Finished My First Nabokov

And it wasn’t Lolita! But it really made me want to read Lolita, along with everything else he’s written. Book #20 of 2015 ended up being Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, or alluded to it at some point, but I love Russian literature. Russian culture, Russian attitudes, and Russian history fascinates me, and the best way I’ve known how to learn about all of that is through Russian literature. And despite the fact that Nabokov lived basically everywhere during his lifetime, he was born in St. Petersburg and this novel felt like a very Russian novel.

The book follows the main character and namesake of the novel, Timofey Pnin. He is a Russian professor who teaches at a prestigious American college, attempting to teach the Russian language to classes of only two or three students. He is the most ridiculous and pitiful main character I think I’ve ever read about, but he’s also tragically funny and the pathetic butt of everyone’s jokes.

Nabokov is such a good writer. Pnin isn’t even 200 pages long, but it took me a full three days to read because of the author’s writing. He is clever and offers very specific details that end up meaning more than they originally seem to mean. Even in the last five pages, I found myself scanning previous portions of the book, re-reading for details or brief events that I might have missed.

In Pnin specifically, Nabokov uses this genius technique of creating the character of Pnin, who is pathetic and hilarious in all of his mistakes and ridiculous beliefs. In the last chapter, there’s a subtle perspective shift, and the reader is granted access to how some of Pnin’s coworkers and acquaintances spend so much of their time mocking him for all the same reasons that you as a reader have been laughing at him inside your head. Somehow, (I personally think due to this genius technique) the novel shits from a comedy to a tragedy. I found myself becoming defensive of Pnin, and hoping that he wouldn’t stick around in the novel to make more of a fool of himself around these people who spend so much time berating him when he’s not there.

So it ends up being kind of hopeless, and finishing Pnin to me felt the way it feels to place a lot of hope and excitement in an upcoming event, only to be inevitably disappointed by the reality of it. It was so good, and so worth the resultant unsettling disappointment. It’s short, and I’m realizing that talking about what actually happens in the novel doesn’t come close to doing it justice, because truthfully not a lot happens, and the greatest part about it was the writing.

So everyone should go read it so you know what I’m talking about. Meet Pnin and try not to fall in defensive, pity-love with him. ◊

… after an early dinner at The Egg and We, a recently inaugurated and not very successful little restaurant which Pnin frequented from sheer sympathy with failure, our friend applied himself to the pleasant task of Pninizing his new quarters.”

– page 35 (not the best example of Nabokov’s writing in the novel, but the best example of Pnin’s tragically funny little life)

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