A special danger area in Pnin's case was the English language. Except for such not very helpful odds and ends as "the rest is silence/' "nevermore," "weekend," "who's who," and a few ordinary words like "eat," "street," "fountain pen," "gangster," "Charleston," "marginal utility," he had had no English at all at the time he left France for the States. Stubbornly he sat down to the task of learning the language of Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Poe, Edison, and thirty-one Presidents. In 1941, at the end of one year of study, he was proficient enough to use glibly terms like "wishful thinking" and "okey-dokey." By 1942 he was able to interrupt his narration with the phrase, "To make a long story short." By the time Truman entered his second term, Pnin could handle practically any topic; but otherwise progress seemed to have stopped despite all his efforts, and by 1950 his English was still full of flaws. (1.10.1)
Throughout the novel Pnin's lack of English skills is mentioned a bunch of times, but this is the first time we hear it described. Notice that Pnin seems to be a very quick learner at the beginning of his English study, and then everything just grinds to a halt in 1950. What you think is going on there?
The procedure was somewhat complicated. Professor Pnin laboriously translated his own Russian verbal flow, teeming with idiomatic proverbs, into patchy English. This was revised by young Miller. Then Dr. Hagen's secretary, a Miss Eisenbohr, typed it out. Then Pnin deleted the passages he could not understand. Then he read it to his weekly audience. (1.10.2)
Whoa. Pnin's lectures go through six transformations before they even get to be read to an audience! That's right—his verbal transgressions are so serious they have to go through multiple mutations in English before they can be spewed out again for an audience. What does this tell you about Pnin's grasp on English, and particularly his ability to communicate with others?
"Say, I was there as a child exactly the same year," said pleased Joan. "My father went to Turkey on a government mission and took us along. We might have met! I remember the word for water. And there was a rose garden—" "Water in Turkish is 'su,'" said Pnin, a linguist by necessity, and went on with his fascinating past: Completed university education in Prague. (2.2.2)
Oh! So close! Even when Pnin has the legit opportunity to connect with another person, language gets in the way. Here, Joan is sharing something that they have in common, but Pnin is too focused on the Turkish word for water to even notice.
It soon transpired that Timofey was a veritable encyclopedia of Russian shrugs and shakes, had tabulated them, and could add something to Laurence' s files on the philosophical interpretation of pictorial and non-pictorial, national and environmental gestures. It was very pleasant to see the two men discuss a legend or a religion, Timofey blossoming out in amphoric motion, Laurence chopping away with one hand. (2.4.4)
Is it surprising that once Pnin relies on nonverbal communication, he is able to build a relationship? It's not that language is out of the picture, but looks like there are some other ways to make a connection. Honestly, we assumed that Lawrence (the male half of the Clements) hated him, but we guess Pnin's Russian shrugs won him over.
It was, she told him as they drove up Park Street, a school in the English tradition. No, she did not want to eat anything, she had had a big lunch at Albany. It was a "very fancy" school—she said this in English—the boys played a kind of indoor tennis with their hands, between walls, and there would be in his form a — (she produced with false nonchalance a well-known American name which meant nothing to Pnin because it was not that of a poet or a president). (2.6.4)
The "she" in this quote is Liza Wind. She's visiting Pnin to ask him for money, and uses some of her fancy English while she's doing it. What does it tell you about Liza that she has a better grip on English than Pnin even though they arrived in America at the exact same time? Why do you think Pnin doesn't know anything about American people who are not poets or presidents? And why would she make such a thing of showing off when Pnin's clearly not about to get the gist?
…Plila I pela, pela I plila….She floated and she sang, she sang and floated…Of course! Ophelia's death! Hamlet! In good old Andrey Kroneberg' s Russian translation, 1844—the joy of Pnin's youth, and of his father's and grandfather's young days! And here, as in the Kostromskoy passage, there is, we recollect, also a willow and also wreaths. But where to check properly? Alas, "Gamlet" Vil'yama Shekspira had not been acquired by Mr. Todd, was not represented in Waindell College Library, and whenever you were reduced to look up something in the English version, you never found this or that beautiful, noble, sonorous line that you remembered all your life from Kroneberg' s text in Vengerov's splendid edition. Sad! (3.6.33)
Isn't it a little funny that Pnin so loves this specific Russian translation of what could be considered one of the greatest plays in English literature—but only when it's in Russian? You would imagine that Pnin would be excited to explore their original text, but he speaks as if the Russian is actually the original instead of the English. And we're so pulled in with the Russian words he drops in this passage that we're at least curious to hear what it's like.
It was more trying when among such strangers Dr. Eric Wind, a completely humorless pedant who believed that his English (acquired in a German high school) was impeccably pure, would mouth a stale facetious phrase, saying "the pond" for the ocean, with the confidential and arch air of one who makes his audience the precious gift of a fruity colloquialism. (4.2.2)
We forgive Eric. It's pretty exciting when you get good enough at a language to start using colloquialisms. Still, it's annoying for everyone else when someone just wants to show off their language chops. At least he has a better grasp on English than Pnin. What kind of person do you think he is based on the way he tries to show off using language?
"I speak in French with much more facility than in English," said Pnin, "but you—vous comprenez le Fran-gais? Bien? Assez Bien? Un peu?" "Trés un peu," said Victor. (4.8.13)
This is a moment during Pnin and Victor's first meeting. The reason why Pnin asks Victor if he can speak French is that, like many Russian émigré's, he fled to Paris after leaving Russia. He also had some education in French even during his childhood. With these two things combined, Pnin is probably fluent in French. He'd even rather communicate with Victor in it. Unfortunately for him, that's not the dominant language in the United States. Maybe he should've moved to Québec.
Two interesting characteristics distinguished Leonard Blorenge, Chairman of French literature and language; he disliked literature and he had no French. (6.2.1)
We've never heard anything more ridiculous in our entire lives. Why are you the chairman of French literature and language if you hate literature and can't speak 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 15 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?" 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 took 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."
"There still remains advanced French," murmured Hagen.
"Carolina Slavski and I take care of that," answered Blorenge. (6.3.2)
It's okay if that didn't make any sense to you at all, because there was no sense to be made. Even though he only appears for brief moment, Blorenge is almost certainly the most bizarre and detestable character in the whole novel. Why is this guy so against the idea of a teacher who actually knows the language lecturing students? Do you think that Pnin would have gotten the job if he didn't speak French? And, um, what does this say about the state of university education?
During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings— for one reason or another, mainly sonic—about every semester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody. (3.1.1)
That's 24 times Pnin has moved in the last eight years. 24 times! That means Pnin has not had a stable address for almost a decade. He hasn't had the ability to lay down roots, really get to know his neighbors, or even just become a regular at the shops around his home. Moving frequently doesn't just mean that he moves his stuff, but that Pnin hasn't had a real opportunity to connect with the people around him.
At present Pnin was still renting the pink-walled, white-flounced second-floor bedroom in the Clements' house, and this was the first house he really liked and the first room he had occupied for more than a year. By now he had weeded out all trace of its former occupant; or so he thought, for he did not notice, and probably never would, a funny face scrawled on the wall just behind the headboard of the bed and some half-erased height-level marks penciled on the doorjamb, beginning from a four-foot altitude… (3.2.1)
Even in the room that Pnin has occupied for more than a year, there are traces of other occupants that seem to imply that it's not really his room. Like some kind of ghostly reminder, Isabel's childhood height marks and drawn funny face continue to mark the place as her room, and not his.
Till 1950 (this was 1953—how time flies!) he had shared an office in the German Department with Miller, one of the younger instructors, and then was given for his exclusive use Office R, which formerly had been a lumber room but had now been completely renovated. During the spring he had lovingly Pninized it. (3.4.1)
Even in an academic context, it seems that Pnin has to scrounge for every last bit of space he gets. The German department gives him what used to be a lumber-room, but Pnin doesn't even care. He loves that Pnin-ified lumber-room!
When, after a summer spent teaching in Washington, Pnin returned to his office, an obese dog lay asleep on his rug, and his furniture had been moved to a darker part of the office, so as to make room for a magnificent stainless-steel desk and a swivel chair to match, in which sat writing and smiling to himself the newly imported Austrian scholar, Dr. Bodo von Falternfels; and thenceforth, so far as Pnin was concerned, Office R had gone to seed. (3.4.1)
Unfortunately for Pnin, it's too good to last. He can never have something all to his own. Even after he has "lovingly Pninized" his office, it is taken away from him by another professor. So even here, Pnin is homeless. Poor Pnin.
In fear and helplessness, toothless, nightshirted Pnin heard a suitcase one-leggedly but briskly stomping upstairs, and a pair of young feet tripping up steps so familiar to them, and one could already make out the sound of eager breathing....In fact, the automatic revival of happy homecomings from dismal summer camps would have actually had Isabel kick open—Pnin's—door, had not her mother's warning yelp stopped her in time. (3.7.8)
You should've seen this coming. Didn't we already say that Pnin isn't allowed to have anything? Especially not a home. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Isabel comes back and claims what was never really Pnin's room.
The sense of living in a discrete building all by himself was to Pnin something singularly delightful and amazingly satisfying to a weary old want of his innermost self, battered and stunned by thirty-five years of homelessness. (6.4.3)
Yay! Pnin finally has a home after 35 years. Can you imagine being rootless for 35 years? Have you even been alive for 35 years?
And the tiny house was so spacious that with grateful surprise, Pnin thought that had there been no Russian Revolution, no exodus, no expatriation in France, no naturalization in America, everything—at the best, at the best, Timofey—would have been much the same: a professorship in Kharkov or Kazan, a suburban house such as this, old books within, late blooms without. (6.4.3)
Why do you think Pnin imagines there was no Russian Revolution just because he got a new house? What does the revolution have to do with his homelessness? Also, do you think the narrator is correct? Would Pnin have been the same even without the revolution?
"Come, my fluorescent corpse, let's be moving," said Joan. "It was so nice to see you, Herman. Give my love to Irmgard. What a delightful party. I have never seen Timofey so happy." "Yes, thank you," answered Hagen absent-mindedly. "You should have seen his face," said Joan, "when he told us he was going to talk to a real-estate man tomorrow about buying that dream house." "He did? You're sure he said that?" Hagen asked sharply. "Quite sure," said Joan. "And if anybody needs a house, it is certainly Timofey." (6.11.27)
We have to say that Joan is probably the character who most understands Pnin in the whole novel. Here, she and her husband are leaving his housewarming party and telling Dr. Hagen that Pnin plans to become a homeowner. Why do you think she says that "if anybody needs a house, is certainly Timofey?" Also, what does it tell you about their relationship that she calls him Timofey and not Pnin, like everyone else?
This is unfortunate, because Waindell feels that it would be too much of a financial burden to pay you for two or three Russian courses that have ceased to attract students. Political trends in America, as we all know, discourage interest in things Russian. On the other hand, you'll be glad to know that the English Department is inviting one of your most brilliant compatriots, a really fascinating lecturer—I have heard him once; I think he's an old friend of yours." Pnin cleared his throat and asked: "It signifies that they are firing me?" (6.12.18)
Come on, you didn't really think everything was going to go well for Pnin, did you? If there was nothing else Pnin had, at least he was a professor at Waindell College. He could say, in a way, that he belonged there. But after this scene where Dr. Hagen lets him know that he's fired, even that's not the case. Now Pnin has nowhere at all to call home.
From the sideboard and dining-room table Pnin removed to the kitchen sink the used china and silverware. He put away what food remained into the bright Arctic light of the refrigerator. The ham and tongue had all gone, and so had the little sausages; but the vinaigrette had not been a success, and enough caviar and meat tarts were left over for a meal or two tomorrow. "Boom-boom-boom," said the china closet as he passed by. He surveyed the living room and started to tidy it up. A last drop of Pnin's Punch glistened in its beautiful bowl. Joan had crooked a lipstick-stained cigarette butt in her saucer; Betty had left no trace and had taken all the glasses back to the kitchen. Mrs. Thayer had forgotten a booklet of pretty multicolored matches on her plate, next to a bit of nougat. Mr. Thayer had twisted into all kinds of weird shapes half a dozen paper napkins; Hagen had quenched a messy cigar in an uneaten bunchlet of grapes. (6.13.1)
Even though it's basically just a description of junk left behind after a party, this seemed is actually very sad and poignant. No one likes cleaning up, but if this were Pnin's home we're sure he'd be at least a little excited to take care of it. But instead, cleaning up after the party where he found out he was fired is like putting away a dream he had that will never come true.
He did not bother to puzzle out why exactly Liza had felt the urgent need to see him on her way back from visiting St. Bartholomew's, the preparatory school near Boston that her son would go to next fall: all he knew was that a flood of happiness foamed and rose behind the invisible barrier that was to burst open any moment now. (2.6.3)
Considering how terrible a person Liza seems like she is, it's amazing that Pnin still feels anything for her. But what do you think that "invisible barrier" is? Why do you think Pnin has a barrier to contain his happiness anyway?
He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her—just as she was—with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. (2.6.37)
Like we said, Liza sucks pretty hard. So why do you think Pnin still wants to keep her close to him? Also, whose description do you think this is? Is this how Pnin sees Liza? Or is it how VN sees her?
All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in Heaven (I don't believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life— (2.6.37)
Isn't this weird? In one moment, Pnin is supposedly thinking how much he wants to keep Liza even though she's totally awful. Then the next moment, he's freaking out over their souls being joined in the afterlife. What's going on here? Also, notice that instead of things like fat angels and floating on clouds and other stuff everyone says about heaven, Pnin's got more worries than anything else.
A young yawn distended his staunchly smiling mouth. With sympathy, with approval, with heartache Pnin looked at Liza yawning after one of those long happy parties at the Arbenins' or the Polyanskis' in Paris, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago. "No more reading today," said Pnin." (4.8.33)
Here Pnin is looking at Victor on the evening he comes to visit Waindell. It makes sense that Pnin sees Liza in Victor's features. He is her son after all. Do you think Victor's resemblance to Liza affects the way that Pnin treats him?
Finally, as they walked along a meadow path, brushing against the goldenrod, toward the wood where a rocky river ran, they spoke of their healths: Chateau, who looked so jaunty, with one hand in the pocket of his white flannel trousers and his lustring coat rather rakishly opened on a flannel waistcoat, cheerfully said that in the near future he would have to undergo an exploratory operation of the abdomen, and Pnin said, laughing, that every time he was X-rayed, doctors vainly tried to puzzle out what they termed "a shadow behind the heart." "Good title for a bad novel," remarked Chateau. (5.4.3)
This is so stereotypical that we are glad Nabokov makes fun of himself with the last line of this quote. Of course Pnin's metaphorical heartache has a literal manifestation. Couldn't he have thought of something more original? But at least he recognizes it's pretty cliché. Or is it—what do you think is the cause of Pnin's heart shadow?
Timofey Pnin was again the clumsy, shy, obstinate, eighteen-year-old boy, waiting in the dark for Mira—and despite the fact that logical thought put electric bulbs into the kerosene lamps and reshuffled the people, turning them into aging émigrés and securely, hopelessly, forever wire-netting the lighted porch, my poor Pnin, with hallucinatory sharpness, imagined Mira slipping out of there into the garden and coming toward him among tall tobacco flowers whose dull white mingled in the dark with that of her frock. This feeling coincided somehow with the sense of diffusion and dilation within his chest. Gently he laid his mallet aside and, to dissipate the anguish, started walking away from the house, through the silent pine grove. (5.5.14)
In this scene, Pnin is having a seizure at Cook's Castle and imagining that his ex-fiancée Mira has not been killed by the Nazis. Several times, it seems that the narrator attempts to portray Pnin's relationship with Mira as nothing more than a youthful fling, but we're not so sure. We'll just point out that the memory of Liza never causes Pnin to basically have a heart attack like he does here.
One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. (5.5.16)
Have you noticed the link between death and love yet? In other cases, this might be a little unusual, but it makes perfect sense for Pnin. Since he left Russia during a period of intense violence, many of the people that he loved either died or were murdered. And Mira is perhaps the saddest of the bunch.
On the distant crest of the knoll, at the exact spot where Gramineev's easel had stood a few hours before, two dark figures in profile were silhouetted against the ember-red sky. They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau, or Nina Bolotov and young Poroshin, or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin's fading day. (5.5.18)
Watch out for moments like this. This image ends Chapter 5, which is where we learn about Pnin's love for Mira. Every single one of the chapters in Pnin has an image like this that kind of summarizes the main theme of that part of the novel. In this case, it's an image of love in a chapter where we learn about Pnin's greatest love.
You, Lise, are surrounded by poets, scientists, artists, dandies. The celebrated painter who made your portrait last year is now, it is said, drinking himself to death (govoryat, spilsya) in the wilds of Massachusetts. Rumor proclaims many other things. And here I am, daring to write to you. 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, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy. (7.3.6)
We'll wait a second while you dry your eyes. Is that not the most touching and romantic of love letters you ever read? Okay, it's a little dorky, but still we think it's pretty nice. We don't normally get to see Pnin express any strong emotions, but how do you think he feels about Liza? Compare that to how VN feels about her.
I want you to go on with your psychotherapeutic research—in which I do not understand much, while questioning the validity of what I can understand. Incidentally, I am sending you under separate cover a pamphlet published in Prague by my friend Professor Chateau, which brilliantly refutes your Dr. Halp's theory of birth being an act of suicide on the part of the infant. I have permitted myself to correct an obvious misprint on page 48 of Chateau's excellent paper. I await your" (probably "decision," the bottom of the page with the signature had been cut off by Liza). (7.3.6)
And it gets even more romantic, right? But that's beside the point: even in his declaration of love Pnin is not allowed to have the last word. Liza cuts off his signature and the final portion of the letter. We wouldn't be surprised if she does the exact same thing to him in real life, cutting off everything that he tries to say.
He found himself in a damp, green, purplish park, of the formal and funereal type, with the stress laid on somber rhododendrons, glossy laurels, sprayed shade trees and closely clipped lawns; and hardly had he turned into an alley of chestnut and oak, which the bus driver had curtly told him led back to the railway station, than that eerie feeling, that tingle of unreality overpowered him completely. Was it something he had eaten? That pickle with the ham? Was it a mysterious disease that none of his doctors had yet detected? My friend wondered, and I wonder, too. (1.2.23)
This is the very first time that we get to witness Pnin's heart condition. The narrator seems to be treating it as some kind of mundane event. He says, "Was it something he had eaten?" Just using such an overused phrase like that sort of trivializes the severity of Pnin's problem. Why do you think the narrator talking about it in this way?
I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler's helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego. The sensation poor Pnin experienced was something very like that divestment, that communion. (1.2.23)
Well, this is new. We more often see people saying that becoming one with the world is enlightenment. Instead, the narrator says that it is death. It's interesting that he specifically uses the word "communion," which is pretty close to the word "communism." That probably has more than a little to do with the fact that Russia's revolution was a communist one, so communism could be considered the cause of death for Pnin's childhood home.
And suddenly Pnin (was he dying?) found himself sliding back into his own childhood. This sensation had the sharpness of retrospective detail that is said to be the dramatic privilege of drowning individuals, especially in the former Russian Navy—a phenomenon of suffocation that a veteran psycho-analyst, whose name escapes me, has explained as being the subconsciously evoked shock of one's baptism which causes an explosion of intervening recollections between the first immersion and the last. It all happened in a flash but there is no way of rendering it in less than so many consecutive words. (1.2.24)
Why do you think death is synonymous with going back to Pnin's childhood? Many people say that their lives flash before their eyes, but Pnin's memories seem confined to his time in Russia. What is the connection between Russia and death?
But Pnin was not listening. A faint ripple stemming from his recent seizure was holding his fascinated attention. It lasted only a few heartbeats, with an additional systole here and there—last, harmless echoes—and was resolved in demure reality as his distinguished hostess invited him to the lectern; but while it lasted, how limpid the vision was! In the middle of the front row of seats he saw one of his Baltic aunts, wearing the pearls and the lace and the blond wig she had worn at all the performances given by the great ham actor Khodotov, whom she had adored from afar before drifting into insanity. Next to her, shyly smiling, sleek dark head inclined, gentle brown gaze shining up at Pnin from under velvet eyebrows, sat a dead sweetheart of his, fanning herself with a program. Murdered, forgotten, unrevenged, incorrupt, immortal, many old friends were scattered throughout the dim hall among more recent people, such as Miss Clyde, who had modestly regained a front seat. Vanya Bednyashkin, shot by the Reds in 1919 in Odessa because his father had been a Liberal, was gaily signaling to his former school-mate from the back of the hall. And in an inconspicuous situation Dr. Pavel Pnin and his anxious wife, both a little blurred but on the whole wonderfully recovered from their obscure dissolution, looked at their son with the same life-consuming passion and pride that they had looked at him with that night in 1912 when, at a school festival, commemorating Napoleon's defeat, he had recited (a bespectacled lad all alone on the stage) a poem by Pushkin. (1.3.3)
We will admit that we are totally confused when we read this passage. Where did all these dead people come from? Right, right, the hallucination thing. Pnin has a list of dead family and friends long enough to fill a room, but do you think is list of living friends is just as long? Yep, it's pretty sad.
In a set of eight tetrametric quatrains Pushkin described the morbid habit he always had— wherever he was, whatever he was doing—of dwelling on thoughts of death and of closely inspecting every passing day as he strove to find in its cryptogram a certain "future anniversary": the day and month that would appear, somewhere, sometime upon his tombstone." 'And where will fate send me', imperfective future, 'death,'" declaimed inspired Pnin, throwing his head back and translating with brave literality, " 'in fight, in travel, or in waves? Or will the neighboring dale'—dolina, same word, 'valley' we would now say— 'accept my refrigerated ashes', poussiere, 'cold dust' perhaps more correct. 'And though it is indifferent to the insensible body...'"(3.3.6)
Read like this, this passage is kinda hard to follow. But it's a great view at how tough translation can be—whether you're translating a famous poet or trying to make your own self understood. Here, Pnin is teaching his students Pushkin's famous poem "Whether I Wander along Noisy Streets." You might have noticed that this poem appears many times during the novel, which is kind of weird since it's about some guy who is constantly thinking about when he (and everyone else) will die. Even babies. What you think this obsession is about?
And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood. According to the investigator Pnin had happened to talk to in Washington, the only certain thing was that being too weak to work (though still smiling, still able to help other Jewish women), she was selected to die and was cremated only a few days after her arrival in Buchenwald, in the beautifully wooded Grosser Etters-berg, as the region is resoundingly called. (5.5.16)
Somehow, the multiple ways that Pnin imagines Mira dies are almost worse than the fact that she died at all. Do you think his memory of her would be different if he were certain of how she died? Would it change anything at all?
It is an hour's stroll from Weimar, where walked Goethe, Herder, Schiller, Wieland, the inimitable Kotzebue and others. "Aber warum—but why—" Dr. Hagen, the gentlest of souls alive, would wail, "why had one to put that horrid camp so near!" for indeed, it was near—only five miles from the cultural heart of Germany—"that nation of universities," as the President of Waindell College, renowned for his use of the mot juste, had so elegantly phrased it when reviewing the European situation in a recent Commencement speech, along with the compliment he paid another torture house, "Russia—the country of Tolstoy, Stanislavski, Raskolnikov, and other great and good men." (5.5.16)
Notice that even though Dr. Hagen is mostly talking about Germany, the narrator still manages to get in a dig against Russia. He calls it a "torture house." Why do you think he says that? How does that contrast with what Dr. Hagen says? And why the conflation of these two great, but sometimes tortured countries?
Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick. (5.5.17)
Even we're a little confused by what's going on here. One thing we do know is that the idea of an autocratic God probably comes from the Tsarist Autocracy that ruled the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. It's actually kind of weird that Pnin rejects this form of God, since he was part of the White Army that fought against the revolutionaries who supported the Bolsheviks. Why do you think he has chosen democracy instead of autocracy?
My grandfather used to say that a glass of good wine should be always sipped and savored as if it were the last one before the execution. I wonder what you put into this punch. I also wonder if, as our charming Joan affirms, you are really contemplating buying this house? (6.12.4)
Really, Dr. Hagen is the worst. Here, he's trying to cheer up Pnin and let him have the bad news gently. We know that talking about death is definitely the best way to cheer us up.
Poor Liza! She had of course her artistic moments when she would stop, entranced, on a May night in a squalid street to admire—nay, to adore—the motley remains of an old poster on a wet black wall in the light of a street lamp, and the translucent green of linden leaves where they drooped next to the lamp, but she was one of those women who combine healthy good looks with hysterical sloppiness; lyrical outbursts with a very practical and very commonplace mind; a vile temper with sentimentality; and languorous surrender with a robust capacity for sending people on wild-goose errands. In the result of emotions and in the course of events, the narration of which would be of no public interest whatsoever, Liza swallowed a handful of sleeping pills. As she tumbled into unconsciousness she knocked over an open bottle of the deep-red ink which she used to write down her verses, and that bright trickle coming from under her door was noticed by Chris and Lew just in time to have her saved. (7.3.6)
While Nazis kill Mira, Liza is constantly threatening suicide. However, she won't actually die. Why do you think Liza is so suicidal?
He was beloved not for any essential ability but for those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present. Nostalgic excursions in broken English. Autobiographical tidbits. (1.5)
It seems that Pnin spends an awful lot of time thinking about his past. Why do you think he can't let go? Also, isn't it interesting that the narrator implies Pnin requires some kind of special corrective lenses in order to force his eyes to see the present? We think so.
Directing his memory, with all the lights on and all the masks of the mind a-miming, toward the days of his fervid and receptive youth (in a brilliant cosmos that seemed all the fresher for having been abolished by one blow of history), Pnin would get drunk on his private wines as he produced sample after sample of what his listeners politely surmised was Russian humor. (1.6)
Look at the words used to describe the past in this quote. Fervid, a brilliant cosmos, private wines. The way the narrator describes it the past seems way more awesome than the present. Is it?
Isabel's adolescence had gone with her, or, if not, had been eradicated by her mother, but traces of the girl's childhood somehow had been allowed to remain… (2.2.16)
Why would Joan, Isabel's mom, destroy all traces of her adolescence but keep her childhood? Remember that Isabel's parents can't seem to deal with her marriage, and want her to come home even if that means a divorce. Pretty telling, if you ask us.
The second part of the program consisted of an impressive Soviet documentary film, made in the late forties. It was supposed to contain not a jot of propaganda, to be all sheer art, merrymaking, and the euphoria of proud toil. Handsome, unkempt girls marched in an immemorial Spring Festival with banners bearing snatches of old Russian ballads such as "Ruki proch ot Korei" "Bas les mains devant la Coree," "La paz vencera a la guerra," "Der Friede besiegt den Krief." A flying ambulance was shown crossing a snowy range in Tajikistan. Kirghiz actors visited a sanatorium for coal miners among palm trees and staged there a spontaneous performance. In a mountain pasture somewhere in legendary Ossetia, a herdsman reported by portable radio to the local Republic's Ministry of Agriculture on the birth of a lamb. The Moscow Metro shimmered, with its columns and statues, and six would-be travelers seated on three marble benches. A factory worker's family spent a quiet evening at home, all dressed up, in a parlor choked with ornamental plants, under a great silk lampshade. Eight thousand soccer fans watched a match between Torpedo and Dynamo. Eight thousand citizens at Moscow's Electrical Equipment Plant unanimously nominated Stalin candidate from the Stalin Election District of Moscow. The latest Zim passenger model started out with the factory worker's family and a few other people for a picnic in the country. And then— "I must not, I must not, oh it is idiotical," said Pnin to himself as he felt—unaccountably, ridiculously, humiliatingly—his tear glands discharge their hot, infantine, uncontrollable fluid. (3.7.4)
We have two questions for you: what vision of Russia are these films attempting to depict, and why do they make Pnin cry? We'll even throw in a third question for good measure: why does Pnin think crying is "idiotical?"
It was, I recollect, a splendid summer day and we played, played, played until all the twelve balls were lost. You also will recollect the past with interest when old. (4.8.15)
Here, Pnin is talking to Victor about his childhood. It's interesting to see one of these few father-son moments, and also to think about the difference between this older man and this young teenager. We're sure that Victor is internally rolling his eyes at Pnin's story (we would be too), but this statement brings the difference between the two of them into light. Pnin's life is probably more full of interesting memories then good things happening in the present. On the other hand, Victor's life is all about the future.
He had fallen asleep at last, despite the discomfort in his back, and in the course of one of those dreams that still haunt Russian fugitives, even when a third of a century has elapsed since their escape from the Bolsheviks, Pnin saw himself fantastically cloaked, fleeing through great pools of ink under a cloud-barred moon from a chimerical palace, and then pacing a desolate strand with his dead friend Ilya Isidorovich Polyanski as they waited for some mysterious deliverance to arrive in a throbbing boat from beyond the hopeless sea. (4.9.1)
In case you thought Pnin's obsession with the past was just a waking preoccupation, here's a quote that shows you even his unconscious can't let go of what happened when he was in Russia.
When she first visited The Pines, in 1951, she had never seen the New England countryside before. Its birches and bilberries deceived her into placing mentally Lake Onkwedo, not on the parallel of, say, Lake Ohrida in the Balkans, where it belonged, but on that of Lake Onega in northern Russia, where she had spent her first fifteen summers, before fleeing from the Bolsheviks to western Europe, with her aunt Lidia Vinogradov, the well-known feminist and social worker. (5.2.7)
Well, it's good to know that Pnin isn't the only one who conflates the past and the present, no matter how wrong that may be. It looks like it's some kind of affliction that affects all of the Russian émigrés in the novel. Why do you think that is?
And, every time, one discovers new things—for instance I notice now that Lyov Nikolaich does not know on what day his novel starts: it seems to be Friday because that is the day the clockman comes to wind up the clocks in the Oblonski house, but it is also Thursday as mentioned in the conversation at the skating rink between Lyovin and Kitty's mother." "What on earth does it matter," cried Varvara. "Who on earth wants to know the exact day?" "I can tell you the exact day," said Pnin, blinking in the broken sunlight and inhaling the remembered tang of northern pines. "The action of the novel starts in the beginning of 1872, namely on Friday, February the twenty-third by the New Style. In his morning paper Oblonski reads that Beust is rumored to have proceeded to Wiesbaden. This is of course Count Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust, who had just been appointed Austrian Ambassador to the Court of St. James's. After presenting his credentials, Beust had gone to the continent for a rather protracted Christmas vacation—had spent there two months with his family, and was now returning to London, where, according to his own memoirs in two volumes, preparations were under way for the thanksgiving service to be held in St. Paul's on February the twenty-seventh for the recovering from typhoid fever of the Prince of Wales." (5.3.5)
Besides being so ridiculous that it amazes even Pnin's Anna-Karenina-obsessed friends, this little outburst from Pnin tells us something about him. Pnin is very meticulous about time. Even though in his life, it seems that the past and present blend together, in his studies and in his fiction he wants to pin down time very precisely. As a side note, in addition to telling us a little bit more about Pnin, this is an opportunity for Nabokov to espouse his own views (which he wrote lectures about) of time inconsistencies in the famous Russian novel.
Roy Thayer was weakly twinkling to himself as he looked into his punch, down his gray porous nose, and politely listened to Joan Clements who, when she was a little high as she was now, had a fetching way of rapidly blinking, or even completely closing her black-lashed blue eyes, and of interrupting her sentences, to punctuate a clause or gather new momentum, by deep hawing pants: "But don't you think— haw—that what he is trying to do—haw—practically in all his novels—haw—is—haw—to express the fantastic recurrence of certain situations?" (6.9.1)
We'll just let you try to guess who Joan Clements is talking about here. We'll give you a hint: his initials are V.N. and he wrote a book about an aging Russian émigré obsessed with his past.
One night, as Dr. Barakan, Pnin, and I were sitting at the Bolotovs, I happened to be talking to the neurologist about a cousin of his, Ludmila, now Lady D—, whom I had known in Yalta, Athens, and London, when suddenly Pnin cried to Dr. Barakan across the table: "Now, don't believe a word he says, Georgiy Aramovich. He makes up everything. He once invented that we were schoolmates in Russia and cribbed at examinations. He is a dreadful inventor (on uzhasniy vidumshchik)." Barakan and I were so astounded by this outburst that we just sat and looked at each other in silence. (7.4.2)
This is a curveball. After all this time listening to the narrator, assuming that he's telling us the truth, we have Pnin basically calling him a liar. If these things are lies, what else is? How does that change Pnin's memories? Are they all made up?
Prior to the nineteen-forties, during the staid European era of his life, he had always worn long underwear, its terminals tucked into the tops of neat silk socks, which were clocked, soberly colored, and held up on his cotton-clad calves by garters. In those days, to reveal a glimpse of that white underwear by pulling up a trouser leg too high would have seemed to Pnin as indecent as showing himself to ladies minus collar and tie… (1.1.2)
To give an example of just how old-fashioned Pnin's style of dress was, let's just talk about clocked socks. You're probably thinking, what do clocks have to do with socks? Well, a clocked sock is a sock with some kind of decoration on the ankle or side. And guess when this style of socks started to be popular? The 1600s. So yeah, Pnin is pretty old-fashioned.
Pnin—who, like so many Russians, was inordinately fond of everything in the line of timetables, maps, catalogues, collected them, helped himself freely to them with the bracing pleasure of getting something for nothing, and took especial pride in puzzling out schedules for himself—had discovered, after some study, an inconspicuous reference mark against a still more convenient train… (1.3)
Apparently Russians like trains? Can any of our Russian Shmoopsters confirm? We're not really sure why the dwelling on Pnin's perusal of a train schedule, but we guess it's another way to say that Pnin is silly and foreign.
"Zdrastvuyte kak pozhivaete horosho spasibo" Entwistle rattled off in excellent imitation of Russian speech—and indeed he rather resembled a genial Tsarist colonel in mufti. "One night in Paris," he went on, his eyes twinkling, "at the Ougolok cabaret, this demonstration convinced a group of Russian revelers that I was a compatriot of theirs—posing as an American, don't you know." "In two-three years," said Pnin, missing one bus but boarding the next, "I will also be taken for an American," and everybody roared except Professor Blorenge. (2.2.18)
Oh man, poor Pnin! He probably doesn't even know how mean everyone is being to him right now. Basically, they're saying that he is so helpless before and that no one will ever take him for an American. Why do you think everyone believes that?
Liza Bogolepov, a medical student just turned twenty, and perfectly charming in her black silk jumper and tailor-made skirt, was already working at the Meudon sanatorium directed by that remarkable and formidable old lady, Dr. Rosetta Stone, one of the most destructive psychiatrists of the day; and, moreover, Liza wrote verse—mainly in halting anapaest; indeed, Pnin saw her for the first time at one of those literary soirees where young émigré poets, who had left Russia in their pale, unpampered pubescence, chanted nostalgic elegies dedicated to a country that could be little more to them than a sad stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic, a crystal globe which you shake to make a soft luminous snowstorm inside over a minuscule fir tree and a log cabin of papier mache. (2.5.2)
Not only do we have the foreignness of Russian émigrés in America, but we have the foreignness of those same émigrés to Russia itself. People like Liza left Russia at such a young age that the narrator implies they can barely be considered Russian. They have made up some kind of imaginary Russia that they believe that revolution has taken away from them.
He was halfway through the dreary hell that had been devised by European bureaucrats (to the vast amusement of the Soviets) for holders of that miserable thing, the Nansen Passport (a kind of parolee's card issued to Russian émigrés), when one damp April day in 1940 there was a vigorous ring at his door and Liza tramped in, puffing and carrying before her like a chest of drawers a seven-month pregnancy, and announced, as she tore off her hat and kicked off her shoes, that it had all been a mistake, and from now on she was again Pnin's faithful and lawful wife, ready to follow him wherever he went—even beyond the ocean if need be. (2.5.3)
History lesson: Nansen passports were identity cards issued by the League of Nations (the organization that would be replaced by the United Nations in 1946) to refugees without a state. It was originally developed for Russian émigrés, and even Nabokov had one. But we guess he wasn't too excited about it based on the way he describes it here.
He and Serafima, his large, cheerful, Moscow-born wife, who wore a Tibetan charm on a long silver chain that hung down to her ample, soft belly, would throw Russki parties every now and then, with Russki hors d'oeuvres and guitar music and more or less phony folk songs—occasions at which shy graduate students would be taught vodka-drinking rites and other stale Russianisms; and after such feasts, upon meeting gruff Pnin, Serafima and Oleg (she raising her eyes to heaven, he covering his with one hand) would murmur in awed self- gratitude: "Gospodi, skol'ko mï im dayom (My, what a lot we give them!)"—"them" being the benighted American people. Only another Russian could understand the reactionary and Sovietophile blend presented by the pseudo-colorful Komarovs, for whom an ideal Russia consisted of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, The Russian Church and the Hydro-Electric Dam. (3.5.3)
What is the difference between Pnin and the Komarovs? They are both foreigners, but do you think the other faculty members see them as "foreign" as they see Pnin? Why or why not?
This was the first time Pnin was coming to The Pines but I had been there before. Émigré Russians—liberals and intellectuals who had left Russia around 1920— could be found swarming all over the place. You would find them in every patch of speckled shade, sitting on rustic benches and discussing émigré writers—Bunin, Aldanov, Sirin; lying suspended in hammocks, with the Sunday issue of a Russian-language newspaper over their faces in traditional defense against flies; sipping tea with jam on the veranda; walking in the woods and wondering about the edibility of local toadstools. (5.2.3)
Ah, finally Pnin gets to be amongst his people. And this is the only time that we don't feel he is a foreigner. No one treats him like he's weird, and he even manages to be successful at something while he's at Cook's Castle. Sure, it's croquet, but gotta take it where you can get it.
Some parents brought their offspring with them—healthy, tall, indolent, difficult American children of college age, with no sense of nature, and no Russian, and no interest whatsoever in the niceties of their parents' backgrounds and pasts. They seemed to live at The Pines on a physical and mental plane entirely different from that of their parents: now and then passing from their own level to ours through a kind of interdimensional shimmer; responding curtly to a well-meaning Russian joke or anxious piece of advice, and then fading away again; keeping always aloof (so that one felt one had engendered a brood of elves), and preferring any Onkwedo store product, any sort of canned goods to the marvelous Russian foods provided by the Kukolnikov household at loud, long dinners on the screened porch. (5.2.5)
The Russian parents at The Pines have it rough. Even their kids see them as weird and boring foreigners. But do you think these kids are able to completely integrate into American society? Or are they somewhere in between their parents and the kids whose families have been living in America for centuries?
Consequently the sight of a hummingbird in probing flight, or a catalpa in ample bloom, produced upon Varvara the effect of some unnatural or exotic vision. More fabulous than pictures in a bestiary were to her the tremendous porcupines that came to gnaw at the delicious, gamy old wood of the house, or the elegant, eerie little skunks that sampled the cat's milk in the backyard. She was nonplused and enchanted by the number of plants and creatures she could not identify, mistook Yellow Warblers for stray canaries, and on the occasion of Susan's birthday was known to have brought, with pride and panting enthusiasm, for the ornamentation of the dinner table, a profusion of beautiful poison-ivy leaves, hugged to her pink, freckled breast. (5.2.7)
Varvara is a lady who has never been to the American wilderness before and assumes that it is just like the forests of Russia. Obviously, she's wrong. But seeing that Pnin isn't the only one who makes these kinds of mistakes helps us feel that he's not just a bumbling professor. Maybe he's just used to operating in a different country.
A curious basketlike net, somewhat like a glorified billiard pocket—lacking, however, a bottom—was suspended for some reason above the garage door, upon the white of which it cast a shadow as distinct as its own weave but larger and in a bluer tone. (6.4.3)
This is kind of like the last straw. Obviously, the narrator is describing a basketball net in a way that lets us understand Pnin doesn't have any idea what it is at all. We say it's the last straw because, even in his new home where Pnin feels totally at ease there is an element of American culture that continues to point out his status as a foreigner who just doesn't get it.
All this underwent a change in the heady atmosphere of the New World. Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sun-bathing, wore sport shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin. (1.2.1)
The paragraph before this one explained to us how Pnin's traditional European style was very reserved and old-fashioned. So this quote completely contrasts with that image of him. We guess his idea of America is a place where everyone wears sportswear and no one gives a hoot for decorative clocked socks.
On the contrary, he was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. (1.8.1)
Why do you think Pnin sees America as erratic and unpredictable? He seems to feel that the whole country is some kind of elaborate trap for him. Is it?
Timofey Pnin settled down in the living room, crossed his legs po amerikanski (the American way), and entered into some unnecessary detail. (2.2.2)
There is that leg-crossing thing again. We like to imagine Pnin crossing his legs so widely that they basically take up two seats. Also, we imagine that his pants ride up so high that you can see his knees. What do you think is the Russian way of crossing your legs?
"Zdrastvuyte kak pozhivaete horosho spasibo" Entwistle rattled off in excellent imitation of Russian speech—and indeed he rather resembled a genial Tsarist colonel in mufti. "One night in Paris," he went on, his eyes twinkling, "at the Ougolok cabaret, this demonstration convinced a group of Russian revelers that I was a compatriot of theirs—posing as an American, don't you know." "In two-three years," said Pnin, missing one bus but boarding the next, "I will also be taken for an American," and everybody roared except Professor Blorenge. (2.2.18)
Ah, prejudice. The basis of all our favorite jokes. (Can you feel the sarcasm? If not, we're going to feel some prejudice against you.) Think about why the people around Pnin have such different reactions to this joke, and to Pnin's attempt at one? It's because some people like Entwistle basically believe they can't be foreign no matter what country they go to. Even if they don't speak the language at all. On the other hand someone like Pnin who can speak the language, albeit with some difficulty, can never get the sacred title of being American.
Ten days passed—and suddenly he began to enjoy the new gadget. It was a revelation, it was a sunrise, it was a firm mouthful of efficient, alabastrine, humane America. At night he kept his treasure in a special glass of special fluid where it smiled to itself, pink and pearly. (2.4.2)
In case you weren't aware, lots of people think Americans are obsessed with their teeth. So it makes sense that Pnin sees his new false teeth as a symbol of America. They are perfect, clean, and white.
He and Serafima, his large, cheerful, Moscow-born wife, who wore a Tibetan charm on a long silver chain that hung down to her ample, soft belly, would throw Russki parties every now and then, with Russki hors d'oeuvres and guitar music and more or less phony folk songs—occasions at which shy graduate students would be taught vodka-drinking rites and other stale Russianisms… (3.5.3)
Is it us, or does this strike you as some kind of idealized American version of Russia? Why do you think this couple plays into this false idea of their homeland? What's in it for them?
Wearing rubber gloves so as to avoid being stung by the amerikanski electricity in the metal of the shelving, Pnin would go to those books and gloat over them: [...] (3.6.24)
Once again, America is associated with something that is bothersome to Pnin. We are sure that there is static electricity in Russia, but he acts as if it's a problem entirely confined to the shores of the United States.
"No, no," said Pnin, "I do not wish an egg or, for example, a torpedo. I want a simple football ball. Round." (4.6.2)
All we need now is a scene of Pnin rejecting baseball and saying that he's allergic to apple pie, and he will have given a thumbs down to all the stereotypical symbols of America. Why do you think Nabokov constantly reinforces this idea that Pnin is most definitely, without a doubt, absolutely not American?
It is—what do you want to eat? Veal cutlet? O.K., I will also eat veal cutlet—it is naturally a concession to America, my new country, wonderful America which sometimes surprises me but always provokes respect. In the beginning I was greatly embarrassed—" In the beginning Pnin was greatly embarrassed by the ease with which first names were bandied about in America: after a single party, with an iceberg in a drop of whisky to start and with a lot of whisky in a little tap water to finish, you were supposed to call a gray-templed stranger "Jim," while he called you "Tim" for ever and ever. (4.8.10)
Why do you think Pnin was so quick to adopt the new American fashion, but he is still very traditional about being called by his first name? What does it mean that he allows Victor to call him by his first name? Would Victor rather call him "Daddy"?
"Avtomobil', kostiyum—nu pryamo amerikanets (a veritable American), pryamo Ayzenhauer!" said Varvara, and introduced Pnin to Roza Abramovna Shpolyanski. (5.3.3)
This quote is from the moment that Pnin arrives at Cook's Castle with his car. There he is surrounded by other Russian émigrés, so it is probably the only time he will ever hear himself called a veritable American. Pnin might be one of the most American amongst this group, but once he gets out of that environment no one would call him an "Ayzenhauer." (Get it? Eisenhower!)
From then on to the end of the voyage that had turned from green and silver to a uniform gray, Pnin busied himself overtly with his English-language manuals, and although immutably meek with Liza, tried to see her as little as he could without awakening her suspicions. (2.5.9)
Here, Pnin has just found out that Liza is using him to get to America. Whereas only moments ago, he believed that he was part of a family and about to become a father, he's now aware that he was actually just the third wheel to the relationship between Liza and Eric Wind. So basically he's just been kicked out of his own family.
"It is nothing but a kind of microcosmos of communism—all that psychiatry," rumbled Pnin, in his answer to Chateau. "Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?" (2.5.10)
There are a few things going on here. First of the bunch, Pnin's comment about psychiatry obviously brings Liza and Eric to mind. So by stating this, Pnin is associating them with communists. Also, Pnin lets us know that he thinks suffering is deeply personal and not to be shared. Why do you think that is? Is it perhaps because he has always suffered in isolation? Our wheels are a-turnin'…
Pnin, his head on his arm, started to beat the table with his loosely clenched fist. "I haf nofing," wailed Pnin between loud, damp sniffs, "I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!" (2.7.24)
We'll admit that this quote made us think of a certain famous song. But as a quote it's actually pretty sad. After his meeting with Liza, Pnin goes searching for some whiskey and soda. When he doesn't find it, he breaks down crying and says this. What exactly do you think he means by saying he has nothing?—erm, sorry, nofing. Is he talking about having no one there for him in his life, or just about the whiskey?
St. Bart's was not particularly pleased either with Lake's methods or with their results, but kept him on because it was fashionable to have at least one distinguished freak on the staff. (4.5.3)
We just wanted to point out that there are some other nutty professors out there, but their institutions actually like them. So unlike Pnin, they are not totally isolated from everyone else.
"Oh, you must eat more, much more if you want to be a footballist." "I'm afraid I don't care much for football. In fact, I hate football. I'm not very good at any game, really." "You are not a lover of football?" said Pnin, and a look of dismay crept over his large expressive face. He pursed his lips. He opened them—but said nothing. In silence he ate his vanilla ice cream, which contained no vanilla and was not made of cream. (4.8.21)
Here, Pnin is just getting to know Victor. He obviously has all of these hopes and expectations for this son that he has never met. And this moment is where it all comes crashing down. It's obvious that even though Pnin was hoping that he had gained a new family member, he realizes that he's just as alone as ever.
There had never been any regular Russian Department at Waindell and my poor friend's academic existence had always depended on his being employed by the eclectic German Department in a kind of Comparative Literature extension of one of its branches. (6.1.3)
Even academically, Pnin is isolated. He doesn't even have a Russian department full of other people who are interested in Russian things to associate with. He's just a lone Russian professor in the middle of the German department.
On the morning of that day, good Dr. Hagen made a desperate visit to Blorenge's office and revealed to him, and to him alone, the whole situation. When he told Blorenge that Falternfels was a strong anti-Pninist, Blorenge drily rejoined that so was he; in fact, after meeting Pnin socially, he "definitely felt" (it is truly a wonder how prone these practical people are to feel rather than to think) that Pnin was not fit even to loiter in the vicinity of an American college. (6.3.1)
In case you didn't get the extent to which the other professors have an issue with Pnin, this might give you a clue. Of course, Blorenge might be a little bit more extreme than the majority of the other characters. But definitely feeling? Not fit to loiter? Dude, that's pretty harsh.
But there was nothing extraordinary, nothing original, about this combination of people, and old Pnin recalled those birthday parties in his boyhood—the half a dozen children invited who were somehow always the same, and the pinching shoes, and the aching temples, and the kind of heavy, unhappy, constraining dullness that would settle on him after all the games had been played and a rowdy cousin had started putting nice new toys to vulgar and stupid uses; and he also recalled the lone buzz in his ears when, in the course of a protracted hide-and-seek routine, after an hour of uncomfortable concealment, he emerged from a dark and stuffy wardrobe in the maid's chamber, only to find that all his playmates had already gone home. (6.4.5)
Pnin's isolation isn't new, at least according to the narrator. Since he's been a little boy, he just hasn't been able to fit in like the other kids. Sucks to be Pnin.
He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver—and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it—his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped to propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge. Pnin hurled the towel into a corner and, turning away, stood for a moment staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open back door. A quiet, lacy-winged little green insect circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin's glossy bald head. He looked very old, with his toothless mouth half open and a film of tears dimming his blank, unblinking eyes. (6.12.3)
This scene is filled with many strong images and emotions—stronger than we've pretty much ever experienced in following Pnin through this book. He actually gets angry, and we see him with his eyes brimming with tears. And what is the reason for all of this emotion? He thinks that he has broken Victor's bowl. Why is that so important to him?
Then, with a moan of anguished anticipation, he went back to the sink and, bracing himself, dipped his hand deep into the foam. A jagger of glass stung him. Gently he removed a broken goblet. The beautiful bowl was intact. He took a fresh dish towel and went on with his household work. (6.12.3)
Here, Pnin realizes that he didn't actually break Victor's bowl and his emotions return to normal. Even though he cuts himself on a shard—or, um, jagger—of glass, Pnin isn't angry anymore. Why do you think that is? What does the bowl represent to Pnin? And does not breaking it give him a glimmer more hope for the future?