Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review: Pnin

"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 in side or you perish."

Title: Pnin
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Year: 1957
Pages: 191

We follow Pnin, a Russian √©migr√© professor who works at an American college. His English is not perfect, he’s very clumsy, and he seems uncomfortable in his surroundings.

Pnin is not my favourite Nabokov I had to read for the course. Now, three stars is obviously not the worst rating in history, but I noticed that many of my fellow students absolutely loved this novel. What bothered me most was the fact that it was supposed to be a funny novel. His other works - admittedly, at this time I’d only read Lolita – feature many quirky remarks or events, but this is not the main focus. In Pnin, it is, and to me it was to ‘slapstick’-like, and too embarrassing to the point of annoyance.

What has to be said, though, is that to some extent, it is also a very sad novel. You can’t help but care for Pnin. His clumsiness is fed by misunderstandings resulting from language differences and gradually you’ll notice he is not at all as stupid as people think he is. When put in the right (Russian) environment, people think he’s smart and he does get friends. This somehow touched me.

There is also a very nice mystery evolving throughout the story, which I won’t talk about in great depth because I want this to be spoiler free, but it really had me engaged. Generally, when I read a detective-type of novel, I just read it and read what the solution is, rather than trying to figure it out for myself. Obviously, the main premise of this novel is not detective, but as soon as you notice there is something to be found out, you want to find the solution yourself – even I did!

One of the themes that reoccur in Nabokov’s novels is his disdain for the academic life. This is very obvious in Pnin, but I’m not sure how I feel about this. Gradually making my way through Nabokov I learned that he was possibly the most elevated author I’ve ever read. Him disliking academic life, highlights this even more and while in Pnin it is done quite exquisite, in retrospect I think it would have bothered me if I’d read it later on in the course.

All in all, there’s no denying that this, too, is a good novel. The writing is no less brilliant than in other Nabokov novels, and Pnin as a character was interesting as well. But it did not grab me, it even bored me at times. 

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