, it's not flashy. There are no creepy pedophiles. But if you ever wanted to know what kind of novel a famous writer creates to make sure he can afford dinner, Pnin is there for you.

What is Pnin About and Why Should I Care?

Life these days is all about the visual. With Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, and another new photo-based social networking service coming out every other day, we are awash in images.

With all that stuff, it seems like language is coming less and less important. After all, why worry about it when you have Google Translate and zillions o fapps that instantly translate conversations as if they were the babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

So we don't need it anymore. The only people who worry about things like grammar and handwriting are old farts, right?

You better believe you're not reading this to answer "right." Pnin might be pretty old-fashioned, but he's still a good example of what happens when you can't communicate. Even though he's a smart and fairly well intentioned guy, almost everyone thinks he's an idiot. Why? Because he's terrible at speaking English. And he didn't even have Pinterest (Pninterest? Call Silicon Valley!) to express himself. Like we said, poor Pnin!

Now, there may be a future where we can communicate by beaming our Instagram feeds into one another's minds. But until then, it's probably a good idea to take a lesson from Pnin. Be careful how you communicate, or a brilliant author may end up writing a novel just to poke fun at you.

Pnin Resources

Websites

Mirror Mirror On the Wall
Remember all of those paintings Victor likes to talk about with mirrors in the background? This website gives you the lowdown on Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Memling.

Pnin-o-Rama
Still can't get enough Pnin? This website has an in-depth essay by Gennady Barabtarlo that will go deeper than you could have possibly imagined into the world of our Russian professor.

He's Not a Perv, We Promise
Despite some of the book covers, Pnin is not a perverted professor. But this website will tell you lots of other clichés and stereotypes the novel does fall into.

Movie or TV Productions

A Movie Star
There are over 13 movies and TV shows based on Nabokov's novels and short stories. Have you seen them all?

Love and Chess
While these are not exactly two subjects we would put together, this short 1920s comedy smooshes them up in a knight's move to write home about. And Nabokov actually plays a role in it!

Historical Documents

Pnin for Kids
This early overview of Pnin by the New Yorker is so simple, even a five-year-old could understand it.

Interviews Galore
We can never get enough Nabokov interviews, so imagine how excited we were when we found this comprehensive list of every single one he has ever done. Let the stalking commence!

The Family Nabokov
Many of Nabokov's characters are based on his family members, so it would be good to know something about his family history. This family tree can help you out. Plus that shield is pretty awesome.

Video

Lolita and Laura
Here you can find a series of videos from a conference discussing Lolita and the new release of The Original of Laura by our main man Nabokov.

Victor's Reflection Studies
We always thought that Pnin would be better (well, at least as good) in animated form, so we were delighted to find this depiction of Victor and Pnin's first meeting.

Audio

Nabokov Reads Aloud
In 1952, Nabokov was a visiting professor at Harvard and delivered a series of lectures. Now is your chance to experience the teaching style of Pnin's creator.

Vintage Nabokov Lists the Greats
Not only does feature Nabokov in this clip, but also he gives us a list of his favorite books from the 20th century.

Happy Centenary Nabokov!
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Nabokov's birth, a bunch of book readers' favorite organizations got together to have a party. Here are some audio recordings. No, it probably wasn't as epic as Pnin's party.

Images

Der zerstreute professor
The narrator says that this doesn't describe Pnin, but we don't know if we agree. It looks pretty accurate to us.

Gertrude Käsebier's Mother and Child
This is one of the few pieces of art adorning the walls of Lake, as boasted by Victor's favorite art teacher.

Meet Lawrence Clements
The narrator tells us that Clements looks like the portrait of Canon Peale in this painting. How's that for some eye candy?