By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
At first glance, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin is simply the story of a man who is far too cerebral to be taken seriously. More than just an absent-minded professor, the protagonist, Timofey Pavelovich Pnin, is a Russian-born schlemiel lost in 1950s America. His lack of social grace does not come off as endearing. His comically horrendous English makes him the university punching bag. The reader feels pity, but it is a hollow pity.
One feels as though any story about him cannot be either tragic or comic because the force of inertia propelling him along is simply too strong. He can neither triumph over a conflict nor be crushed by defeat. As one puts down the book for the first time to deal with the inevitable interruptions that arise throughout the day (a need to use the bathroom, to go out for a cigarette, to take a phone call from the boss), it would seem right to assume that, barring some major plot twist, Pnin will be a pawn in some larger metaphor concerning life as a Russian émigré in the wake of the Revolution or the hollowness of American academic life or perhaps some other theme that was popular during the middle of the past century.
However, feeling this way would be a mistake. This is a Nabokov novel, after all. He did not write one-dimensional books that were only taken seriously because of the beauty and complexity of his style. While there are more than enough examples of his metric, word combinations ("erotic galoshes"), and ability to perfectly describe virtually anything (object, subject, landscape, molecule) to make one feel as though their writing is an embarrassment, Pnin is far more insightful than it seems. One does learn to take pity on Pnin, not simply because his pedantic understanding of the world is something of an antimony that precludes a practical understanding of it. Rather, it is because his human frailty has nothing to do with the mind, but, rather, the heart.
The reader only understands this, however, because of the introduction of Victor Wind, a teenage prodigy and the son of Pnin's ex-wife, Dr. Liza Wind. Though she has become a successful psychoanalyst like her husband, Dr. Eric Wind (as a note, Nabokov despised psychoanalysts, Erich Fromm in particular), she hopes to create a relationship between Pnin and Victor that will see the former, an untenured professor, give money to the latter, a painter beginning his studies at an elite prep school. Pnin complies. Her husband seems to abandon the boy entirely, though perhaps not financially. She subsequently leaves for a nondescript Western State to marry yet again.
This allows the reader to see Pnin for more than a buffoon with a penchant for archaic and recondite facts (he at one point explains that he deduced the exact day that Anna Karenina begins because of a newspaper article mentioned at the start of the aforementioned book). He clearly has a heart, but there is something bizarre about it—he describes it as "a hollow, muscular organ" and even mentions to a friend that doctors have been able to discern a shadow behind it. At another moment, the narrator notes that Pnin's cardiograph "outlined fabulous mountain ranges." Squirrels (from the Greek for "shadow-tail") seem to follow him throughout his life (the word, "squirrel", comes up 11 times in the novel). Pnin is a shadow.
To whom does he play shadow? It would seem that it would be his ex-wife or perhaps that he is simply a shadow of tsarist Russia. I believe both of these interpretations to be incorrect.
This is where the importance of Victor comes into play. Both he and Pnin are incapable of conforming to the world in which they find themselves. Pnin's inability proves to be pathetic, and he ends up losing his job (and potential tenure) at the university where he works, as he is to be replaced by the novel's narrator, who seems to be none other than a fictionalized version of Nabokov. Pnin, it would seem, is a failure.
Victor, on the other hand, is an artistic genius. He scores a 180 on his IQ test. His brilliance may alienate him and leave him out of touch with the quotidian world, but he will thrive as an artist as a consequence. Even at the age of six, he is capable of "distinguishing what so many adults never learn to see—the colors of shadows." While Pnin is obsessed with the shadows of the past, Victor is looking to the present, perhaps even the future (though it should be noted that Monet spent much of his career focusing on the difference of various shadows). To him the landscape is not characteristic of the Hudson School (or its Russian counterpart). As Ortega y Gasset wrote in The Dehumanization of Art, "An ever growing mass of traditional styles hampers the direct and original communication between the nascent artist and the world around him." It is evident that Victor is a modernist with his own style, and he is not interested in following in the footsteps of the old masters—which explains why he discards an album of Flemish Masterpieces. He is hoping to egress from traditional schools of art. Pnin hopes to wallow in them.
Ultimately, it seems, Pnin's real purpose in life is to play shadow to his brilliant, adopted son. At the end of the novel, as the tenureless Pnin leaves the university with his car packed and without telling anyone where he is off to, it is clear that he is not embarking upon his own, independent past. Pnin is incapable of this. He is going to take up residence nearby Victor's school. However, an idea as to how their relationship will develop as Victor grows into a man is something in which Nabokov doesn't seem interested. Will he play pedagogue to Victor? Will he take on the role of his father?
This seems difficult to answer, and, in my mind, Nabokov does not provide enough clues to make any rational speculation. What he does provides us with is only the image of a brilliant and bright young man being shadowed by the Old World Pnin, his surrogate father, whom we readers last see drowning in his own baggage as he speeds down the road.