The Pequod Review:

Pnin is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s funniest and most accessible novels, but also one with underrated depth as it explores the difficulty of a life in exile.

The book is structured as a series of seven interlinked short stories, and focuses on the adventures and misadventures of an expatriate Russian professor (Timofey Pnin) at a fictional New England school. Pnin is an absentminded character who initially is shown to be a bit of a buffoon. He is introduced by Nabokov in this way:

Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet... Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sunbathing, wore sport shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin.

The book begins as a comic novel, and a very funny one, as it explores Pnin’s experiences at Waindell College. He struggles with the English language (his order of whiskey and soda comes across as “viscous and sawdust”) and he is mocked for his lack of awareness of American customs. But gradually the tone shifts and the novel becomes an empathetic and touching story about the difficulties of moving to a foreign country and fitting in to a new society, an experience Nabokov himself knew all too well. And when the tragic events of Pnin’s life in Russia are revealed, it becomes apparent how his life has been impacted by his country’s history and how much he misses his home. By the end of the novel, we are sympathizing with Pnin rather than (merely) laughing at him.

All of this would make for a solid novel, but the real pleasures of the book lie in Nabokov’s prose, which is full of wit, humor and metaphorical inventiveness. When Pnin has his remaining teeth removed in order to make room for dentures, Nabokov gives us this passage:

It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

Here is Nabokov’s description of a pencil sharpener: 

…that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.

And here is a sad and lonely picture of Pnin’s life at Waindell:

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.

Lolita and Pale Fire may be richer and more lasting novels, but Pnin is Nabokov’s most touching and nostalgic, as it builds to a tender profile of a hapless émigré.