Planes of Reality in Nabokov’s Pnin

Natalia Lechtchenko, Brown University

The aim of this paper is to examine the presence of the existential planes of reality in Nabokov’s Pnin. Reading Pnin, one gets an impression of constant movement that affects the protagonist of the novel, Professor Timofey Pnin. The transitional nature of his existence is reflected not only in the direct relocation of Pnin’s constant physical journey, but also seems to be found in his passive transference throughout the metaphysical planes of reality. Whether it can be viewed as a transition through the subplanes of his memory, or a journey back in time, I believe that this journey is a phenomenon of an almost physical displacement in reality, rather than a mere act of memory.

I would posit that Pnin’s reality is divided into planes, which in turn are subdivided into smaller sections through which Pnin drifts in a nonlinear manner. Pnin’s past, his present, the plane of the narration, and that of Jack Cockerell’s impersonations of Pnin, can be viewed as larger planes of reality. Thus, a subplane of Pnin’s life in Russia can be considered a section of the plane of his past, where it coexists with other metaphysical subplanes such as his life with Liza.

The pattern in which Pnin drifts through the planes of reality is repetitive in nature. It is connected to concrete moments of physical action, be it physical pain that Pnin experiences during the “journey between the realities,” or Nabokov’s choice of verbal expressions which are usually associated with purely physical movement. These transferences are never solely confined to Pnin’s personal experiences, so we cannot say that Pnin just submerges in the simple act of remembrance. The lack of the distinction between Pnin’s planes of reality and those of other characters (be it the narrator or someone from Pnin’s literary studies) undermines the concept of the transference being a mere fact of remembrance. Moreover, it seems that despite the fact that most of Pnin’s journeys through the planes of reality are activated by his own personal experiences, they, nevertheless, are never limited to them. Taking into consideration the aforesaid, I propose to address the problem of a metaphorical “exile” that penetrates Pnin’s existence and Nabokov’s novel.

In order to investigate the concept of planes of reality, I intend to address the problem of cognition and perception through the linguistic situation that penetrates Pnin’s existence. I would suggest that the constant split in his reality is caused by the dissimilarity of his mode of cognition from that of those around him. Thus, I would propose that Pnin moves through the planes of reality (away from the real) via a certain Pninian language (that determines his cognition) by means of perception (his memory, or the situation created for him by the author/narrator). Thus, Pnin’s inability to “materialize” in any of the planes of reality proves that the Professor’s journey represents an ambiguous melange of physical and symbolic transition that dualistically results in the comic tragedy of his existence.