Published in 1957, Pnin
is Russian author Vladimir Nabokov’s thirteenth novel and his fourth written in English. The novel’s protagonist, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a fifty-something-year-old Russian-born assistant professor who immigrated to the United States. It is believed the character is partially based on Nabokov’s colleague Marc Szeftel and partially on Nabokov. Exiled during the Russian Revolution, Pnin teaches Russian at the fictional Waindell College, somewhere in New England, loosely inspired by Cornell University and Wellesley College—places where Nabokov taught.
As the novel opens, Pnin is taking the train on his way to give a lecture to the Cremona Women’s Club. He is paranoid that he may lose his lecture papers, or mix them up with the student essay he is correcting. However, he soon realizes that he is on the wrong train. As he attempts to correct this mistake and make his way to Cremona on time, he is overcome by a memory of his childhood in which he suffered from a fever and, in his delirium, struggled in vain to find the key to the recurring pattern of foliage on his wallpaper. Pnin gets over this spell and makes his way to Cremona to deliver his lecture, but he then becomes fixated on the idea that some beloved people from his past who died during the Russian Revolution, including his parents, are in the audience.
Shortly thereafter, Pnin moves into a room rented to him by Joan and Laurence Clements, a fellow Waindell faculty member. The room was previously occupied by their daughter, Isabel, who has since married and moved away. The Clementses grow to enjoy Pnin's eccentricities.
Pnin’s ex-wife, Dr. Liza Wind, contacts him; she wants to visit him. Their marriage unraveled after Pnin realized that Liza had manipulated him into bringing her to America, only to leave him for fellow psychologist Eric Wind. Liza visits Pnin, but her only interest is to extract money for her son, Victor. Although Pnin sees through to her true intentions, he obliges out of his undying love for her. After she leaves, Pnin is very upset and weeps profusely. Joan Clements attempts to cheer him up but to no avail.
Pnin continues to go about his routine, teaching at Waindell College and conducting research on the history of Russian culture. The Clementses leave Pnin on his own while they go visit their daughter, Isabel. The librarian, who had first tipped him off to the lodging at the Clementses’, tells Pnin that their daughter’s marriage is in trouble, and Pnin may need to find a new place to live, but Pnin is intent on returning his book and pays no mind to what she is saying. In the evening, Pnin watches a Soviet propaganda film and imagines himself back in the Russia of his youth, causing him to weep. As he falls asleep that night, he is awakened by the noisy return of Isabel, who is about to burst into her old room until her mother stops her. Pnin realizes that he will have to find a new place to stay.
Liza’s fourteen-year-old son, Victor, visits Pnin at Waindell. Victor has a recurring dream in which his father is a king who is forced into exile by a revolution in his country. The boy has an extraordinary IQ and is a talented artist. During his correspondence with Pnin, he begins to develop a fondness for this man. In Victor’s eyes, Pnin has an exotic background, and his experiences escaping from the Russian Revolution are a subject of fascination. On the night of his arrival, Victor, who usually suffers from insomnia, falls asleep instantly.
Pnin moves into a new house he has rented on his own. He throws a housewarming party to celebrate the event, inviting the Clementses, Mrs. Thayer, several Waindell faculty members, and his former student Betty Bliss.
One of his guests, Dr. Hagen, will soon be leaving the college to move to a more prestigious institution. With Hagen’s departure, Pnin will be out of a job. Hagen informs Pnin there will be a new head of the Russian department, a man under whom Pnin refuses to work. Troubled by this, Pnin realizes that his dreams of buying the house are most likely dashed.
In the final chapter of the novel, the identity of the narrator is revealed as Russian-American academic Vladimir Vladimirovich. Vladimir begins to describe his own memories of Pnin. The narrator had an affair with Liza before she married Pnin. Vladimir has accepted a job at Waindell College, and he has offered a position to Pnin as well, but Pnin refuses to work under his old acquaintance. As the novel ends, the narrator arrives in Waindell and catches a glimpse of Pnin driving out of town, leaving the narrator behind in his place.