It seems to be somewhat of a consensus in the critical literature on Pnin that the book constitutes, at least in part, Nabokov’s response to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nabokov lectured on the book, but didn’t seem to like it much, finding it not “humane,” and disapproving of the cruelty Cervantes inflicts on the titular character: “a whole section of the lectures is given over to literally scoring (as in tennis) the Don’s cruel humiliations.”
Pnin, much like the hidalgo, is subject to a not insignificant amount of suffering; “Pnin” even bears a passing resemblance to “pain.” What I have trouble understanding is why Nabokov, if he didn’t take to Cervantes’ authorial cruelty, would craft a story in which the main character never wins, as it were in terms of tennis points. Pnin takes the wrong train, arguably brings the wrong lecture to Cremona, is misunderstood as a freak, betrayed by his protector, and kicked out of Waindell by a man who in the past has humiliated him (and this list is not exhaustive).
In my mind, the differences in the two authors’ approaches may lie in the affect they create in their readers. Cervantes, at least in Nabokov’s view, engenders a cruel mockery of his protagonist on the part of his readers. In contrast, although Pnin is humiliated time and time again, the reader cannot help but have great affection for him. He is comical and out of place, but sweet, smart, sincere, and caring at the same time. Additionally, the ending of the book seems to be relatively happy, with Pnin and the dog, one of the beings he selflessly cares for, finally becoming free.
I think such questions are interesting, especially in light of the fact that Nabokov has been known to be cruel, at times, to his characters, but perhaps much more so to his readers (in his creation of hermeneutic performance anxiety). Is Nabokov kinder to his readers in Pnin than in a novel such as Lolita?
Link to a Kirkus review of Nabokov’s lectures on Don Quixote: