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102 of 105 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nabokov creates his own rules in this satiric novel, January 19, 2004
This review is from: Pnin (Paperback)
Vladimir Nabokov is so often called a "master stylist" that it is easy to forget that he is an adept storyteller as well. Even though PNIN, one of his lesser known works, threatens to disappear under the gorgeous stylistic turns, it is ultimately the pathetic title character and his nemesis/narrator who drive this novel. Pnin is a Russian instructor at a college, and, due to his solitary existence and his failure to grasp the subtleties of English, he has become a running joke to most of his colleagues. He is fussy, awkward, and usually clueless. The novel reads as episodes in Pnin's life: losing his lecture notes on a train he should never have been on; his weekend with other Russian immigrants; the crushing love and hope he experiences when his ex-wife visits him; a party he gives for his colleagues. The narrator's the biting and hilarious commentary about Pnin and those he associates with keeps the reader from taking these events too seriously. But should we?
In the writing of this work, Nabokov breaks all the rules. His shifts in points-of-view, his sometimes favoring of lengthy exposition over scene, his dropping of plots and subplots just as they get going all work precisely because he is such a skilled novelist and knows the effect of abandoning conventions. In dashing the reader's hopes, his style takes tenacious hold of the reader's imagination; we learn to trust the voice - even if we shouldn't. This last is what is truly brilliant about the novel: we allow ourselves to be swept into a story of non-events and pathos, laughing along the way and becoming in essence yet another of Pnin's mocking colleagues.
Students of literature and book discussion groups can discover a wealth of topics here: Is the narrator reliable? How can the narrator be both omniscient and a specific character? How does the touching story of Pnin's first love fit with the mocking tone in the rest of the novel? What is the range of the Russian immigrant experience Nabokov supplies? Is Pnin heroic or merely pathetic?
While PNIN is hardly the masterpiece that PALE FIRE or LOLITA is, it has its own rewards. Once I advanced past the first chapter, I didn't want to leave this odd, Old World character. Highly recommended, especially if you've already read one or more of Nabokov's other works.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 5, 2014 4:04:07 PM PDT
Thanks for your review. The attributes you mention in your review were exactly what drove me nuts about this book. I didn't enjoy it at all--in fact, I switched to something else about halfway through. Lazy, I know. But I loved Lolita. I suppose it couldn't hurt to pick it back up and read the rest. I appreciate your insight.
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Debbie Lee Wesselmann
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Location: the Lehigh Valley, PA

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