All right, let's break down this sob story. Professor Timofey Pnin (yes, that's Timofey, not Timothy) is a 52-year-old Russian émigré teaching at (made-up) Waindell College. When we meet him, he's on the wrong bus for an event that he's speaking at, and ends up being hours late.
He gets there eventually, but along the way we learn a lot about him. We get the idea that this mix-up is not an isolated incident for Pnin, he's not much of a professor, he's pretty bad at speaking English, he has some kind of heart condition, and he's pretty weird overall. So whoop-de-doo: that's the basic setup for the rest of this novel.
By the way, Pnin is basically a wandering vagrant. When we meet him, he's living with some folks named the Clements, who have a spare room because their daughter Isabel has just gotten married. They don't get along at first, but eventually the three of them develop some kind of odd friendly relationship.
That's when Pnin gets a letter from his ex-wife, Dr. Liza Wind. She left him a long time ago, but now she suddenly wants back into his life. Yeah, we'd be suspicious too, but Pnin is kind of ecstatic about it. He looks forward to the day she's supposed to visit with anticipation. But it doesn't turn out to be exactly what he expected.
Liza appears, insults Pnin and his new lodgings, and then finally tells him what she wants. Money. For the child that she tried to pass off as Pnin's when the two of them were coming to America. He's never so much as met the kid, but now that Liza's getting divorced she needs some more money to take care of him. The whole thing leaves Pnin heartbroken.
Later, there is some more excitement in Pnin's life. It turns out somebody recalls his library book, and Pnin is not very happy about it. Like we said, huge excitement. Anyway, he accuses the only other Russian on the faculty of wanting it, but the guy totally denies it. Then Pnin goes to the library, only to find out that the person who wanted his library book was himself!
After all of that, Pnin heads home. He reads a Russian book and snuggles into bed only to be woken up a few hours later. Like some kind of bad dream, Isabel has come home and it looks like Pnin is going to need a new place to stay.
Fast forward: Pnin has a new room. More news: Victor, Liza's son, wants to meet with Pnin. The kid hates his parents (the ones he lives with) so he imagines Pnin (not his parent) as some kind of scholarly gentleman. Pnin on the other hand, is just excited to meet his "son."
After Pnin meticulously prepares the room where Victor will stay, the two of them meet, a day later than they'd originally planned. Pnin obviously thought this 14-year-old boy was five years old or something. It's awkward. After a few moments of not really knowing what to talk about, they go to sleep.
Fast forward again, and it's summer. Victor is gone, and Pnin is going to hang out with some of his friends. Didn't think he had friends, did you? Actually, this is the only part of the novel that seems to portray Pnin in a positive light.
All is going well, and Pnin is actually winning a croquet match when he gets a heart attack, or maybe it's a seizure. Nabokov doesn't tell us. Anyway, that makes him remember basically the worst thing that has ever happened in his life. And it's no joke: the murder of his first love, Mira, by Nazis in a concentration camp. This is definitely the saddest part of the whole novel. And right when he was about to give a croquet beat-down!
Back to school, and more bad news for Pnin. Dr. Hagen, who's in charge, is leaving the University, which means that someone else will take over his position. The only problem with that is everyone else hates Pnin. So basically that means he'll be fired by the end of the year.
But Pnin, of course, has no idea this is happening and assumes that he'll get tenure soon. He's so happy about it that he even decides to buy a house and throw a housewarming party. It's actually a nice party, and everyone enjoys themselves. At least until Dr. Hagen arrives.
Then Pnin learns the bad news. He's fired.
The last chapter of the novel is dedicated to the kind of weird memories of the narrator. He insists that he has met Pnin several times, but Pnin denies it all. If you look closely, you'll notice there are a lot of historical discrepancies. But the point is, Pnin is being fired and he's going to be replaced by this narrator guy.
The last thing we see of Pnin is his dinky car riding off into the sunset.
- Meet Prof. Timofey Pnin: he's bald, tan, and kind of weird-looking. From what we can gather, Pnin is a Russian émigré who is now living in America at the age of 52. But that's not what's important right now. What's important is that he is on a train and he's going the wrong way.
- You see, he supposed to be giving a speech at Cremona, but instead of taking the correct route, he relied on a five-year-old timetable that was completely obsolete.
- More about Pnin: he is a professor of Russian at Waindell College. Which apparently has the tiniest Russian department in the world.
- Seriously, he only has four students. Considering this was the Cold War era, you'd think at least a couple more folks would want to study the Reds.
- Pnin isn't a great teacher, but he's lucky enough to have everyone sort of like him anyway. What's special about him is how he likes to have nostalgic interludes right in the middle of class that make him double over with laughter.
- As ridiculous as that sounds, he ends up making his whole class laugh right along with him.
- But back to that train. He's still going the wrong way.
- Why? Well, Pnin isn't exactly an absent-minded professor, but he sure isn't a very competent one either. Everything seems to amaze, delight, and completely confuse him. Let's just say you don't want to leave him alone with your laptop.
- In addition to all of his problems with the physical world, Pnin has language issues. Even after 10 years of studying English, he still speaks the language of his new homeland with many errors.
- He can't even deliver a speech without staring at the carefully translated and edited English version.
- Which brings us back to that train. On the train, Pnin is wondering what to do with his papers for the lecture. Should he keep them in his pocket, or should he put it in his luggage? Pnin has been agonizing over this question for 20 minutes, when the conductor notices there's something weird about his tickets. His stop had been abolished two years before, and he's going to be two hours late.
- But there is nothing to do about it, so Pnin follows the directions the conductor gives to him.
- Unfortunately, that's not the end of Pnin's problems. He checks in his bag, but by the time the next bus comes he's not able to get it back.
- Okay, whatever, he just decides to leave it and head to the lecture. But once he's on the bus, there's another problem. Pnin forgot his papers. He jumps off the bus and finds himself in the middle of the town he's never seen before in his entire life.
- Oh, and then he has a seizure. Apparently Pnin has had a long history of heart problems, but none of his doctors can figure out what was wrong with him. Anyway, whatever is going on with his heart makes him feel like he's dying.
- So Pnin starts to think of his childhood. He came from a well-to-do family, and his dad was an eye doctor. One day he got a fever that was so bad it made him delusional. Little Pnin starts to think that there is some kind of evil designer that is trying to destroy his mind and has concealed the key to his happiness in the pattern of his wallpaper.
- In other words, it's a pretty bad fever.
- Eventually, Pnin's seizure and his memory of his childhood fever leave him and he heads back to the station. He's missed the bus, but at least he can get his bag back now.
- Finally, Pnin gets a ride from some guys in a truck and arrives just in time for dinner. After stuffing himself with sweets, Pnin has to sit through (and we do too, unfortunately) a long and rambling introduction, which doesn't seem to have very much to do with him at all.
- But it doesn't matter, because Pnin isn't listening (if only we could feel the same). He's experiencing some after-effects from that seizure, and dead people from his past are appearing in the audience. Even his parents, who are looking at him with pride. That's nice, at least.
- But it's all over when the introduction is finished and the audience starts to clap.
- It's spring at Waindell College. While you would expect people to be happy about that, the Clements, whom we're meeting for the first time, are missing their daughter Isabel. She's just gotten married, and they hardly know anything about their in-laws.
- When we meet the Clements they are arguing over the guests coming to dinner. The yelling is interrupted by a phone call from somebody with pretty terrible English. We bet you can guess who it is.
- It's Pnin, and he wants to know about the room they have for rent. Our protagonist arrives half an hour later, sits himself down, and tells them his entire life story. You know, the way you always do to strangers.
- Anyway, he gets the room and starts to make himself at home immediately. Meanwhile, the Clements are having a party and they invite Pnin. He says no thanks, but when there's confusion about a cup in the bathroom (we're always confused by those, too) he ends up joining everyone else downstairs. How nice!
- The next day, Pnin gets all of his teeth removed. Yeah, they must be pretty rotten. He's in pretty good spirits while the anesthesia is still effective, but by the time it wears off the pain is incredible. Not only that, but it's just weird. He was used to having teeth in his mouth, and all that's left are his sore gums.
- But somehow, after 10 days and the pain wearing off, everything changes. Pnin loves his new dentures and sees them as some kind of pristine symbol of America. Hey, whatever floats your boat. He even tries to convince Lawrence Clements to get his teeth taken out too.
- Even though Pnin is a pretty terrible lodger (wouldn't you have doubts about someone who tried to convince you to take your teeth out?), the Clements seem to like him. Lawrence even strikes up some kind of scholarly friendship with this silly Russian who likes to put muddy shoes in his wife's washing machine.
- The two of them start to create an encyclopedia of Russian nonverbal communication, and even end up recording it on film. They show it to some students who only seem to notice that Pnin kind of looks like Buddha. Not that they're about to worship him or anything.
- There is one girl in particular, Betty Bliss, who seems to have more than a teacher-student relationship with our professor Pnin. He imagines her as his wife, and even reads her poetry, but nothing can happen between them.
- Not because that's immoral, but because he's still in love with someone. His first wife, Dr. Liza Wind.
- When they met in 1925, Pnin was a young scholar and Liza was a medical student working in a sanatorium. They got married, but that didn't stop her from flirting with basically every guy around. As usual, our poor Pnin was totally clueless.
- His blushing bride ends up running away with a guy called Eric Wind. They make plans to head to America to start their new life together and leave Pnin all on his own. Lucky for him, he has his own traveling to take his mind off the situation.
- But guess what? A few months later Liza storms back into Pnin's apartment and claims that the whole thing was a mistake. She's seven months pregnant (which means she's been cheating for three months before leaving Pnin, by the way) and getting ready to make her way to America. A little weird, but Pnin's not complaining.
- Then everything goes wrong. One night on the boat to America, Pnin gets involved in a strange chess game. He's playing with a German when someone else comes along and starts commenting on the game.
- When Pnin loses (predictably), the commentator reveals himself. It's Dr. Eric Wind. The whole thing is a sham. And he's going to marry Liza once they get to America.
- Pnin is devastated. But everything goes just as the future Mr. and Mrs. Wind planned. Lucky for them, we guess. After that, Pnin rarely saw or heard from Liza.
- Well, except for her weird psychological experiments that involved women talking about their "marital problems."
- But back to the actual time of the novel. Flashback officially over. So he's reading her letter. In it, Liza says she's coming to see him. Pnin is so happy you'd think he was going on a first date, but we can't help wondering what Liza wants. She doesn't sound like the greatest of former wives.
- Instead of finding out right away, we get to listen to her blather on about herself and insult Pnin. We know he's kind of weird, but somehow it hurts to hear her say what we already know.
- Finally, she comes out with it. Liza wants money from Pnin to send to her son, Victor. Again, our absent-minded professor is devastated.
- A while later, Joan Clements comes home. She finds Pnin in a heap on the floor, bawling his eyes out and looking for whiskey and soda. Not exactly a pretty picture.
- She tries to cheer him up by showing him a funny advertisement, but it's not working. Pnin isn't playing along with her game, and he ends up a sobbing mess. Nice of her to try, at least.
- Meanwhile, Joan (also called John, in Pnin's funny accent) has received a letter from her daughter talking about how awesome her new marriage is. But all she can think is, why won't she come home for a visit? Geez, there's newlyweds for you.
- For eight years, Pnin has been changing his apartment every semester. Mostly because of noise problems, not just because his landlords don't like him.
- Every time he moves, he gets a little bit pickier, but by now he has the best rooms he's ever had. His place at the Clements' house is bigger and nicer than any of the other ones he's ever stayed in. It's the first one he's really liked, and he has stayed there for more than a semester.
- And now Pnin is all alone in his favorite house because Joan and Lawrence have suddenly disappeared to visit their daughter Isabel. We have a feeling something is up with that marriage of hers.
- Our professor is finally going to do some professor-ing. Even though it's his birthday, he heads to class to deliver a lecture. And, even though he's only teaching elementary Russian, the subject of class today is Pushkin (basically the Russian version of Shakespeare). Oh, and death. Totally an appropriate topic for Russian 101.
- The lecture is over when Pnin leans back and breaks his chair. Class dismissed!
- Pnin doesn't go to his office between his classes. You see, it's basically in the middle of nowhere. He used to have a nice office in the German department, but a newly hired Austrian professor basically kicked him out.
- It's lunchtime now, and Pnin heads out for lunch. He sits down right next to Komarov, who seems to be the only other Russian on the faculty and the complete opposite of Pnin. Our professor accuses this guy of wanting his library book, but Komarov completely denies it. There goes that theory.
- After lunch, Pnin heads over to Waindell College Library, his favorite place to hang out.
- But this time he has something important to figure out. Just who is it that requested his book? He asks the librarian, and after a hint gets dropped (that Pnin completely ignores) warning him that the Clements will kick him out when their daughter returns, Pnin finds the answer. Why would he think about housing when he's tracking down a mysterious book, anyway? So who's the book thief? Drumroll, please…
- It was him. And we just can't resist a duh. Who else would want that old collection of Russian literature? And who else would recall a book from himself? So Pnin leaves in a huff. He heads over to the periodicals room to read the latest edition of a Russian language daily newspaper.
- After reading about the most ridiculous editorial argument you've ever heard of, Pnin starts on his research. You see, our professor has been preparing to write a short history of Russian culture. In case that sounds normal to you, you should know that "short" and "Russian" are basically completely mutually exclusive. Anyway, every day he's been collecting material for his dream project.
- Today, it's a book on Russian myth that talks about a tradition practiced in the Upper Volga. Pnin gets really intense about his research, and before you know it, it's dinnertime.
- After some debate about what he should do, Pnin decides to go to a program presented by some of the members of the college. The first part includes some films from Charlie Chaplin that Pnin doesn't get at all.
- But things start getting really interesting during the second part. That's when they decide to show a Soviet documentary film, that seems to be nothing more than a bunch of feel-good propaganda. Pnin knows this. He's a smart guy. So why does he start bawling like a baby while he is watching?
- Anyway, after that he heads home to get ready for bed. The chapter is almost over, and we're pretty sure that we'll see him falling off into dreamland when something unexpected happens.
- There's a noise outside, people yelling about a broken bronze wheel. Pnin is awake and has no idea what's going on. Someone is running upstairs, and almost makes their way to the door before John (Joan) Clements yells. It's Isabel. She's come home.
- This chapter starts with a kind of weird passage about a king. Who is this King? Victor Wind's father. Well, not his real father. His real father is Eric Wind.
- But anyway, that's not important. What's important is the King has not abdicated. Instead, he chooses exile while looking at the picture of his dead wife.
- Of course, Victor's mom isn't dead. She's just divorcing from his dad to marry some guy named Church in Buffalo. But you know, whatever gets Victor to go to sleep.
- Anyway, even though he knows it's not true, Victor thinks of these stories every night to help himself go to sleep. The fantasies were probably based in the real stories his parents told him of fleeing from Lenin's regime, but now they're nothing more than fairytales in Victor's kind of strange imagination.
- About Victor: he's 14, but looks a bit older, and is lanky and tall. He's condescending towards his mom and hates his dad. Oh, and he has some kind of weird fantasy where Pnin is some kind of scholarly genius with a mysterious charm. Definitely in delusion-ville.
- Here's the thing about Victor: his parents think there's something wrong with him. Now, we're not saying that there's actually anything wrong with Victor. For all we know, he's an artistic genius. But Eric and Liza Wind are troubled by the nonconformity of their son. They give him every psychiatry test in the book, and he manages to subvert them all. After a while they just give up.
- So at 12 years old, Victor is sent to St. Bartholomew's Catholic school. He hates everyone there except for one guy, an art professor named Lake. Who is, by the way, a little crazy.
- Inspired by him, Victor attempts to paint a car in a way that seems like you would never recognize it. Definitely the inspiration of an eccentric.
- There could be a lot of ways to explain Victor's demeanor, but we'll make it really easy for you. He's a hipster artist. He makes silly references and attempts to imitate long-gone art trends because he thinks they're so much cooler than the ones around today. If only he had a flannel shirt and some oversized glasses.
- Back to Pnin. The day before Victor arrives, he goes to a shop and buys a football. Not an American football, of course, but what most Americans would call a soccer ball. After getting this and The Son of the Wolf by Jack London, Pnin is totally ready for Victor's arrival. Or would be, if Victor were a few years younger. And also, he's going to be 24 hours late.
- Turns out that he was caught with five other boys smoking cigars in the attic. Not that Victor, good little hipster that he is, was actually smoking, but he was with all the other boys when they were caught.
- He finally gets to Waindell and the first thing Pnin does is take him to a diner in the middle of the rain. They don't have a conversation exactly, since Pnin talks on and on about the pronunciation of his name, Russian literature, and other stuff that a 14-year-old hipster probably has no interest in.
- After learning the unfortunate truth that Victor has no interest in football (soccer), Pnin takes him home. There, Victor politely opens and praises the gifts that Pnin got him. But this scene doesn't last very long because the moment Victor yawns, Pnin calls it a night.
- The next few paragraphs are all descriptions of the four men in the house sleeping. Nothing much happens, but it's very pretty to read.
- Pnin is driving, though not with any particular gift for understanding road signs, to a place called Onkwedo. Turns out this is where his friend Al Cook has a huge country house.
- Every other summer, cook and his wife invite Russian émigrés to come and spend a few months at their home. And this year is the first time that Pnin has been invited. We're kind of excited for him, because it seems like he should actually feel at home for once.
- Apparently many of the Russians have brought their kids with them, but these Russian-American children have no interest in hanging out with a bunch of old people. They've rather sit in their rooms and listen to the radio. Shocker, we know.
- Anyway, Pnin makes his way to this oasis of Russian émigrés. He drives a car at 10 miles an hour and still somehow manages to veer dangerously off the road. But when he gets to the Pines, you can tell he is among friends because instead of making fun of him, they praise his driving ability. Sounds like he's right at home.
- Pnin's friend, Bolotov, tells him that he has been reading and rereading Anna Karenina over and over again. But this is the first time that he notices there's something weird going on with the time of the novel. This starts Pnin on a very exacting and long tangent about the precise nature of time at various points in the novel. You know, just in case you were starting to think he was normal.
- The narrator then starts to tell us about Cook's Castle. As far as we can tell, it seems like some kind of huge mishmash of a mansion. All kinds of caustic, French, Florentine, and other influences are present in its design.
- Somewhere along the line, Pnin wanders off to talk to his friend, Konstantin Chateau. They catch up on their past, Russian history, and teaching in America.
- On the way, they meet up with another of Russian ex-pat. This guy, Ivan Ilyich Gramineev, is a painter who has forgotten his hat. Our hero is gracious enough to make him one out of the kerchief.
- This is when we finally figure out what happened to Victor. Apparently he was supposed to come to the Pines too, but Liza suddenly up and decided to take him to California for the summer. We guess Pnin doesn't get to be too happy all at once.
- Now it's time for some swimming. After a long buildup, in which Pnin removes his clothes, his cross, and his wristwatch, he takes the shortest dip into a lake that you have ever heard of. Awesome.
- Dinnertime. Chilled beet soup (a Russian fave). After dinnertime. Croquet, the only time in the entire novel that we actually see Pnin not look like a bumbling idiot. We don't know about you, but we're definitely cheering him on. Go Pnin, go!
- But, because no good deed can go unpunished, he has a heart attack right afterwards.
- The heart attack, mixed with some memories brought up by Madame Shpolyanski, causes Pnin to hallucinate. He imagines that his father and Mira, his former love, are actually at the Pines with him. In his mind, he goes back in time to when he was a young 18-year-old boy and the Nazis in a concentration camp had not killed Mira. That's pretty heavy stuff.
- Normally, Pnin doesn't think about Mira. It's too hard. But something about his heart attack bringing him close to death allows him to cope with the pain of remembering her.
- This is probably the saddest thing that happens in the whole book.
- And just as we are feeling sad for Pnin, he decides to get over it. Time for tea and the next chapter.
- Back to school. This is great news for some people, who are getting grants to pursue interesting studies.
- It even greater needs for Dr. Hagen, who is being asked to move to a more prestigious university. But it is terrible news for Pnin, who will probably lose his job as a result.
- Pnin's last hope is a guy called Leonard Blorenge, but by the sound of it our favorite professor is kinda screwed.
- And not just because his name is "Blorenge." Get this: Blorenge is the Chair of French Literature and Language, but he hates literature and does not speak French. We don't think we need to say anything else.
- Meanwhile, Pnin is blissfully unaware of what's going on. He's probably the happiest he's been in the whole novel, and he's even found a place to call home.
- He's so excited about this new future digs that he decides to host a housewarming party. The only problem with that is, outside of the Russian émigrés, Pnin doesn't really have friends. Still, he manages to invite some people.
- Pnin gets ready hours before the guests are supposed to arrive. He even uses the precious bowl sent to him by Victor to serve punch. He's really going all out!
- Now the party's started. The Clements are here and more people are arriving by the moment. If you want to know what the party is like, it's simple. Imagine if a bunch of professors who don't know each other very well got together and started making corny literary jokes and referred to cocktails as flamingo tails as some kind of sly ornithological reference. Yeah, it's that bad.
- Well, things at least start to get better when they get drunk.
- In between all of this, there is a passage where Pnin talks about Cinderella and how her shoes were originally made out of squirrel fur, but magically transformed over the years into being made out of light blue glass. This probably doesn't make sense to you now, but it's a good idea to remember it.
- By 10 o'clock everybody in the club (or Pnin's house) has gotten tipsy. They are still making lame literary jokes, but it's slightly funnier because they are all red-faced. In this drunken state, they somehow predict the emergence of e-schooling and Skype.
- Finally, the party is winding down and people are going home. Before Joan/John Clements and Margaret Thayer leave, Pnin invites them to take a look upstairs and they just can't refuse. It's cute and full of children's books. Aw.
- Finally, as everyone's leaving, Dr. Hagen arrives. Awesome timing, dude. We can only imagine that he's going to be a buzz kill. As soon as he hears that Pnin is planning on getting a house, we know what's going to go down.
- After some long meandering and a couple of drinks, Dr. Hagen lays it down. Pnin can't buy this house because he's going to be fired. Poor Pnin.
- Well, there's nothing to do about it right now. So Pnin just cleans up after the party.
- He almost manages to shatter Victor's bowl, and it's somehow almost sadder than the moment where he remembers Mira. We mean, come on, he just lost his dream home and his job—he shouldn't have to lose his bowl, too! Single tear.
- Don't worry though. The bowl is fine.
- The house and job, though, are totally gone.
- So here's where everything gets weird. Instead of talking about Pnin, the narrator starts to tell us about his—yes, the narrator's—own memories.
- The first time he met Pnin was when he got some coal dust into his eye. Pnin's dad was an ophthalmologist, so this isn't too weird.
- They meet again five years later, when Pnin is acting in a play. We can imagine that was a sight. Then again during the Russian Revolution. This all said, Pnin denies ever meeting the narrator.
- Also way back in the flashback, the narrator meets Liza. She's not Wind or Pnin yet, but Bogolepov. It turns out that she writes pretty terrible poetry and has a crush on the narrator.
- We guess she has a thing for terrible guys. Anyway, it doesn't work out. Pnin proposes to her in a really, really sweet letter. Liza accepts out of spite. Which is the best reason to get married, all the wedding blogs are sure to tell you.
- Six years later, after Liza and Pnin are married, the narrator meets up with them again in Paris. Again, Pnin completely denies every single thing the narrator has told us so far. Which makes the narrator seem pretty sketchy to us.
- Fast-forward a bit and it turns out that this guy is the one who's about to snatch Pnin's job at Waindell College! Where'd that come from! Sketchy as he may be, he still offers Pnin a job. Pnin refuses.
- On the way to Waindell, the narrator stops at a party where a guy named Jack Cockrell does an impression of Pnin that lasts a little bit too long. Then, after everyone is drunk it seems like they have reverted to being five-year-olds and want to harass poor Pnin over the phone. This is just getting weirder and weirder.
- Finally, Ms. Cockrell stops everything and everyone goes home.
- The story ends on the day that the narrator is taking his job and Pnin is leaving. The narrator sees Pnin driving away, and tries to say hello but he gets ignored. All we see is Pnin's little car sputtering off into the sunset.
- But that's too nice a picture to end on.
- Instead, we're left with Cockerell once again making fun of Pnin. This time he imitates the moment that we meet our professor—you know, way back on page one—and so brings the story full circle.