I recently read Doctor Zhivago which Nabokov hated. You could say these two books are the antithesis of each other. Zhivago strives to depict a poetic vision of real life on a huge canvas and find meaning therein; Pnin is self-pleasuring art for art’s sake on a tiny canvas. Nabokov isn’t remotely interested in “real life” or deep meaning or huge canvases. He passes over the Russian Revolution in a couple of sentences whereas a description of a room that will only feature once in the entire novel is likely to receive an entire long paragraph. Wisdom doesn’t interest him much either except as a reliable source of caustic mockery. Psychotherapy is one of his targets in Pnin. Just as he mocks a lot of the devices favoured by novelists. There are two instances in this novel of Nabokov cleverly creating a great deal of sympathy for Pnin and in both he takes away our sympathy as soon as he’s got it. These involve Pnin catching the wrong train to an important lecture he’s due to give (he makes it there on time regardless) and of Pnin receiving a cherished bowl from his son which he believes he has destroyed when he lets slip a pair of nutcrackers into the soapy washing up water (turns out to be a worthless glass he’s broken). Pnin is constantly being misled by subjective interpretations of objective reality but it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t do him any real harm. There’s a sense Nabokov thinks of everything as a storm in a teacup, even the Russian revolution and Hitler’s war, from both of which Pnin emerges unscathed as if they’re of little more importance than a thunderstorm. If you’re God there’s a lot of truth in this point of view and Nabokov can come across as believing himself to be a deity of sorts.
I’ve just read some of the negative reviews of this and the word “boring” crops up a lot. And depending on the page you’re on Pnin is either brilliant or, as these people say, can be a bit boring. That is to say it’s boring if you’re not a great fan of elaborate description of furniture, landscape or physiognomy. There is a lot of wordsmithery spent on ephemera. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that so swiftly and frequently transited me from joy to boredom. There’s one of the best comic scenes in literature involving the hapless Russian professor, a squirrel and a water fountain. It’s comic genius but on anything but a superficial level it’s also meaningless, like one of those cute animal YouTube videos. That one scene maybe sums up this novel better than any review could – the slightly hollow interior behind the brilliant surface.
All in all Pnin is a pale understudy to Pale Fire in which he finds a dazzling form to poke fun at his targets here, exile into a foreign culture and academia.