Nabokov, Pnin, and the Preposterous

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin is replete with illusions and literary duals.  These “doubles,” as I will call them here, range from comic cameos to characters that run the length of the story.  While some critics have complained that these literary techniques on the part of Nabokov have made him guilty of “playing games” (Pifer 211), reducing what otherwise would be considered a great literary genius, to that of a charlatan.  I assert, however, that this approach allowed Nabokov to elucidate on the complexities of human emotion (in the case of Pnin these emotions were often the petty and dark sides of human demeanor) through the use of mirrors and doubles by accentuating the absurdities of life (what I shall refer to as the “preposterous”), be they of existential circumstance or human behavior.

If we turn back to the accusation that Pifer points us to, the “playing games” accusation, this will serve as a fine point of departure to begin discussing Nabokov and his use of literary doubles.  Perhaps what would have served this critic best would have been to split the allegation into two parts: playing, and games.  If we look at the first part, there is no doubt whatsoever that Nabokov is playing with the novel as a form.  From the very beginning of the narrative, the title’s protagonist is charged with being on the wrong train.  This contention, like many others the narrator makes, proves to be incorrect as the novel proceeds.  The technique proves to be very useful in not only challenging the unreliable narrator’s omniscience, but to also establish as to what I see is a key element in Nabokov’s literary double: competition between the doubles.  I will expand on this latter on.

As for the “game,” I substitute this as a synonym for humor, another key ingredient the book (as many of Nabokov’s books are) is ripe with.  This humor takes many forms, from Pnin being the punch line of several of the narrator’s observations: “What are you looking for, Timofey?” … “I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust” (Nabokov 59), to Pnin’ own antics, such as when Pnin recommends that Lawrence Clements have all of his teeth pulled as well: “You will be a reformed man like I” (39).  In both instances I feel that this form of humor adds to, and not detracts from, Nabokov’s mastery of prose.

To begin looking directly into Nabokov’s use of the literary double, I will examine what Leona Toker touches upon in her article “Self-Conscious Paralepsis”.  I found Toker’s insight into Nabokov’s mechanics perceptive in highlighting a prominent element in the relationship between Pnin and his most obvious dual, the narrator.  First is the “intradiegetic” as well as homodiegetic nature of the narrator, who moves from omniscient (intra-) to being the butt of the joke himself (homo-) at the novel’s conclusion (Toker 459).  The intradiegetic aspects of the narration allow the reader access to information not normally obtainable (details about Pnin’s childhood, his love for Mira, etc.).  In the process of doing so, Nabokov morphs the narrator into a competitor with Pnin: a great deal of the slights dealt to Pnin by the narrator showcase the covetous nature of the narrator, who in turn by the story’s end, essentially becomes Pnin, at least in terms of who and what Pnin was at Waindell.

This competition between Pnin and the narrator builds throughout the novel as the main character fights back against the tide of unreliable information that is given to the reader: “Pnin cried to Dr. Barakan across the table:  ‘Now don’t believe a word he says, Georgiy Aramovich.  He makes up everything’.” (185).  As Pnin progresses, Nabokov incrementally moves the narrator from the position of intradiegetic to homodiegitc by forcing the narrator to become part of the story.  This has the effect of providing the story’s protagonist with a real, flesh and blood antagonist, further demonstrating that in terms of Pnin and the narrator being doubles, their dualist relationship is centered around competition and vying.

Another aspect of the competition between Pnin and his narrator is the idea of “duality reduced to unity” (Bowie 256).  In other words, Pnin and the narrator are not simply two separate versions of one another but in fact, by the storie’s conclusion, they become something of one and the same, by proxy of the narrator becoming Pnin, as illustrated above.  Nabokov steers the narration with such grace that the narrator, who has taken Pnin’s position, ends in the same precarious position our narrator found Pnin in: on his way to the Cremona Women’s Club lecture (191).

Nabokov’s use of the literary double is not restricted to competition for the sake of competition, but is in fact used as a ploy for a greater effect: the preposterous.  In examining the many characters of the novel we see an underlining tone of ridiculousness and absurdity that Nabokov use’s to great effect in outlining the preposterousness, if not of life itself, certainly of life’s actors.  Eric Naiman, in his article “What If Nabokov Had Written ‘Dvoinik’? Reading Literature Preposterously”, highlights one of the most prominent characteristics of Nabokov’s writing.  Naiman goes on to underscore the etymology of the word: “derived from the Latin praeposterus, meaning ‘reversed’ or ‘perverted’ (Naiman 576).”  While the latter may seem more appropriate when read along with Nabokov’s Lolita, both definitions apply equally well to Pnin, and the characters therein.

The reversed nature of Pnin’s preposterousness can perhaps easiest seen in the ease with which Pnin himself operates in his alien environment.  Despite being something of a fish out of water, it is the book’s characters who are often reversed in their positioning towards Pnin.  Jack Cockerell for example, one of Pnin’s adversaries, imitates Pnin with such accuracy that the story’s narrator wonders if Cockerell has in fact become Pnin: “[Cockerell] had acquired an unmistakable resemblance to the man he had now been mimicking for almost ten years” (Nabokov 187).  Read in this manner, we can see that preposterous characters in Nabokov’s hands is not only “the ludicrous” but also those in opposition, accentuating again those dark and cruel tendencies of the human spirit.

Perversion in Pnin takes its form not in the sexual, as Lolita does, but rather in the form of information (i.e., the narration) or behavior.  The narrator, who initially beguiles the reader into thinking he is an omniscient reader, slips in and out of the story, giving us information that proves to ultimately be questionable, if not false.  This resulted in nothing less than the narrator “absurdly” and “outrageously” distorting Pnin’s story (Naiman 576).  Both of the attributes of “preposterous,” reversed and perverted, serve Nabokov’s style of writing which challenges his readers, as Naiman states, “to read the early portions of the book with the knowledge derived from the book’s latter end” (Naiman 576).

It would be a mistake to read Nabokov’s use of the preposterous as merely an exercise in silliness, but rather, it would be best served to see Nabokov’s use of preposterous as a means of challenging the preposterous nature of memory, at least as it relates to human memory to be fully accurate and authentic.  The case study for Pnin is the main character’s memory being recalled by the narrator, who was not present for the vast majority of incidents that are conjured from Pnin’s memory, resulting in the main character accusing the narrator that he “makes up everything” (Nabokov 187).  Moreover, this technique of casting doubt on the narrator’s reliability ultimately cements him not only as Pnin’s double, but precisely as Pnin’s double of the past.  All accounts of the narrator are restricted to the past (and even these are not wholly accurate).  But Pnin, as a character and climactically as a book, is about the future.  Despite Clarence Brown’s claims that both Pnin and narrator “strangely coalesce” (Bowie 256), nonetheless, Pnin as a character moves not only out of the novel, as Robert Bowie asserts, but on to what appears to be a brighter future (Bowie 256).  In the end, Nabokov creates two doubles, one of the past (narrator) and one of the future (Pnin), a future which is not knowable, emblematically rendering the narrator as presumptuous as well as preposterous.

All of these mechanics of duality and preposterousness at Nabokov’s disposal are clever methods the author uses to the effect of “narrative circularity” (Naiman 581): it is necessary for these two duals to, if not quite meet by story’s conclusion, certainly come together as a means of having a meaningful dialog and observation on human behavior.  I do not make the case that Nabokov is a moral storyteller, but I firmly believe he has something assertive to say about how human beings act towards one another.  This can be seen, amongst other avenues, in the way in which Nabokov is highly critical of psychoanalysis, particularly Freud and his school of thought, whom he dubs the “Viennese delegation” (Bethea 48); it’s no coincidence that Liza and Eric Wind are dealt with in such contemptuous tones.  By the time the real-time narrative catches up with Pnin and his antagonist, both of them are very much in conversation, a conversation that proves to be a powerful tool for gazing in on the intricacies and entanglements of human life and emotion.


Bethea, David M. “Sologub, Nabokov, and the Limits of Decadent Aesthetics.” Russian Review 63.1 (2004): 48-62.

Bowie, Robert. “Nabokov’s Influence on Gogol.” Journal of Modern Literature 13.2 (1986): 251-266.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. New York: Vintage International, 1957.

Naiman, Eric. “What If Nabokov Had Written “Dvoinik”? Reading Literature Preposterously.” Russian Review 64.4 (2005): 575-589.

Nicol, Charles. “Pnin’s History.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 4.3 (1971): 197-208.

Mizener, Arthur. “The Seriousness of Vladimir Nabokov.” The Sewanee Review 76.4 (1968): 655-664.

Pifer, Ellen. “Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody.” Modern Language Quarterly 40.2 (1979): 211.

Toker, Leona. “Self-Conscious Paralepsis in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and “Recruting”.” Poetics Today 7.3 (1986): 459-469.