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, 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.
- Author Avatar: The narrator is one Vladimir Vladimirovich N--, a butterfly-loving Russian expatriate novelist. Remind you of anyone?
- 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.
- Muse Abuse: The narrator does this with Pnin throughout the whole book.
- The Woobie: Pnin. Pnin's despair paired with how adorable he is makes for some serious hurt/comfort clashing. "I haf nofing!"
- Take That:
- Against the pretensions to shallow intellectualism in the emigre community
- 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.