The esteemed Professor Timofey Pavlovich Pnin arrives at Waindell College in New England to work at the school's tiny Russian department, and sadness ensues. Pnin's loose grasp on English stops his brilliance from being appreciated. His heart is tortured by old lovers, dead and gone. He struggles to connect with his grown-up son, his neighbors, and really most of the characters in the book. As the professor observes at one point, "the history of man is the history of pain."
Written by Vladimir Nabokov in installments for the New Yorker magazine while he was searching for a publisher for Lolita, the author's text was at first rejected for being "too cruel." This 1957 novel followed the massive controversy and success of Nabokov's previous novel, Lolita, and Pnin proved to be another best-seller for the author. Pnin is considered to be one of Nabokov's most accessible works—it lacks the detective elements of Lolita and Pale Fire and has a relatively clear-cut story...well, for Nabokov.
The novel provides examples of:
- Absent-Minded Professor: Pnin, who accidentally takes a student's paper instead of his lecture to a paid speaking engagement.
- Author Avatar: The narrator is one Vladimir Vladimirovich N—, a butterfly-loving Russian expatriate novelist. Remind you of anyone?
- Butt-Monkey: Deconstructed with Pnin himself. To begin with he's presented like a comic absent-minded professor, taking the wrong train to a lecture and then forgetting his luggage, all of which is presented as being (and is) highly amusing. After a while it becomes clear that the narration isn't entirely reliable. By the final chapter, it's becomes clear that the narrator is a character in the book who knows Pnin personally and who, because he had an affair with Pnin's fiancée before Pnin married her and was extremely unpleasant to her, is someone Pnin intensely dislikes. This presents all Pnin's comic mishaps in a different light. By the end, Pnin has left the book and the narrator is listening to one of the book's least sympathetic characters tell the story that the narrator told at the start, about Pnin leaving his luggage in a train carriage.
- Covers Always Lie: The cover for the first American edition places Pnin in the background and three attractive young girls in the foreground trying to capitalise a bit on the fame of Lolita. Pnin is never involved with any of his female students and none of his young female students is an important character..
- Dramedy: Though you are almost guaranteed to forget this when you make it to the later, heart-breaking chapters, the beginning of the book is actually pretty light-hearted and funny.
- Expy: Pnin winds up in New Wye, as briefly shown in Pale Fire. Can be read as an epilogue for the character of just another of Nabokov's self-references.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Who is also The Antagonist.
- Funny Foreigner: Subverted or deconstructed with Pnin. Kinded-hearted Pnin with his horrific past (his first wife was murdered in a concentration camp) is a figure of fun only to those who can't or won't look beyond his accent and quirks.
- The Jinx: Pnin is not lucky. Lampshaded and inverted, however, when he is given a beautiful glass bowl by his ex-wife's son and, after dinner one evening, is doing the washing up; he drops a heavy metal object into the sink full of water, hears glass break and is immediately distraught because he automatically assumes that he's just broken the bowl. He reaches in to the water and cuts himself . . . on a broken wine glass. The bowl is intact.
- Missed the Bus: Pnin is prone to missing trains and misreading schedules. Based on Nabokov's own experiences in the States when a good part of his income came from out-of-town speaking engagements.
- Muse Abuse: The narrator does this with Pnin throughout the whole book.
- Not Distracted by the Sexy: Despite what some of the covers might have led readers to expect, Pnin seems indifferent to all the nubile coeds on the Waindell campus.
- Pet the Dog: Pnin regularly feeds a stray dog that lives near his home. When he is let go from Waindell (after having been led to expect he would be getting tenure), he takes the dog with him when he leaves town.
- Stylistic Suck: The atrocious Russian poems written by Liza, Pnin's ex-wife.
- Take That!:
- Against the pretensions to shallow intellectualism in the emigre community.
- Psychoanalysis. There's a whole chapter dedicated exclusively to making fun of it.
- The petty infighting between the academics at Wendell was based on Nabokov's teaching career at Cornell University.
- As a self-made polyglot, Nabokov's disdain for those who teach introductory language classes (Pnin was passed over for teaching introductory French because he is fluent in it and thus over-qualified and they only needed a professor who is one class ahead of the students), is only surpassed by his dim view on university students who take them for the sole reason that they are easy.
- Unreliable Narrator: What appears to be an third-person omniscient narrator in chapter one morphs into a third-person limited Lemony Narrator as he starts to slip on details, then finally gives up in the final chapter and formally takes over the story by shifting into full first-person mode.
- Mood Whiplash: Pnin can go from being a laughing stock to a tragic figure within a few lines.