Say what you like but America and Americans are lovely. In this grand, concise novel, Nabokov sets his fish, Professor Timofey Pnin, given new teeth to match the wounds of his new challenges, in unaccustomed, American, waters, with morbidly hilarious results, in an “almost perfect work” according to Harold Bloom, the man who, like Anna Cunningham, has read everything.
Nabokov described the pedantic Professor as “A man of great moral courage, a pure man, a scholar and a staunch friend, serenely wise, faithful to a single love, he never descends from a high plane of life characterized by authenticity and integrity. But handicapped and hemmed in by his incapability to learn a language, he seems a figure of fun to many an average intellectual…[he has a] tender and lovable core.”
This is the outstanding émigré novel, with the added frisson of doomed love. Pnin is one of the most romantic and engaging academics in literature, and when he has been bested by that Wagnerian villain, Hagen, at a faculty party he has put on with great effort, he solemnly attends to the washing-up. Then, during the course of this task, a “large bowl of brilliant aquamarine glass with a decorative design of swirled ribbing and lily pads” is dropped and, we suspect, cracked beyond utility. There is nothing so bourgeois as to howl over objects but, so skilfully does VN build up scene and character, you share a moment of genuine anguish over this piece of coloured glass.
Pnin is probably VN’s great character. Afterwards, he concentrated on marginal evil clowns. Professor Pnin is genuinely likeable, his flaws on his sleeve, his amorous and assimilating situation hopeless and serious. There is no warmer and earthier Nabokov story than this and whilst his sublimely barren books catch our breath, this short tale lets us exhale and exalt.