Book Review

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

[insert Nabokov/nobokov joke or something?]

I’m depressed. Incredibly fucking depressed. And so is, I think, Assistant Professor Timofrey Pnin, a Russian lecturer at a provincial American University, an emigre of the Russian aristocracy (like Vladimir Nabokov himself). A man far from home, pretty much friendless and in a precarious professional position. Pnin is about a man who is alone, maladapted, unambitious, bookish, bald and sad. Pnin is like a book about me, except I don’t even have the mediocre career in academia to justify the reams of prose I squeeze out to an audience of only hundreds of people a week. Pnin is like me, but better. And Pnin is a very, very, sad man.


In some respects this is probably the most autobiographical of Nabokov’s novels, however the fact that he appears as a peripheral character mentioned in passing (as Vladimir Vladimirovitch, the academic with a side interest in lepidoptery) means that the tale he tells is not explicitly his (that is the job of Speak, Memory), but very much one that he relates to, that he knows about. Nabokov, of course, was half of a long and (it seems) happy marriage, whereas Pnin was abandoned by his wife prior to leaving Europe for America in the early 40s, then rejoined by her for a bit until he’d paid for their passage across the Atlantic, where she left him again for the same man she’d left him for before. Pnin’s ex-wife still moves in their shared emigre circles in America, they still share friends and Pnin has an odd, fatherly relationship with her son, Victor.

Pnin has moved regularly between boarding houses his whole time teaching in America, he has never found a home, mirroring the loss of home that his expulsion from Soviet Russia signifies. He wanders because he has to, because there is nowhere for him to settle. Thrown out of his homeland, hounded out of welcoming Europe by the onrushing Nazi horde and then peripatetic in the USA because, by that point, he is unable to settle. As Pnin develops, it becomes clear that Pnin’s position on his university’s academic staff is far more precarious than he has ever considered, and the reader is forced to see – before the protagonist does – that even as he seems to, slowly, years after moving there, be beginning to settle into habits of comfort, his efforts are pointless. It is a novel about the fallacy of chance and the futility of choice, the emptiness and the fallibility of plans. Pnin is never able to be happy other than when he disappears into his texts or his monologues about them. He often gets other people confused with each other and semi-hallucinates figures from his past in his present. He is alone, he is lonely, he thinks of his parents and his old school friends but forgets others who claim to know him. The narrator is a fellow academic, another periphery emigre academic (not Nabokov, I don’t think; certainly in the moment when Nabokov is referenced there’s no “They’re talking about me”), a similar man, an aristocrat with nothing to give but the fruits of his expensive Russian education.

The language is as one expects from Nabokov, occasionally denser than is necessary but never turgid. There is humour, of course, but also an emphasis on the sadness and regret of the protagonist. Wait, regret isn’t really fair, more confusion. Pnin doesn’t really understand the external forces and personal decisions that have led him to where he is, and this is both his weakness and his strength: he is not able to become angry at the world because he doesn’t quite realise his helplessness, his lack of control. He is bookish and ignorant of other people. His failings are unfortunate, but are his own. He does not seek to disperse himself of responsibilities, but nor does he delve too deeply. He is not especially inward-looking; he is an intellectual in a very traditional sense, concerned with ideas but not ideas of self, interested in language but not the emotions it is used to express. Pnin is not a successful man, but he is rendered successfully by Nabokov.

As a novel, though, Pnin is a little flat. Under 170 pages but still rather episodic, it reminded me a bit of John Updike’s Henry Bech stories or like an American Lucky Jim, but a little bit funnier and much more tragic. (NB: I didn’t enjoy Lucky Jim when I read it, though that was many, many, years ago.) The book is far less complex in structure than much of Nabokov’s oeuvre, with some varying viewpoints and a narrator who appears only peripherally to the action of the text, but the story it tells is a simple one. Maybe that is pleasing, a strength rather than a weakness; it is a sad story, straightforwardly told and incorporating lots of bathos rooted in Pnin’s inability to function well as an outsider.

But, y’know, it isn’t an especially inspiring novel. It isn’t the saddest I’ve read or the funniest, the most engaging or the most engaged. It’s fine. It’s a middlebrow book, I suppose, would be the slur used for something like this. Good enough, but Pnin isn’t going to be anyone’s favourite book, it will set nothing alight (unlike Pale Fire, goodgodfuckjesus that’s a novel). It’s a moving portrait of life as an exile, but still a financially sound one with a large network of (at worst) acquaintances. Pnin has a community, an academic one based on his career and an aristocratic one based on his roots. He is much less alone than many people, and I feel angered when expected to pity someone who doesn’t really have to worry about anything very seriously. The character has – broadly – lived the life he wanted to live. He has travelled and moved and has had love and lost it, has had successes and failures, and in many ways his life is far more exceptional than Nabokov – very much an elite success – is implying it is. We are expected to pity Pnin, feel bad for him, but he is a highly educated man with a rich intellectual life and many useful connections. He isn’t in love and he doesn’t have a wife, but to feel this is deeply tragic feels incredibly conservative and unexciting.

Pnin is depressed, I suppose, and so am I. It’s sad to live, day to day, without much security, without much happiness, without much going on in your life to cling on to. In many ways Triumph of the Now TV – my current creative outlet – is deeply indicative of my slip, slide, out of normalcy. This is my first sober breakdown and it’s fucking insane. I’m doing ridiculous things, still, but without any intoxicant fuelled abandon, just merely out of awkwardness, confusion, despair. This afternoon I’m interviewing two Sheffield poets I’ve never heard of who I approached over the internet. What if they’re terrifying? Or bastards? What if Sheffield is just too #brexit for me and I get angry? Scared? Confused?

I know this is rambling and the focus is lost, but I’m sad, y’know, and reading gently sad and thus not deeply cathartic novels is the last thing I fucking need. Going to read something heavier next, I hope, and cry real, wet, sick, tears. Get the depression out. Oh, that’s not going to happen.

This breakdown is exciting because I’ve never had one sober before. I’ve never felt this low and let it exacerbate naturally, rather than through stoked regretful behaviour. I feel out of body most of the time. I play squash. I walk the dog. I drink herbal tea. I film people I don’t know who I’ve met online reading weird stories and poems and pretend I’m an intellectual when in conversation with them. That’s weird. I’m fucked and don’t know what to do. The therapist I’m meant to be seeing has blanked me since the initial consultation – maybe I’m too bad, too confused, too fucked up. Oh god oh god oh god. I need help but can’t get it. desperate to be wasted but know i can’t allow myself to lip bakk inn thur zykelll

im not getting out this time thats how it feels its like im in a box in a box and i cant see or feel anything. someone burst me with a pnin

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