Pnin, it should be particularly stressed, was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of last century, der zerstreute Professor. On the contrary, he was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin's business to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence.
Of all the queer trades on our earth, you will likely never hear of an absent-minded chief executive officer. In part because that would render the fellow in question more human; but also because being a chief executive officer necessarily means being the opposite of absent-minded, which does not necessarily mean he is present-minded. It implies, for better or worse, that he possesses that most ballyhooed of senses, the common one, often in exchange on the heavenly market for all the other senses combined. He is practical to a fault; he knows the price of everything (invariably the first question he asks); he is a great believer in demand and supply in eternal twinning like some lonesome gulls; and he understands sympathy to be an impediment to good business. In fact, the platitude "good business" will end up justifying every detail in his profit-hoarding existence, from the food he eats, to the clothes he wears, to the way he says "good morning" to some people and "how are you" to others, and how he's really just talking about himself. In short, it is hard to be absent-minded when you are constantly conscious of the present and your next greenback. A portrait in stark antithesis to the protagonist of this novel.
The first thing we learn about Timofey Pnin, a professor recently of Europe, and before that, Imperial Russia, is that he is sitting obliviously on the wrong train. It is an American train, a country of which Pnin has been a citizen for a decade, but America and Pnin have very little productive interaction. We are quickly informed, per the passage beginning this review, that Pnin, a tanned, fit pentagenarian of bulging torso and a perfectly bald head, is not simply one of those college teachers who "had long ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus, in the corridors, in the library – anywhere, in brief, save in functional classroom concentrations." Certainly, his students, transient entry-level life forms as they are, hold little interest for him (Pnin has a mild paternal instinct that is exhausted on his former wife's child, Victor). But if Pnin is to be what he is intended to be, that is, a tragic character, he must have tragic flaws, and apathy towards his students – with one pretty exception – will not suffice. We may begin with his English, portrayed mercilessly and accurately for those long familiar with Russian accents, and his lecture style in his acquired language, involving "his gaze glued to the text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators." There are then his eating habits, which must be good if Pnin is to maintain the ruddy-cheeked health so typical of the outdoorsman: "The Egg and We [was] a recently inaugurated and not very successful little restaurant which Pnin frequented from sheer sympathy with failure." And finally, there is the small matter of Pnin's ex-wife Liza, a woman our narrator will tear to shreds even after she has already demonstrated her hatefulness towards everyone except herself. Her marriage to Pnin will be her first of many (not to say she was faithful before or during the actual union), which might explain why poor old Timofey cannot quite get over his erstwhile spouse:
There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark.
"Magic agony" is a triumph of sound, and Liza a paradigm for the sort of mind who needs paradigms and who, instead of equating feminism with dignity and rights, endorses frivolous freedoms, contrived scandals, and something that can be loosely termed sex appeal. And so, if a man cannot work, eat, or love the right way, if life has so baffled him that he must resort to old habits, however destructive, how can he be expected to get on in the world? Pnin will throw a party (no students past or present invited) towards the end of our novel that suggests he has always found methods to alleviate his loneliness, or whatever it is that truly plagues him.
We have not spoken overmuch about our narrator, a certain Vladimir Vladimirovich, because his role is suddenly elucidated during our closing chapter. It turns out that – well, no, let's not spoil any of the fun. Far better to enumerate some of the instances of dazzling clarity in the realm of Pnin: "A race was run between the doctor's fat golden watch and Timofey's pulse (an easy winner)"; "He came, a figure of antique dignity, moving in his private darkness to an invisible luncheon"; "The lilacs, in sudden premature bloom, wildly beat, like shut-out maskers, at the dripping panes"; "With the confidential and arch air of one who makes his audience a precious gift of a fruity colloquialism"; "Around the natural basin, Pnin swam in state"; "Pnin and Clements, in last-minute discourse, stood on either side of the living-room doorway, like two well-fed caryatids, and drew in their abdomens to let the silent Thayer pass"; "This had corrupted Pnin, this had made of him a happy, footnote-drugged maniac who disturbs the book mites in a dull volume, a foot thick, to find in it a reference to an even duller one." You may also notice a squirrel – correctly etymologized from the Greek as "shadow tail" – bounding at key instants in the vicinity of our scholar, as if he wanted to ask a question or three. As if the squirrel were actually – yet again, I must refrain. And anyway, what can you ask of a man whose only true possession is sorrow?