I spent the past several months slowly working my way through an anthology called Fierce Pajamas: Humor Writing from The New Yorker. Among all the parodies and comic sketches (many of which are very funny, indeed), one story stood out as richer and stranger and more poignant than the rest. It also contained the best literary description of a panic attack that I could ever hope to read.
That story was "Pnin," by Vladimir Nabokov. With minor revisions, it became the first chapter of his novel of the same title – a novel I immediately bought and read.
Pnin, which Nabokov originally composed as seven New Yorker short stories in order to earn money and amuse himself while working on Lolita, has been criticized for its loose structure, but this didn't bother me. It recently occurred to me that many of my favorite childhood "novels," such as Mary Poppins, are really just collections of short stories, so I think it's a perfectly valid form. Besides, this is Nabokov we're talking about – a.k.a. The Tsar of Ultra-Clever Literary Gamesmanship – so the further you read, the more you notice repeating motifs, brief allusions to characters who then get fleshed out in later chapters, flashbacks and recursions, and (no surprise) an unreliable narrator who gives everything a final twist. Thus, though there's no overarching plot, it still seems very much of a piece.
And Prof. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin – the linchpin holding it all together – has quickly become one of my favorite literary characters. At one point we learn that Pnin dislikes Charlie Chaplin movies, which is funny, because he himself is lovable in a similar way to the Little Tramp. Pnin is the eternal underdog – a divorced Russian emigré with a hilariously shaky command of English and a talent for botching what he sets out to do – yet he never loses his dignity and never stops striving. His continuing in his Pninian ways despite the fact that his colleagues make fun of him behind his back is almost heroic.
So buried underneath all the dazzling Nabokovisms is a thoughtful exploration of the way that we perceive, judge, and underestimate each other. Because of the language and temperamental barrier separating Pnin from his colleagues at a small 1950s college, they consider him a buffoon. But he has led a harder life than most, he remains good-hearted and optimistic, and despite his inability to master English, is a real egghead. When trying to talk sports with a 14-year-old boy, Pnin can only mention the fascinating (to him) fact that Anna Karenina contains the first mention of tennis in Russian literature. There is exquisite comedy in this – funny but oh so human.
So I know that this sounds like the kind of sentimental and "uplifting" conclusion that Nabokov would scorn, but one of the things I take from Pnin is a resolve to treat the real-life Pnins of the world (the awkward, the eccentric, the people whose visible flaws frighten me because they recall my own secret flaws) with the care and respect that they deserve.