Few characters in literature deal with discombobulation to quite the extent as Vladimir Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin. Pnin, a Russian-born professor at the “somewhat provincial institution” of Waindell College, is a somewhat absent-minded and culturally confused man. Nabokov begins the novel with Pnin catching the wrong train, thus missing an important lecture he was due to give.
Despite such a farcical beginning, Pnin is not a campus farce. Yes, it is deeply comic, but it is also a novel that plays on Nabokov’s own experiences as a Russian émigré marooned in American academia. There is a phrase I like a lot — I like it so much I named my own blog after it. It is the term “culturally discombobulated.” I think this is something that Pnin struggled under the weight of. For all his intelligence, Pnin struggles with English — “If his Russian was music, his English was murder,” writes Nabokov — and who constantly seems out of step with the society he is living in.
The extract I want to highlight this week comes from early in the novel. Pnin has boarded a train for his lecture, but oblivious to him he has boarded the wrong train — a fact he won’t discover for a number of hours. As Pnin sits in the train, the novel’s narrator allows us a closer look at Pnin’s history and some of his shortcomings.
Pnin, despite his many shortcomings, had about him a disarming old-fashioned charm, which Dr. Hagen, his staunch protector, insisted before morose trustees was a delicate imported article worth paying in domestic cash. Whereas the degree in sociology and political economy that Pnin had obtained with some point at the University of Prague around 1925 had become by mid-century a doctorate in desuetude, he was not altogether miscast as a teacher of Russian. He was beloved not for any essential ability but for those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present. Nostalgic excursions in broken English. Autobiographical tidbits. How Pnin came to the Soedinyonnie Shtati (the United States). “Examination on ship before landing. Very well! ‘Nothing to declare?’ ‘Nothing.’ Very well! Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you anarchist?’ I answer” — time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth — “‘First what do you understand under “anarchism”? Anarchism practical, metaphysical, theoretical, mystical, abstractical, individual, social? When I was young,’ I say, ‘all this had for me signification.’ So we had a very interesting discussion, in consequence of which I passed two whole weeks on Ellis Island” — abdomen beginning to heave; heaving; narrator convulsed …
… And he still did not know that he was on the wrong train.
A special danger in Pnin’s case was the English language. Except for such not very helpful odds and ends as “the rest is silence,” “nevermore,” “weekend,” “who’s who,” and a few ordinary words like “eat,” “street,” “fountain pen,” “gangster,” “Charleston,” “marginal utility,” he had no English at all at the time he left France for the States. Stubbornly he sat down to the task of learning the language of Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Poe, Edison, and thirty-one Presidents. In 1941, at the end of one year of study, he was proficient enough to use glibly terms like “wishful thinking” and “okey-dokey.” By 1942 he was able to interrupt his narration with the phrase, “To make a long story short.” By the time Truman entered his second term, Pnin could handle practically any topic, but otherwise progress seemed to have stopped despite his efforts, and by 1950 his English was still full of flaws.
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