A Resolved Discord (Pnin)*
by Gennady Barabtarlo

No single component of all the series, which from infinitely far away rise like rockets perpendicularly from the limit and are at last lost in it, ever reaches the boundary line. Outside it, however, is the "absolute nothing," but the spherical world cannot exist without this emptiness around it, not only because "inside" presumes "outside" but also because in the "nothing" lie the strict, geometrically determined, immaterial middle points of the arcs of which the skeleton is constructed.


Nabokov's fourth English novel differs from the rest both structurally and generically. The only one to have been serialized in large part,1 Pnin as a book has been regarded by many, beginning with a baffled publisher who had turned down its manuscript, as a string of more or less detachable story-length episodes, never really congealing into a "novel" (as the term is loosely received). Such was quite likely an early plan, for the first available mention of the novel confirms, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, of June 1953, from Oregon, that Nabokov has "started a series of stories about a creature of [his], a Professor Pnin."2 But soon he would firmly protest a version of this formula when others applied it to Pnin: "it certainly is not a collection of sketches."3 The contradiction may be removed not so much by pointing out the quibbling difference between the story and the sketch ("I do not write sketches," mutters Nabokov in that letter to Pascal Covici) as on remembering that Nabokov's notion of an artistic whole differs principally from the commonly accepted and rests on the plotting of thematic lines rather than on fabular and character development. Nabokov's characters seldom change in the course of the book, certainly never as much as they do in Dickens's or Tolstoy's fictions. With this notion in mind, one can say that the chapters of Nabokov's memoir published serially in the same magazine as Pnin but a few years earlier, each with the self-supportive structure of a short story, also form a "novel" insofar as they engage, once assembled in Conclusive Evidence, an armature of thematic interlinks that sustain the complex. Pnin, whose "inner core," says Nabokov, "is built on a whole series of inner organic transitions," has a similar organization.4 The essential difference between the two books lies only in the relative proportion of the creative impulse to the re-creative, imagination to memory.

Habent sua fata libelli pro capite lectoris, and Pnin has always had a gam of admirers who delight in the hilarious aspect of the book and regard it as poignant yet "warm," even though they may be indifferent to other books by the same author. Seventy-seven reviews appeared in English alone during the first six months since its separate publication in 1957, most of them momentary, but, in general, Pnin has fallen under somewhat less vigorous study than Nabokov's other English novels, perhaps because of its seemingly (but deceptively) straight sailing.5

Placed chronologically between Humbert and Kinbote, and in sharp contraposition to both, Professor Pnin has little command of the English idiom, and his verbal gawkiness, combined with a bent for divagations, spins fabulously amusing situations. And as even the first-time reader realizes very quickly, Pnin, notwithstanding his bungles and odd look and pedantic ways, is very attractive because in that trio of consecutive foreign academics -- three pointedly foreign bodies in America -- he is the only sane and compassionate man flanked by self-absorbed and perverted madmen.6 Besides, unlike the two other protagonists, Pnin does not narrate his story; instead, the story of his life is spun out by an odd personage, N., and since the burden of proof always dwells with the narrator, this feature gains tremendous psychological influence, as well as conceptual and artisitc prominence.

Several essential conditions of Pnin are if not entirely new to literature then at least very uncommon. This slim book houses a stupendous number of participants (more than three hundred) but the ochlophobic sensation peculiar to other overcrowded books (such as Ulysses) is completely offset by means of regular and carefully dosed injections of ephemeral yet much alive personae who usually enter and exit the novel within one syntactic period and who have little or no bearing on the plot.7 Time management is likewise marked by several interesting features; one will notice, for instance, the extreme compression of time as the novels unwinds (the first three chapters span almost two-and-a-half years, the next four less than a year), ingenious flashbacks and timeslides in every chapter, and chronological duplexity created by a deliberate confusion of calendar styles, nowhere to a stronger effect than in Chapter Three, where "Pnin's Day" (his birthday, February 15, ignored by Pnin because of the academic routine and calendar mix-up) may be in fact the day of Pushkin's death (February 10), so that Pnin's premonition of death, mingled with Pushkin's melancholy verse, colors and even shapes the chapter as its dominant theme.8

Almost every serious study of Pnin has concentrated above all on two capital and interdependent problems: its thematic design and its narrative strategy, with various artistic, moral, and philosophical explications, and so the forthgoing observations will dwell on these topics of issue.


Only very early and shallow critics thought Pnin to be little else than a book of stories about a quaint character, loosely strung together by progressive chronology. This false impression, as has been said already, owes much to each chapter's well-rounded composition that looks perfectly self-sufficient, whereas the strong mutual dependence of the chapters is hidden and becomes evident only on closer inspection. Each chapter of what was then provisionally named My Poor Pnin, whether published in The New Yorker or not, had its own title,9 and for the readers of the magazine version this circumstance strengthened the impression that the book's frame was modular. Nabokov must have sensed that danger, and after Viking had rejected Pnin in part because of its fragmentary structure, he thought it fit to point out to the next potential publisher that "these chapters, although slanted and illumined differently, fuse to form a definite unity at the end."10

"I do not begin my novels from the beginning," Nabokov once said. But unlike his other English books after Bend Sinister, Pnin appears to have been composed in natural progression, from beginning to end. In an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., Nabokov admits as much: "...the design of Pnin was complete in my mind when I composed the first chapter which, I believe, in this case was actually the first of the seven I physically set down on paper." The original plan provided for one more chapter placed between chapters Four and Five. It was not put on paper, but we know that Nabokov meant to describe in it Pnin's struggle with driving manuals and instructors.11

In fact, the structure of Pnin is perfectly tight and its parts cooperate in a most ingenious and precise fashion. "Pnin is as complicated as a pet snake," notes Charles Nicol,12 and this simile appears to be most fortunate, for the book's linear design suummet rodit in a sense, bites its own tail (or the shadow of a tail). The length of the novel's body describes a full thematic circle, and the book ends in a different version of the very episode that opens it: Pnin's guest lecture at a Women's Club.

Curiously enough, every chapter of Pnin forms a smaller spheroid of its own. The two significant exceptions are the fringe chapters One and Seven that serve as the book's entrance and exit, both of overriding importance and with a very special structural assignment. These chapters are not only outward-facing but also facing each other--over the abyss of reversible time-space. Since they interact across the entire globe of the text, these two critical segments must retain their ends open for proper coordination and speculative coupling.

The very first paragraph of Pnin introduces the hero riding on a (wrong) train to a small town to give a lecture; at the end of the chapter, he is left standing at the lectern, the last of his after-seizure ephemera gradually fading. It is implausible but not impossible that at the moment he is holding a wrong lecture in his hands, to bear out Cockerell's last word about Pnin (but see below). Chapter Two opens to the tune of the Waindell College chimes, replaced by the ringing of the Clementses' telephone (Pnin calls to inquire about renting a room in their house), and ends with a close-up of Joan Clements abstractly examining the cover of a local magazine with the Waindell belfry on it, while Pnin yields to utter despair. Chapter Three begins with a description of Pnin's uncomfortable, sound-leaking lodgings and closes at the point when Pnin will have to vacate the first room in which he feels really at home.

Chapter Four, which is central both compositionally and thematically, has been studied more thoroughly than any other chapter.13 Victor Wind dreams of his imaginary father, a lonely and betrayed King, at the beginning; at the end, Pnin (Victor's water father, as his real father, Eric Wind, jokes, perhaps more aptly than he may suppose) sees a sequel to Victor's fantasy in his own dream. (Both parts of that encircling dream use the "illegible [to either Victor or Pnin] lines" of drafts of Nabokov's unfinished Russian novel Solus Rex whose thematic formation was later transferred, in part, to Pale Fire).

In Chapter Five the woods of "beautiful New England" fan out most tranquilly as far as the view from a watch-tower can afford. Towards the end of the chapter, however, they change gradually into, and then are replaced by, the ominous German forest where Pnin's sweetheart was murdered in one of the extermination camps situated inside a serene environment, at the core of a German cultural memorial. At the beginning of Chapter Six, a new semester at Waindell starts on its routine autumn course, and Pnin finds a suitable home at long last; at the end, he must give up his position at the university and the sweet hope of settling in the house for good. The last chapter revisits every preceding one, briefly inspecting the major themes and completing the circular configuration as its last sentence sends the reader back to the departure point.

Concentric circles that make up six or seven episodes of Pnin's life spanning four-and-a-half years of progressive time and more than half-a-century of retrospection, create a sort of epicyclic train, with one geared wheel moving around the circumference of another.14 They are decidedly not separate sketches knocked together to simulate the hull and workings of a romance. They are braced with tie rods and belt pulleys of intertwining themes that cover distances of different length but definite itinerary. It is the armature of these thematic rods, and not the story development as such, that raises and sustains the firmament of Pnin's universe.

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*Copyright © 1993 by Gennady Barabtarlo. This essay, which originally appeared in the author's Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics (New York: P. Lang, 1993), is reprinted here by kind permission of the author. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.

Epigraph: M.C. Escher, "Approaches to Infinity." In The World of M.C. Escher, ed. J.L. Locher (New York: Abradale Press, 1988), p. 42.

1. In The New Yorker, chapters 1, 3, 4, and 6, between November of 1953 and November of 1955. 2. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, ed. by Simon Karlinsky (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980), p. 282. I suspect that the novel was begun on May 18, because that was Pnin's birthday in the magazine version of chapter 1 (changed later to February 15).

3. Letter to P. Covici, 29 September, 1955. Selected Letters, 1940-1977, eds. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich-Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1989), p. 178.

4. Selected Letters, pp. 156-7.

5. The situation has begun to change recently, however: see important essays on Pnin in Leona Toker, Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Gennady Barabtarlo, Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov's Pnin (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1989), a book-length exegesis.

6. Cf. Meyer 1988, p. 217. Professor Meyer kindly brought to my attention an admirable paper by her student, Miss Alison Bidwell, who explores this topic. Perhaps, a fourth foreign scholar should be added (chronologically, the first in the series), the French Professor of "The Vane Sisters," a "rather callous observer of the superficial planes of life" (Selected Letters, p.116), whose lonely figure can in turn be made out in the French Professor of Nabokov's early, uncollected English poem "Exile" (The New Yorker, no. 36, 24 October, 1942, p. 26).

7. For Nabokov's theoretical treatment of this "Gogolian" device see Lectures on Russian Litreature, ed. by Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Breace Jovanovich-Bruccoli Clark, 1980), pp. 19-23. See also G.M. Hyde, Vladimir Nabokov: America's Russian Novelist (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), and Gennady Barabtarlo, Phantom of Fact: A Guide to Nabokov's Pnin (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1989), pp. 16-17 and particularly Appendix A, "Dramatis Personae."

8. See Phantom of Fact, pp.15-16, 121-123, and Appendix B.

9. 1. "Pnin." 2. "Pnin Had Not Always Been Single," rejected as "too depressing." 3. "Pnin's Day." 4. "Victor Meets Pnin." 5. "Pnin under the Pines," turned down because of several strong anti-Soviet digs (see Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 270). 6. "Pnin Gives a Party." 7. "I Knew Pnin," apparently never offered for separate publication.

10. Letter to Cass Canfield of Harper and Brothers, of 8 December, 1955. Selected Letters, p. 182.

11. Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 32; 84; 84-5. Phantom of Fact, p. 190.

12. Charles Nicol, "Pnin's History," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 4, no. 3 (Spring 1971), p. 197.

13. See Nicol, "Pnin's History," and Julian W. Connolly, "Pnin: The Wonder of Recurrence and Transformation," in Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work, eds. J.E. Rivers and Charles Nicol (Austin: Texas University Press, 1982).

14. There is a curious emblem of this closed-circuit, double movement in Chapter 3: "An elliptic flock of pigeons, in circular volitation, soaring gray, flapping white, and then gray again, wheeled across the limpid, pale sky..." (73).

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