Pnin Background

Pnin Background

Pnin was first released in an episodic series in the New Yorker in 1954. Written by Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), this novel is by an author known more for creepy pedophilia in his plot lines, not comedy or satire. Yet Pnin is filled with intelligent humor and satirical observation. For this reason it is sometimes an outcast when it comes to reviewing Nabokov's body of work, in much the same way that central character Pnin is largely an outcast from life in his adopted American home. Critics and fans also have a difficult time including Pnin in Nabokov's literary hall of fame; imagine being a fan of Andy Warhol and discovering that he was writing a comic strip in the back of the Post, or discovering that Van Gogh was selling off his idle doodles whilst simultaneously creating his great works of art. This is the way in which Nabokov devotees feel about Pnin.

The novel itself is curious. It centers around an old Russian emigre (the eponymous Pnin) who never manages to assimilate into the culture of his adopted American home. His grasp of the language is minimal and so he is often an outcast because he cannot communicate very well. He loses his job suddenly, and the book ends just as suddenly before we are able to see another uptick in his fortunes.

Nabokov wrote Pnin whilst also writing Lolita. This more famous novel was already surrounded with controversy even before it was published. Nabokov was concerned, and wrote the Pnin episodes for financial reasons just in case Lolita was a failure. This seems ironic given that Lolita catapulted him to worldwide fame, but at the time, he could not have foreseen its success.

Pnin is an outcast amongst other Nabokov characters because he is the only one who is actually likable. We even feel sorry for him (this was intended by the author; he originally entitled the episodes "My Poor Pnin"). He is by far the most normal protagonist that Nabokov has ever created. This created a dilemma for publishers who did not want to publish the episodes as a book. After three years of trying, he finally persuaded Doubleday Press to publish the book. An initial flurry of sales and reviews soon died down, and Pnin is largely forgotten again. The book is important, however, because it shows a different side to Nabokov, and is an example of his talent for character creation.

This is technically Nabokov's tenth novel. The first nine were written in Russian but he came to prominence far more when he started to write in English. He is most famous for writing Lolita, which was ranked fourth in the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction an impressive seven times.

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