Nabokov's Pnin: A Creative "Revision" of Evgenij Onegin

Kirsten Rutsala, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Numerous critics have noted that Pale Fire in a sense grew out of commentary on Evgenij Onegin: the writer's own meticulous scholarly research becomes imaginatively transformed into Kinbote's wild appropriation of Shade's poem. Less directly, one may discover intriguing connections between Evgenij Onegin and Pnin. Nabokov wrote Pnin during the years 1945-55, or roughly midway through his work on Pushkin.

It is not unreasonable to suggest, therefore, that Pushkin's novel in verse was never far from Nabokov's thoughts during the composition of Pnin and may have informed this process to a significant degree.

The intricate narrative stance in Pnin certainly echoes that of Evgenij Onegin. In both novels, the narrators bear more than a passing resemblance to their respective authors. The narrator of Evgenij Onegin has written Pushkin's poems, experienced exile like him, and has the same circle of friends. Similarly, the narrator of Pnin was born in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1899, becomes a well known Anglo Russian writer, and has a passion for lepidoptera, all traits shared by Nabokov. The narrators cannot be strictly identified with their creators, however, since they also function as fictional characters, both of whom claim close friendships with the novels' main characters. As one delves further, the narrative structure appears still more complex and even paradoxical: despite their apparently fictional status, the narrators at times become standard omnniscient narrators with access to the inner lives of the other characters. The paradox of this dual (or triple) position remains implicit in Evgenij Onegin but becomes explicit in Pnin.

While Pushkin's narrator appears frequently, pausing the action to indulge in numerous digressions, the narrator of Pnin stays off stage throughout much of novel. He reveals himself fully only in the final chapter, a move which causes the reader to re-assess all that has gone before. Of course, we acknowledge the character Pnin to be a product of Nabokov's imagination. However, he turns out to be a figure invented by the narrator as well, based on a slight acquaintance with the "real" Pnin. Nabokov thus forces us to re examine our basic assumptions about the literary conventions of narrative. What makes this particularly intriguing is that Evgenij Onegin is also concerned with the tension between fiction and the reader's knowledge of an author behind the text. Nabokov revisits the territory Pushkin explores and takes the problem one step further by creating "an unreliable first person omniscient narrator", to borrow Lucy Maddox's formulation (Nabokov's Novels in English).

In this paper I will explore Pnin as a creative revision of Evgenij Onegin; in other words, Nabokov's novel is a re examination and extension of some of the same issues found in Pushkin's novel. In addition to a thorough examination of the role of the narrator, I will analyze Pnin as, in some sense, an inversion of Evgenij Onegin with a post-modern sensibility. Thus, the innocent Pnin who remains faithful to his one true love may be seen as a version of Tat'jana, while the cynical and thoughtless Liza is a revision of Onegin (without Onegin's change of heart). Throughout the paper I employ the technique of close textual analysis. My work is also informed by critical studies such as Robert Alter's Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self Conscious Genre.