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Recent scholarship on Vladimir Nabokov has increasingly drawn connections between his literary works and his scientific interests, first and foremost his thinking on insect mimicry. While this approach to Nabokov’s writing has been productive for several of his novels, mimicry has so far not been considered in relation to Pnin. This article argues that we should understand imitation as one of the novel’s core thematic and aesthetic concerns. Approaching the novel as preoccupied with issues of imitation allows us to see not only how Pnin reframes the immigrant narrative as one of imperfect performance of Americanness but also how it connects the issue of assimilation to larger questions of the aesthetic and ethic education of readers.

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1Although Brian Boyd claims that “it would be perfectly possible to read a thousand pages of [Nabokov’s] best fiction... and another five hundred pages of his short stories and not even realize he was a lepidopterist” (87), more recent scholarship by, among others, Dieter Zimmer or Stephen Blackwell has revised this assumption, showing the interconnectedness of Nabokov’s literary works with the author’s scientific interests. In his magisterial book on the influence of science on Nabokov’s writing, Blackwell, for example, points out that, “[f]or Nabokov, aesthetic pleasure and scientific pleasure are inseparable” (3, emphasis in the original). Nowhere is this more straightforward than in Nabokov’s interest in insect mimicry, which is “the most renowned—or notorious—part of Nabokov’s thought about nature” (Blackwell 38). Mimicry, Blackwell argues, “appears in all artistic works in some way” (87), that is, both as a thematic interest and as a literary device. As has been pointed out repeatedly, Nabokov understands mimicry—insects imitating other species or plants usually as a strategy for survival—in relation to artistic practice (see, for example, Alexandrov 17). In fact, Nabokov himself creates an explicit link between mimicry in nature and art, observing that he “discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that [he] sought in art,” both of which he considers “a game of intricate enchantment and deception” (Speak, Memory 125).

2While the role of mimicry has been explored before in relation to several of Nabokov’s novels such as The Gift, Lolita, Despair, or Ada, it has yet to be examined in its relation to, in Robert Alter’s words, “the one Nabokov novel liked by people who dislike Nabokov” (124)—Pnin. This article suggests that reading Pnin by way of Nabokov’s interest in mimicry and its relation to what Daniel Aureliano Newman has recently called Nabokov’s “aesthetics and ethics of attention” (55) allows us to understand imitation as a central thematic and aesthetic concern of the novel. In so doing, I suggest that imitation is another one of the novel’s famed “thematic lines” undergoing an “organic transformation,” on which, as Gennady Barabtarlo has most influentially argued, the logic of Pnin as a novel rests (“Pnin” 600). In this, this article aims to bring together two paradigmatic strands in the criticism of the novel, namely, on the one hand, the understanding that Pnin is a novel where a deceptively straightforward narrative covers up an intricate pattern of motifs and themes and, on the other hand, a growing interest in approaching the more direct thematic concerns of the novel such as its treatment of exile and immigration.

3Understanding Pnin as centrally concerned with questions of imitation, I argue, allows us to see that, in so far as Pnin dramatizes the experience of Eastern European émigrés as a theme, it does so by focusing on the more particular concern of adapting to and performing postwar notions of Americanness instead of narrating a culture clash between an immigrant figure and the US, as has been argued in the past. That is, the experience of Eastern European immigration to postwar America is dramatized as an issue of imitation or mimicry, and more specifically an imperfect version of these. Conceptualizing Pnin’s humor as trading on flawed imitation instead of unassimilated alterity, I posit, allows us to situate Timofey Pnin’s imperfect performance of Americanness in the novel’s larger preoccupation with an aesthetic education based on small differences. As I will show, mimicry, for Nabokov, is, among other things, connected to a form of imitative performance that emphasizes both a wondrous and surprising similarity while simultaneously asking the attentive observer to notice particularities and difference. It is thus based on a dialectic of similarity and difference that Nabokov relates to aesthetic bliss more generally. For this, I will begin by briefly discussing Nabokov’s notion of mimicry. I will, then, analyze Pnin’s humorous blunders as rooted in his imperfect imitation of Americanness, before finally turning to the wider use of imitation and mimicry as thematic and aesthetic concerns in the novel and their relation to a need for an aesthetic education attuned to small yet significant differences.

1. Mimicry and Imitation in Nabokov’s Poetics

4In his autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov famously described mimicry as “a game of intricate enchantment and deception” (125). Subsquent scholarship on the relationship between mimicry and Nabokov’s oeuvre, however, has predominately understood the author’s interest in mimicry in terms of “deception” or “disguise,” thereby de-emphasizing the element of enchantment and instead picking up on only the latter part of Nabokov’s description. Blackwell, for instance, suggests that Nabokov’s interest in the phenomenon is in mimicry “as the prime example of nature’s most persistent feature: deception” (87), a point Blackwell supports by pointing out Nabokov’s use of “artistic analogue[s] of biological concealment” (88). In a similar vein, Jeffrey Meyers argues that we see Nabokov’s fascination with mimicry play out in Lolita in the fact that the characters in the novel “adopt masks and mirrors, personae and pretense, imitation and illusion to disguise and deceive” (159). Concealment and protection even remain the main point of focus in Johnson and Coates’ helpful reminder that Nabokov has a very broad understanding of mimicry, using the term “to describe an incredibly diverse range of imitative survival strategies in nature” (324). Thus, although most critics touch on Nabokov’s emphasis of “the ‘aimlessness’ of accomplishment” of mimicry that evokes “the ‘aimlessness’ of pure art” (“Father’s Butterflies” 223), the element of “enchantment” that Nabokov also attributes to mimicry—which strikingly echoes Nabokov’s definition of aesthetic bliss in his afterword to Lolita as also containing kindness and curiosity—often remains implicit in the discussion of Nabokov’s use of mimicry.

5While proving productive for a number of Nabokov’s text, narrowing down Nabokov’s interest in mimicry to the question of “disguise and deception” may obfuscate how mimicry functions in other works by the author. Victoria Alexander, for instance, observes that Nabokov’s argument regarding the superfluousness of mimicry, which he sketches in his nonfiction writing and as part of The Gift, hinges “on the ‘excess’ of pattern” (183), thus foregrounding the gratuity of the phenomenon and suggesting an affinity to the ornamental. Blackwell similarly lists a surprisingly wide range of features of Nabokov’s poetics that can be traced back to his interest in mimicry, such as “intertextual or cultural echoes” (88), but also experiments with narrative perspective, genre, and his satirizing of “various types of literary models” (89). Taken together, these show that “[m]imicry represents for Nabokov the natural equivalent of human artistic practice: the reproduction of existing forms or their transposition into a new context” (87). As Vladimir Alexandrov succinctly puts it, Nabokov “redefines the terms nature and artifice into synonyms of each other” (Nabokov’s Otherworld 17, emphasis in the original).

6Strikingly, where scholarly discussions surrounding Nabokov’s understanding of mimicry touch on these questions—i.e., its relation to artifice and aesthetics—they tend to solely focus on the implication or suggestion of a “master creator” (see, for example, Zimmer 49 or Wood 190-91), a reading perhaps unsurprising given Nabokov’s well-documented striving for full authorial control. However, it is worth pointing out that Nabokov’s assertions such as that mimicry in nature is sometimes “carried to a point of subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation(Speak, Memory 125, emphasis mine) can also be read with a slightly differing emphasis, namely, that they gesture toward an (implied) audience and, hence, in turn, performance. Similarly, when Nabokov points out that he “discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that [he] sought in art” (125), the emphasis again rests on the audience that experiences this delight. For the purposes of this article, I therefore want to highlight two additional concerns often overlooked in the scholarship when it comes to Nabokov’s treatment of mimicry which I suggest are especially helpful for our understanding of Pnin and its negotiation of issues of imitation: mimicry’s connection to performance and theatricality, on the one hand, and relatedly to flaw, aberration, or imperfection, on the other. Together, I argue, they enable us to understand better how imitation works in the novel and how this themes inflects Nabokov’s treatment of the immigrant narrative.

7Mimicry’s connection to theatricality can be traced both in Nabokov’s own writing and in that of some of the writers who influenced his thinking on the topic. In Speak, Memory, for example, Nabokov asks his readers to “[c]onsider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar... which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers)” (124, emphasis in the original). Nabokov’s use of metaphorical language here is interesting insofar as it highlights mimicry’s relation to theatricality and performance by explicitly linking the insect involved in mimicry to an actor. This connection between theatricality and natural mimicry in Nabokov’s thinking may have come from the influence of, among others, the Russian playwright Nikolai Evreinov. Evreinov, Alexandrov points out, “refers to mimicry among butterflies as further proof for his claim that theater exists in nature,” calling the phenomenon “a special stage of theatrical development as well” (“Nabokov” 403).

8But understanding mimicry in relation to theatricality, I suggest, allows us to see yet another connected element, namely the role of imperfection or subtle difference. Mimicry, crucially, reinforces both similarity and difference. Looking at the mimic, we see the resemblance between the mimic and that which is being mimicked, but we also leave with an increased awareness of the mimic being only an imitator, an “imposter” and not the thing itself. Would we not, we would not have detected the mimicry in the first place. In other words, part of the “delight” Nabokov speaks of is the delight in detecting both difference and similarity. In so doing, mimicry shares with theatricality its “iconic identity,” that is, “its capacity to let the real and the imaginary physically coincide in the same space,” allowing “the young man on stage [to be] present as both an actor and a Danish prince tying to avenge his murdered father” (Frank 4). As Siggie Frank has suggested, theater and theatricality are of interest to Nabokov especially in the context of the medium’s characteristic “gap between something present and its representation” (4). “Flaw” in that sense does not simply result in “bad” mimicry but becomes the basis for our capacity to recognize the phenomenon as such, highlighting the interdependence of imperfection and beauty. We see a similar notion, for instance, in Nabokov’s short story “The Vane Sisters,” written in 1951 and published in 1959 and thus coinciding with the publication of Pnin, where we meet “an eccentric librarian called Porlock,” who spends his time “examining old books for miraculous misprints” (“The Vane Sisters” 498). But instead of doing this “for the thrills of obscure predictions,” Porlock is only interested in “the freak itself, the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower” (“The Vane Sisters” 498). In the following I therefore want to trace some of the thematic lines and “organic transformations” that create coherence in Pnin if we approach the novel generally and Pnin as a character specifically as one of (imperfect) mimicry.

2. Imitating Americanness and the Performance of Citizenship

9The perhaps most charming description of Pnin as a character is provided by Charles Nicol, who calls Pnin “a penguin out of water, a man who had the world pulled out from under him” (197). What makes this description so apt is that Nicol succeeds in conjuring up a single image capturing both sides of Pnin the reader gets to experience throughout the course of the novel. One the one hand, we have Pnin the bumbling clown who constantly struggles with his surroundings, “unpredictable America” (Nabokov, Pnin 6), in a series of episodes lifted seemingly straight from a screwball comedy. On the other hand, when Pnin is finally among other Russian emigrants toward the middle of the novel, he is magically transformed into “a terrifically mobile, scampering, mute, sly-visaged hunchback” (113). Like a penguin finally returned to water, the reader gets to experience the elegance of a creature otherwise at best merely waddling along.

10The implications of this metaphor, however, warrant unpacking. Nicol, here, suggests that what makes Pnin appear “pathetically comic” (197) is effectively caused by a mismatch of character and setting: returned to his “natural habitat,’ i.e., being among other Russians, Pnin appears a normal man, even sophisticated and nimble. The root of Pnin’s mishaps, then, seems to be Pnin’s essential Russianness, given that clashes of culture happen when Pnin interacts with “America” and do not when he interacts with Russians. In short, Pnin appears funny because he fails to adapt to life in the US. Nicol is far from being the only critic who locates the source of Pnin’s peculiarity and comic, clown-like failings in the protagonist being stuck in his Russian ways. Pnin is repeatedly described as, to give just one example among many, “uncorruptedly Russophone” with “a constitutional incapacity for linguistic and cultural compromise” (Besemeres 405), thus becoming, pars pro toto, the personified struggle of the (Russian) exiled emigrant in the US.

11This is unsurprising perhaps given that it is, in fact, the narrator of the novel who implies as much as early as the novel’s opening episode, which marks the beginning of what will be a long series of mishaps and minor tragedies. Describing Pnin’s train ride to Cremona to give a public lecture, the narrator underscores that Pnin, “like so many Russians, was inordinately fond of everything in the line of timetables, maps, catalogues, collected them, helped himself freely to them with the bracing pleasure of getting something for nothing, and took a special pride in puzzling out schedules for himself” (2). This introduction to the protagonist is striking not simply because it explicitly characterizes Pnin as Russian vis-à-vis a shared fondness for “puzzling out schedules” on his own. In addition, it also links Pnin’s Russianness and his subsequent mishap, as Pnin’s affinity for working out the schedule himself is almost immediately juxtaposed with the fact that—unbeknownst to Pnin at the time—“his timetable was five years old and in part obsolete” (2). That is, Pnin here is not only marked as Russian but also as stuck in the past by association. Seen from this perspective, Pnin appears to be an “old world” transplant in the dual sense of the word, both irredeemably Russian and utterly outdated.

12The narrator is not the only one characterizing Pnin in this way. Indeed, we repeatedly see characters in the novel portraying or reacting to Pnin in similar ways. The marking of Pnin as both foreign and antiquated is underlined again, for instance, only a few pages later when the reader learns that Dr Hagen, Pnin’s “staunch protector” at Waindell College, advertises Pnin’s “disarming, old-fashioned charm... before morose trustees” as “a delicate imported article worthy paying for in domestic cash” (4, emphasis mine). Juxtaposing the domestic and the foreign, Pnin appears here again as an exotic item in the curiosity cabinet of a postwar college whose value is closer to that of a collector’s item than an intellectual asset for the college in his function as a professor of Russian language and literature. It could be objected here that Hagen is merely—and quite literally—selling Pnin to a philistine board of trustees and his words therefore are not indicative of a wider sentiment. However, similar portrayals of Pnin as both antiquated and Russian are repeated in other episodes as well. Students explain their misunderstanding of Pnin’s jokes to themselves as caused by the jokes being his “Russian humor” (5) and Pnin is said to “perform a number of... tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves” (6). While his colleagues consider him a type that exists at most colleges—“we even have a Professor Pnin on our staff” (28), says Professor Entwistle—he is also again marked as outdated: toward the end of the novel, Hagen exclaims “[t]he world wants a machine, not a Timofey” (141), juxtaposing Pnin and modern American life once more.

13Here it is helpful to recall an aside made by Savelii Senderovich and Yelena Shvarts, in which they point out that although the novel “looks like the typical émigré typecast of soap opera, it is subtly different” given the fact that “Pnin, for instance, is not monolingual” but “has an excellent command of French” (28). Senderovich and Shvarts are surely right in highlighting that the tragicomedy of Pnin is furthered by this, with the novel turning Pnin’s ability in French into an effective disadvantage by making it the reason why the French department and its head, Blorenge, do not want to hire him after he is made redundant. However, this article’s contention is that in addition to this underscoring of the novel’s tragicomedy, this “subtle” difference between Pnin and the “typical émigré soap opera” hinges on issues of imitation. In other words, Pnin’s status as a tragicomic character is not rooted in his essential, unchanging Russianness—as much as this is implied by the unreliable narrator of the novel and surmised by a variety of characters—but in his attempts and failings at adaption and imitation of his new home. After all, in this very conversation between Blorenge and Hagen touching on Pnin’s fluency in French, Pnin’s (in)ability to adapt, that is, to do as others, is exactly the point of contention: “‘I repeat, he can adapt himself,’ hedged Hagen. ‘I know what adaptation means,’ said Blorenge” (124). Blorenge does not doubt that Pnin will adapt but worries that and how he will do so.

14Circling back to the opening of the novel, we can now observe on closer inspection that issues of adaptation to the US and imitations of Americanness inform the comedy of Pnin as a character from the very beginning. Here, the narrator, in a manner reminiscent of nineteenth-century realism, describes in great detail the appearance of a character against the backdrop of their surroundings—in this case, Timofey Pnin. Cataloging seemingly every aspect of Pnin’s outer appearance from his “great brown dome” to his “frail-looking, almost feminine feet” (1), both Pnin’s body and sense of dress is dissected. Under the uncharitable gaze of the narrator, Pnin is portrayed like the typical cast of a circus freak show. He not only possesses a “strong-man torso,” but he is also described as half human, half animal, and half man, half woman. Pnin’s grotesque body is further made strange in the following paragraph focusing on his clothes, describing him as clad in “sloppy socks... of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges; ... black Oxfords [and a] flamboyant goon tie” (1), again echoing color schemes more usually associated with the circus.

15Yet, in the subsequent paragraph, we learn that this comic getup seems to be the direct result of Pnin’s attempts at Americanizing himself instead of a leftover of his European (or Russian) days, a fact already foreshadowed in the early description of Pnin’s “sun-tanned and clean-shaven” (1) face. As the narrator points out, Pnin’s style was vastly different before coming to the US, when “he had always worn long underwear, its terminals tucked into the top of neat silk socks, which were clocked, soberly coloured, and help up on his cotton-clad calves by garters” (1). Pnin is thus introduced as someone who seems to have gotten the gist of some cultural differences right—such as Americans dressing more casually—but his imitation of Americanness takes all of these things to a funny extreme, marking it as slightly off the mark. Instead of casual, he seems sloppy; instead of colorful and modern, he seems flamboyant, and he still has not gotten rid of his conservative Oxford leather shoes that stand in stark contrast to his seemingly relaxed sun-tanned face. He does, however, already own “a pair of rubber-soled canvas shoes” (31), which he immediately ruins by way of his new favorite American technology: the washing machine. In a similar manner, at a later point, Pnin attracts laughter from his colleagues by inviting them to his “house-heating soirée” (131), meaning, of course, a housewarming party. Pnin’s linguistic blunder, here, however, emphatically does not stem from a translated Russian saying appearing out of place in his Anglophone environment but from his attempt at sounding especially idiomatic.

16We see Pnin mimicking Americanisms and worrying about doing things “the American way” all throughout the novel. He repeatedly informs people that he is, in fact, an American citizen (18, 25, 60) and even uses “a precious wallet” for “his certificate of naturalization” (9), which he carries around in his coat. Pnin is not only eager to emphasize his status as an American citizen, but he also attempts to perform Americanness. Since living in the US, for example, he “was crazy about sunbathing, wore sport shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare shin” (2). He is “correct[ing] Komarov’s frequent English interpolations” based on “a slightly longer stage of American citizenship” (60) and orders “veal cutlet” as “a concession to America” (89). When finally managing to learn to drive a car to visit his friends in the countryside, one of these friends welcomes him by calling Pnin “a veritable American” and “veritable Eisenhower” for being able to drive (105), underlining his successful adaption to the American way. Although here, again, Pnin, not quite yet reformed to Dewey-like hands-on learning, learns to drive by studying the Driver’s Manual and reading “the article on ‘Automobile’ in the Encyclopedia Americana” (97), and the successful drive ends in Pnin “kill[ing] the motor” (105). The final image of the novel, then, again takes up Pnin’s stumbles towards Americanness by having him exit the novel driving his small car with a dog at his side (169), an exit that mimics the famous final scenes of many Western and road movies. But instead of driving westward into the sunset, the novel ends with Pnin driving to the east, getting it, one last time, not quite right, but almost.

17It is important to note here that in the case of Pnin’s linguistic “blunders” as well as his more general portrayal in the novel, we need to keep in mind the novel’s complex and convoluted narrative situation. It is, for instance, likely that we should take Pnin as joking in some of these situations—being, after all, a proud “punster” (131) and shown repeatedly as funny, although also confessing that he “cannot understand American humour even when [he is] happy” (50). More importantly, however, we as readers only get access to Pnin in the most mediated of ways: not only do we deal with a highly unreliable narrator but one of the narrator’s sources for information on Pnin, Jack Cockerell, is both unreliable and has made a sport out of mocking the protagonist. While discussing the issue of reliability in the novel would be an article in its own right—and has been done repeatedly—it is worth noting that, in contrast to many assertions by the narrator, Pnin’s attempts at doing things “po amerikanski (the American way)” (24) is not rejected by Pnin as part of the narrator’s “dreadful invent[ions]” (163) but is, on the contrary, consistent with Pnin’s self-image. If anything, Pnin appears quite convinced that he can pass if not now then soon, having perfected his imitation of Americanness. We see this reinforced, for example, when Pnin appears again in Pale Fire where he is characterized as “a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt” (221), thus still invested in his performance of Americanness. It is precisely in this gap between Pnin’s legal status as American citizen and his imperfect imitation of American self-fashioning that the humor (and some of the tragedy) of the novel arises so that when Pnin claims that “[i]n two-three years... [he] will also be taken for an American,” the reply is, of course, “everybody roar[ing]” with laughter (27-28).

18The most poignant of these attempts at Americanizing himself is surely his decision to have all his teeth pulled out. Previously, Pnin is described as having an “incomplete but formidable set of tawny teeth” (5). However, early in the novel, this European set of teeth is causing headaches and thus needs to go, being replaced by “a firm mouthful of efficient, alabastrine, humane America” (29). This scene has been read by previous scholars as representing a step Pnin takes to better adapt to the US, especially given the fact that he previously struggles specifically in the realm of language. Ambrose Gordon thus quite fittingly calls this an attempt of Pnin at building a “dental bridge to a new world” (150). In the only article-length treatment of this scene, Dante Cantrill even goes a step further, arguing that “[t]he incident with the teeth, rather than being just another account of Pnin’s problems, is actually the first in the series of successful adjustments that mark his transformation from buffoon to respectable character” (39). Yet, as already mentioned, Pnin’s successful escape at the end of the novel is still marked by the same comedy of errors as his earlier imitation of Americanness, casting doubt on the straightforward success story Cantrill suggests.

19In contrast, Pnin’s new teeth arguably further draw attention to the performative quality of Pnin’s Americanness as well as the painful underbelly of this Americanness. First, the performative quality of Pnin’s Americanization is highlighted in the metaphorical language used to describe the results: the teeth are a “new amphitheatre of translucid plastics implying, as it were, a stage and a performance” (Pnin 30). They are—fittingly—removable and to be stored at night “in a special glass of special fluid where it smile[s] to itself,” a description not only pointing to the continuing separateness of Pnin and his newly acquired Americanness but also existing again as a detachable symbol of postwar Americanness, the big smile of a set of immaculate teeth. The whiteness of American teeth in contrast to Pnin’s original tawny teeth does not just echo earlier instances of the narrator’s racializing of Pnin but also, crucially, suggests both artificiality and performance with the teeth being closer to yet another American piece of technology that Pnin is enamored by but cannot fully control. Seeing himself being fitted with his new teeth, Pnin appears to himself as “a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger” (29), both perfected in the eyes of his new home and utterly strange to himself.

20More importantly, however, reading Pnin’s new teeth as a sign of his successful transformation into a “true” American all too easily papers over the pain contained in the scene. Having undergone what he describes as “a repulsive operation” (25) and an “ordeal” (29), Pnin emerges from the operation feeling “[a] warm flow of pain [that] was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth” (29). Describing the pulling of Pnin’s teeth with vocabulary conjuring up pain and murder, Pnin is left “in mourning for an intimate part of himself,” now missing the “battered but still secure kingdom” of his former teeth: “but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate” (29). Although Cantrell is correct that Pnin eventually emerges in his own words “a reformed man” (Nabokov, Pnin 30), the novel spells out the tremendous cost at which this reform happens, while Pnin’s other assertations of being now fully American are ridiculed often enough for the reader to be wary if this holds true in this case after all. It is worth noting here that by focusing on the painful price Pnin pays for remodeling himself in the image of a new American Adam, his body also is quite literally Americanized by being turned into “a terra incognita,” becoming himself a small footnote in the long history of pain in terms of which Pnin understands the history of man (148).

3. Imitation and Miraculous Mimicry in Pnin

21Besides marking one of the many instances in Pnin where the comic makes way for the tragic, Pnin’s new teeth are also an example of how the novel engages with the issue of imitation in a broader sense—namely as moments of aesthetic bliss. In his already quoted article, Dante Cantrill underlines that we would be amiss to take Pnin’s teeth as a symbol, instead “[t]hey are what they say they are: real false teeth” (40). As such, they are one instance among many in the novel of the previously mentioned “iconic identity” inscribed in all imitations, as we simultaneously see what they mimic—real teeth—and what they are—fake teeth—combined in one thing: real fake teeth. In fact, Pnin is full of what the narrator calls at one point “those random likenesses” in life (98). These “random likenesses” in Pnin appear in different shapes and forms but overall tend to fall into the category of interesting, comical, or otherwise pleasant surprises revealed to those who stop and pay attention to such micro-scale miracles. While grinning white teeth in the night without a human body attached to them may, at first, seem the stuff of nightmares—recall, for example, the excessively white teeth in Poe’s “Berenice”—in Pnin the dentures become a “treasure... smile[ing] to itself, pink and pearly, as perfect as some lovely representative of deep-sea flora” (29). In this way, accidental object resemblance in the novel echoes the aesthetic bliss and delight Nabokov describes in his writing about mimicry in nature more generally recounted in the first part of this article.

22One of the more striking variations of this theme is the existence of doppelgangers in the novel, another trope conventionally associated with the uncanny that instead reappears in Pnin as a source of aesthetic delight. One of the first instances is an episode in which an unknown person recalls an obscure book Pnin needs for his research. While Pnin wonders who this doppelganger who researches the same niche topic as him may be, it turns out that Pnin had, in fact, recalled the volume himself, writing down the incorrect number on the request slip (62). However, while in this instance the doppelganger turns out not to exist after all, the world of Pnin is brimming with “real fake” doubles. For example, on his way to “The Pines,” Pnin meets a man who “striking[ly]... resembled Pnin’s colleague at Waindell College, Dr Hagen” (98). Hagen, at a later point, also reminds Pnin of Eric Wind—the man for whom his wife Liza left him (142). At yet another time, a professor from another college called Entwistle tries to woo Clements—Pnin’s colleague, friend, and temporary landlord—to leave Waindell and join him at Goldwin College by promising that Goldwin “even ha[s] a Professor Pnin on our staff” (28). In fact, doubling and other “strange likenesses” happen so often in the novel that the phenomenon itself eventually becomes a self-reflective joke. As the narrator tells us, “Pnin and [he] had long since accepted the disturbing but seldom discussed fact that on any given college staff one could find not only a person who was uncommonly like one’s dentist or the local postmaster, but also a person, who had a twin within the same professional group” (129). But while the narrator calls these likenesses “disturbing,” more generally the connotation of these in the novel is delight.

23Chief among the connoisseurs of these moments of miraculous mimicry is our very own Timofey Pnin: “[S]ometime during his ninth year at Waindell” (129), Pnin realizes that “the person whom Pnin knew as Professor Thomas Wynn, Head of the Ornithology Department... was not always Professor Wynn” but somebody else entirely—a person “Pnin did not know by name but whom he classified, with a bright foreigner’s fondness for puns as ‘Twynn’” (130)—note here the language lifted from taxonomy with Pnin categorizing people like a lepidopterist does butterflies. Like other jokes in the novel, this instance of accidental mimicry becomes an extended punchline, whereby Pnin repeatedly tries and fails—or at least acts like he fails—at telling the two apart, a situation climaxing in Pnin inviting the wrong “Twynn” to his party without ever noticing his mistake. The doubling of Professor Thomas Wynn and his “Twynn” is underscored further by the fact that the “Twynn” is a Professor of Anthropology called Tristram W. Thomas. The twins’ names therefore function almost like a chiasmus. As Gennady Barabtarlo points out, this is already suggested earlier when the narrator mentions the inclusion of Ornithology and Anthropology in the same building (Phantom 232), thus foreshadowing a certain interchangeability of the two.

24One of the more surprising connections drawn between these likenesses and other elements in Pnin is the connection to wordplay, such as punning and rhyming. In fact, human doppelgangers and punning are even linked twice. This connection is, first, made implicitly by Pnin himself when using a pun to describe the similarity between Professor Wynn and Professor Thomas and is made explicitly a second time by the narrator who describes “those random likenesses” between people as “as pointless as a bad pun” (98). We see this idea come up in other parts of Nabokov’s oeuvre as well. Konstantin Kirillovich in Nabokov’s last Russian novel The Gift, for example, calls the phenomenon of insect mimicry nature’s “rhymes” and “family jokes” (qtd. in Blackwell, Quill 17). It thus seems that for Nabokov doubling, imitation, (natural) mimicry, and different kinds of wordplay all belong to a broad category of “strange” but wondrous likenesses that pervade as an aesthetic principle not just Pnin but Nabokov’s wider oeuvre.

25Strikingly, these instances of delightful wondrous accidental mimicry are juxtaposed in the novel with intentional but false doubles. While this idea of fraudulent “simulators” appears as a lighthearted joke in the context of the professorial “Twynns” (130), we see a more serious version of this theme in all kinds of people “mimicking droll Pnin” (60) to make fun of him. The most egregious of these is of course Jack Cockerell of the English department, the collaborator of narrator V. and long-time imitator of Timofey Pnin. Whereas the reader knows early on that Cockerell is “considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest mimics of Pnin on the campus” (27), part of the novel’s big reveal of the narrator as, in fact, part of the storyworld and at least having ulterior motives if not even being outright unreliable is that V. most likely received at least some of his information and anecdotes about Pnin from Cockerell’s mimicry. After finally arriving at Waindell in the last chapter of the novel, the narrator is welcomed by the Cockerells with Jack Cockerell having “acquired an unmistakable resemblance to the man he had now been mimicking for almost ten years” (165). It is noteworthy, however, that while the narrator thinks that “Cockerell impersonated Pnin to perfection” (165), it is easily noticeable for the reader at this point to see how far Cockerell’s mimicry strays from the original. Similarly to Russian observers who could not fail to notice how ludicrous the Komarovs form of self-mimicry by performing “stale Russianisms” (59) for their American friends is, so the reader ought to be highly alert to Cockerell’s distortions of Pnin’s habits and manners. All of these examples are, then, repeatedly marked as only seeming the same for the inattentive observer but revealing themselves as (bad) imitation upon closer inspection.

26As Catriona Kelly comments, we also see a similar relationship between the narrator and Pnin, who “are an ‘authentic/inauthentic’ doubled pair, a bad pun rather like the unwanted ‘ball of football’ and the treasured ‘bowl’ that are the aborted and welcomed gifts at the centre of Pnin and Victor’s friendship” (127). Importantly, however, Kelly notes that conceptualizing these instances of doubling as “polarization” or “oppositions” (127) most likely falls short of the text’s “demand [for] a more scrupulous, individual and discriminating (snobistskoe in the positive sense) interpretation” (127). Instead, she suggests paying attention to the extent in which Pnin also engages its readers in an aesthetic education, an education which is based on, to quote from Victor’s own aesthetic education in the novel, “learn[ing] to see—the colours of shadows, the difference in tint between the shadow of an orange and that of a plum or of an avocado pear” (Nabokov, Pnin 76). In other words, both in the instances of surprising resemblance between unrelated people, species, things, or words and in the cases of resemblance that, on closer inspection, turn out to be merely “simulations,” imitation in Pnin tends to call for a more wondrous attention to surprising similarities and small differences, or “flaws,” in the mimicry in the world surrounding us—which I have suggested is one of the core attributes of mimicry for Nabokov in the context of Pnin.

27I want to conclude by only briefly touching on this wider reaching (aesthetic) education that is embedded in the theme of imitation in the novel. As I have shown in this article, Pnin’s negotiation of imitation and mimicry intersects with Nabokov’s larger aesthetic project as grounded in the ability of readers to tell apart small differences and to appreciate coincidental similarities. As Newman has argued in relation to Lolita, one of Nabokov’s aesthetic and “moral imperatives is thou shalt not lump,” highlighting Nabokov’s repeated use of literary devices such as unreliability as “a constitutive aspect of his fictional world-building that bridges his aesthetics and ethics of attention with his scientific theories on vision and classification” (55, emphasis in the original). We see very similar concerns play out in the context of Pnin, a novel that not only shares with Lolita a structure based on two competing narratives by a narrator and a protagonist but also a larger concern with the reader’s ability to tell apart small differences—a constitutive element of Nabokov’s understanding of mimicry, as I have suggested in this article. Approaching mimicry as a phenomenon based on the play of similarity and difference, Pnin’s preoccupation with imitation connects to what Gennady Barabtarlo has called the novel’s “motif of aberration, of a slight but insuperable incongruity between things perceived and things reflected” (“Pnin” 602), allowing us to see Pnin’s imperfect imitation of Americanness as more than the tragicomic story of a Russian émigré or a simple failure to “pass” but, instead, as a part of the novel’s larger concern regarding aesthetics and artifice, copies and the real.

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Electronic reference

Annika M. Schadewaldt, Imitation, Mimicry, and the Performance of Americanness in Nabokov’s PninEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-4 | 2023, Online since 07 November 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Annika M. Schadewaldt

Annika M. Schadewaldt teaches and researches at the Institute for American Studies at Leipzig University, where she is also currently working on a PhD project in the field of post-45 American literature. Her research interests lie in the field of 20th century literature, the theory and history of the novel, and new approaches to aesthetics, especially literary style.

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