Comparing Pnin, the Displaced Russian, to Humbert Humbert, the Generic European.  

June 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Humbert Humbert (HH) and Timofey Pnin are complete opposites. HH is assertive and is ready to do everything to reach the goals he sets himself, may it be to master a foreign language or to use his abilities as a manipulator to trick the reader into relativizing his crimes. On the other hand, Timofey Pnin is impotent, and socially awkward, and is being manipulated by his ex-wife. Their only similarity lies in that they both are never idle. This essay will compare both HH and Pnin through their identities as immigrants, their use of foreign language, their manipulator-manipulated relationship, and their constant travels. Though these characters are markedly different, both of Nabokov’s creations help us understand how Nabokov himself grappled with the issues of emigration and displacement that were central to his own life.

Cultural “Other” and the use of foreign language

Timofey Pnin hails from a wealthy family, he is half-German and half-Russian (p.21-22), which emphasizes his identity as an eternal foreigner. Pnin, like Nabokov, first left Russia because of the Bolsheviks’ coup d’état, and then left Europe because of World War 2 (p.34). In the case of Timofey Pnin, the cultural otherness is a weakness manifested in his inability to ever feel at home. The narrator’s use of foreign language and his insistence on Pnin’s foreignness adds to the overwhelming feeling of alienation. The reader cannot forget for one moment that Pnin is not American. For instance, Pnin uses Russian in emotionally charged moments “Slava Bogu” p. 19 which is typical of people who speak in foreign languages. Foreign curse words, or words that simply express surprise or shock tend to have a stronger meaning in one’s native language (Toivo, 2017).The narrator also creates “Pninian” (p.15, p. 39, p.66), Pninzing (p.35), Pningrad (p.63), and indicates that Pnin makes up words “Englishing the Russian for receipt” (p.18). Also, the narrator provides the reader with verbatim quotes of Pnin’s very poor English “What to do” (P.17), “I search John” (p.59), “Cannot exist in such big sea” (p.60) to emphasize his otherness. Pnin crosses his legs “po amerikanski” (p.33), which here is likely written in Russian to remind the reader that Pnin is first and foremost a foreigner even if he crosses his legs as Americans typically do. The narrator does not spare Pnin, and mentions that “If his Russian was music, his English was murder” (p.66), later referring to Pnin’s inability to adapt to the Julian calendar when he mentions that Pnin simply stopped celebrating his birthday (p.67) when he moved to the West.

This incapability to assimilate also prohibits Pnin from making friends with American professors who imitate him behind his back (p. 37), are anti-Pninists (p.141), consider him a joke (p.140), or call him a freak (p.32). The awkwardness of his interactions with American professors are portrayed by his inability to understand jokes “I have reservations, first of all, logic –” (p.60) and seems to be showing off when he cuts his colleague in the middle of a story to tell him that “water in Turkish is ‘su’” (p.33). Moreover, even the electricity is described as foreign to Pnin: “amerikanski electricity” (p. 77). Likewise, the narrator uses Russian words or adds a Russian accent to American landmarks such as Reeverside (p.62), Tsentral park (p.62), and Soedinyoniie Shtatii (p.11), hence once again using language to widen the gap between Pnin and his surroundings.

However, the use of foreign language in Lolita does not accentuate Humbert Humbert’s (HH) “otherness”. HH, like Timofey Pnin, is of mixed descent (p.9), but his identity as a foreigner does not define him; he is defined by his complete lack of a moral compass. Nabokov could very well had created HH as an American character. HH’s English is not taxed by his insertion of French words “eh bien, pas du tout!” (p.105), “Enfin seuls” (p.119) “ Comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille” (p.149), “que dis-je” (p.168), etc. HH sounds more like the literary version of a bilingual Montrealer than an immigrant in a foreign country who is unsuccessfully attempting to assimilate, since his process of assimilation is now complete and HH now masters the English language “the reader will notice the pains I took to speak Lo’s tongue” (p.149). In short, while Pnin’s otherness makes him a social outcast, and his colleagues laugh at him when he announces that he will “soon be considered an American” (p.37), HH pretentiously uses French to stand out from the American masses, and is hence willingly alienating himself (although in a positive fashion).

Manipulator-Manipulated

HH is a manipulator while Pnin is victim of a manipulating ex-wife. Indeed, she seduces him “you Timofey are the water father” (p.55) even though she simply wants his money (p.57). Pnin is completely in love with Liza “I offer you everything that I have” (p.183) even though he knows she got pregnant from Eric in an extramarital affair. Pnin truly is a mere slave to his desires “to hold her to keep her […] with her cruelty, with her vulgarity” (p.57) whereas HH tries to convince the reader that he, like Pnin, is merely a victim of his strong feelings towards an underaged girl. Much like Liza Wind, HH attempts to manipulate the reader to using post-modern humor and word play (p.184). As I already mentioned[1], HH uses humorous descriptions to trick the reader into ignoring the gravity of his actions: he was committing statutory rape. Further, as a classmate correctly noted[2], HH murders Quilty and attempts to dehumanize his victim with his use of language. He uses black humor in replying to his victim saying that he’s “dying for a smoke” with “you’re dying anyway” (p.296). In short, Pnin is a poor victim of manipulation throughout the novel whereas HH is an expert manipulator.

Displaced Russian and Pervert European

Timofey Pnin’s identity as “the other” is not limited to his incapacity to speak English and to his social awkwardness. He always appears to be a misfit, wherever he finds himself. For instance, the novel begins with him being on the wrong train (p.8) right after the narrator informed us that Pnin has moved from Russia to Prague, from Prague to Paris, and from Paris to America (p.8). Pnin formulates his desire to be alone during his apartment-search: “privacy is absolutely necessary” (p.34) and complains that there are “too many people” (p.34) in rural America. Indeed, “nothing was quiet enough for Pnin” (p.63). He is a permanent exile and is always out of place (displaced Russian). He would also express his desire to feel at home in “pninzing”(p.35) or having pninized (p.69) his new home, but he would be forced to change lodging every semester (p.62). Pnin also spends a summer teaching in Washington (p.69).He only appears to find himself at home when he is surrounded by fellow Russians “only another Russian could understand” (p.71) and feels comfortable chatting with his friend Chateau “of pure Russian lineage” (p.125). The library is another of the very few places in which Pnin feels at home since it is “intimately and securely connected to Pnin’s heart” (p.72). Furthermore, Pnin teaches Russian literature in the German department with Dr. Hagen (p.139), and there is also indication that he is teaching Russian at the wrong university since there is only one student of Russian (p.9).

As previously stated, HH is, much like Pnin, of mixed descent. His generic European identity perhaps helps him be a better fit in the American society than Timofey Pnin, since HH has after all never left the West. HH attended an English day school in France and mentions frequent trips to Italy which he remembers fondly (p.11). HH’s travels do not seem forced like Pnin’s do, and the reader gets the impression that HH only seems out of place when he is “forced” to stay in the same place because of his feelings towards Lolita. Indeed, it is his pedophilia and perverse thoughts which make him seem out of place, not his identity as an immigrant. When HH recalls his childhood memories, he remembers that his father “taught him everything about sex” (p.11). This detail stands out of an otherwise typical description of someone’s youth. HH, like Pnin, is always moving, although in a much more casual fashion. For instance, he mentions that “we passed and we passed through the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants” (p.155). Here, the word choice indicates that his travels in America were positive.

Was Nabokov More Pninian or Humbertian?

Lolita (1955) and Pnin (1957) were almost published at the same time, and it appears that Pnin and HH both show a different side of Vladimir Nabokov’s identity as a foreigner. In interviews, Nabokov is at times very Pninian, whereas in other instances he sounds more like HH. When Nabokov speaks in French[3]or English[4] his slight charming accent does not make his audience uncomfortable. In his famous Playboy interview, Nabokov refers to himself as a “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library” (Toffler, 2018). In this sense, Nabokov is more Humbertian than Pninian. In an interview conducted by one of his former Cornell students, Nabokov mentions that he remembers the “pang” of switching from being a Russian writer to an American writer (Appel Jr., 1967), which is similar to HH saying that he remembers how hard it was for him to learn Lolita’s language (p.149). He also mentions having traveled extensively much like HH and Pnin (Toffler, 2018).

Nonetheless, Nabokov also has a Pninian side. Nabokov says that he never permanently settled anywhere in America because “nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me” (Toffler, 2018). He also mentions that he was an American writer while living in Switzerland, and wrote Russian language poems in Berlin and New York, all of which indicates that he always was “out of place” like Pnin. He had to invent America after having spent his entire life inventing Russia (Toffler, 2018). Nabokov also spoke of his aversion to groups (Appel Jr., 1967) hence hinting at the fact that he is a non-conformist like Pnin. Nabokov also fondly remembers his ability to access magnificent libraries (Appel Jr, 1967), one of the few places where Pnin felt at home, a positive memory of his time as a university professor. To conclude, both Pnin and HH show facets of Nabokov’s peculiar identity as a Russian émigré writing American novels. In interviews, he sometimes characterized himself as perfectly fitting the American mold despite his background (like HH) whereas at other times he speaks of his permanent otherness (like Pnin).

Works Cited

Appel Jr., Alfred. “An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Spring 1967, 127-52. Accessed April 12, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1207097.pdf. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. NY, NY: Vintage Books, 1989. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Penguin Books, 2015. Renaud, Maxime. Postmodern humor in Lolita, March 24th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/topics/143485/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 Roger, Anais. HH kills Quilty, March 25th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/threads/551052/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 Toivo, Wilhelmiina. “Bad Language: Why Being Bilingual Makes Swearing Easier.” The Guardian, March 27, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/mar/27/bad-language-why-being-bilingual-makes-swearing-easier. Toffler, Alvin. “Playboy Interview: Vladimir Nabokov.” Playboy, January 1964. Accessed April 12, 2018. http://reprints.longform.org/playboy-interview-vladimir-nabokov. [1] Maxime Renaud, Postmodern humor in Lolita, March 24th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/topics/143485/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 [2] Anais Roger, HH kills Quilty, March 25th 2018 https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/304926/discussions/threads/551052/View Last consulted on April 11th 2018 [3] Please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpjTgHMUbAk [4] Please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8171K40pJho&t=853s

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