Some of the artworks and artists mentioned in Pnin (incomplete list; feel free to expand)


Death in Pnin

pg. 20 “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.”

pg. 68 “In a set of eight tetrametric quatrains Pushkin described the morbid habit he always had— wherever he was, whatever he was doing—of dwelling on thoughts of death and of closely inspecting every passing day as he strove to find in its cryptogram a certain “future anniversary”: the day and month that would appear, somewhere, sometime upon his tombstone. ” ‘And where will fate send me’, imperfective future, ‘death,'” declaimed inspired Pnin, throwing his head back and translating with brave literality, ” ‘in fight, in travel, or in waves? Or will the neighboring dale’— dolina, same word, ‘valley’ we would now say— ‘accept my refrigerated ashes’, poussiere, ‘cold dust’ perhaps more correct. ‘And though it is indifferent to the insensible body … ‘”

pg. 135 “… no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

pg. 136 “The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”

These quotes, and our discussion in class today, made me think of this article I read recently in a new light (in case the link doesn’t work, it’s called “What Does It Mean to Die?” from the New Yorker). By the definitions of death Nabokov posits, is Jahi McMath alive? And is Pnin alive beyond the novel as he drives away from those who torment him?

Time Warps in Pnin

Here are my chapter-by-chapter notes on the moments where Pnin travels through time (and his heart jams; often with squirrel around). They were written for my consumption and elaboration, but you can get the gist!


Transcendence of Time

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there is a recurring pattern of “time travel” in the book: In each chapter, Pnin has some kind of palpitation of the heart, in which he suddenly finds himself back in his childhood or younger adulthood. These moments correlate pretty nicely with the appearance of the infamous squirrel.

Chapter 1: 20-25 (discreteness. Pattern of Wallpaper. Peach stone. Ends on 25 with the “doom should not jam” passage)

Chapter 2: No collapse quite like in Chapter 1 (unless we count the “I haf nofing!” on p.61) but much of the chapter is devoted to Pnin’s love of Liza, including a job in the rue vert-vert (44) and another mention of his “jammed heart” (47) and of “verbal heart props” (53). And that moment of near-transcendence happens again with the squirrel on p. 58 (gives the squirrel water)—let’s look at that.

Chapter 3: Squirrel this is time is on p. 73, but the “jamming” continues with a mention of the doorjamb on p. 65, which marks the room as belonging to Isabelle Clements (Pnin doesn’t see it; in re home, see G’s blog post), followed shortly by the narrator’s “It warmed my heart” and the whole Pushkin’s death episode… (68) Another intimation of “something else” some puzzle he (and we) are not quite getting on the bottom of 79. Pnin jumps back in time when watching Soviet movie: TEARS, again (81-82).

Chapter 4. This time the squirrel comes on p. 88. Most of the chapter is about Victor. We get the “water father” theme from Chatper 3 developed. Skiagraphy (see squirrel handout) and Victor’s art  related to “squirrel theme” in some way. No heart, as far as I noticed on this read-through, but notice the chapter ending on p 110, which picks up the “Windshield painting” and is one of those authorial “signature” moments for Nabokov. We’ll talk more about this chapter on Thursday.

Chapter 5. The Pines. The squirrel, the heart and the melting all occur on page 131, when Pnin is forced to remember Mira Belochkin (!) , his first great love, who died in Buchenwald (another forest–“beech forest” this time).

Chapter 6. This is the chapter with the Bowl, and where Pnin holds his little lecture on squirrel etymology (158). The tears this time come with the washing of the bowl (172-173). We’ll talk more about this on Thursday.

Chapter 7. The stuffed squirrel now shows up in the narrator’s recollection of Pnin’s childhood bedroom (177); the heart makes its appearance at least once,  in the “most cordial terms” that the narrator offers Pnin (186)


Heart pain

Pnin experiences acute chest pain, which he calls a seizure, after realizing he brought his student’s paper with him instead of his lecture notes (pgs. 19-25).

The text mentions that Pnin has had these panic attacks previously, on the dates (pg. 21):

  • August 10, 1942
  • February 15, 1937 (his birthday)
  • May 18, 1929
  • July 4, 1920

Pnin feels again the “extremely unpleasant and frightening cardiac sensation” after playing croquet with fellow Russian émigrés (pg. 131).

Using nouns creatively in Pnin

Throughout the novel, nouns are amended with an -ed ending and I believe turned into verbs or adjectives.

“a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed)” (7)
“in the middle of a landscaped campus, by ivied galleries” (9)
+ more

Other repetitions which I noticed were: clocks, authors (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov +others), changing residence

Psychoanalysis in Pnin

Various mentions of psychology and psychoanalysis in Pnin. Many rooted with associations with his ex-wife Liza:
p. 50- Pnin embarrassed of wife’s ” psihooslinie”
p. 90-91, Victor undergoing tests like Rorschach
p. 108 the Psychotherapeutic Institute
p. 134 Congress of psychotherapists
p. 139 Dr. Rudolph Aura
p. 150 Phallic symbol

Grapes at Pnin’s Party

Grapes are perhaps one of the more mundane foods served at Pnin’s party, yet they are mentioned three times in the text. I think the only item of consumption that crops up more is Pnin’s punch; the various Russian delicacies are only mentioned twice at most.

I found it interesting that grapes were the only food or drink item that the text didn’t denote as having been eaten. They just sit there, presumably from the time when Betty rinses them to when Hagen puts out his cigar in them. What could this mean, and is there some connection between the three characters mentioned in connection with the grapes?

  1. Betty rinses “three large bunches of grapes” (152).
  2. “Joan sat on a footstool, at her husband’s knee, a plate of grapes in the lap of her wide skirt…” (160).
  3. “Hagen had quenched a messy cigar in an uneaten bunchlet of grapes” (171).


Please find a pattern in Pnin. Please try to find time to post here and name it. (Page numbers are always good.)

Please read through the handout with critical takes on the pattern of the Squirrel.


An Honest Question

Dear All,

It has been suggested to me (by one of you) that I teach a whole seminar just on Lolita. As I envision it, I’d start the class with short stories, GRGW, other short texts by Nabokov about how he writes. We’d read the whole “poshlust” chapter in his Gogol book. I’d probably also teach Speak Memory!, which we didn’t get to read.

We’d do a lot of close reading of the novel itself, and read lots of different criticism.

And then we’d have a whole section of the course on reception. We’d think more thoroughly through the “Lolita Myth” (Patnoe), we’d watch and discuss the two films (Kubrick and Lyne), I’d find some texts that engage with Lolita (including feminist responses).

What do you think? Should I do it?