The hero of the novel, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, was born in 1898 in St. Petersburg, in the family of a doctor-oculist. In 1917 his parents died of typhus. Timothy joined the White Army, where he served first as an attendant, and then in the Office of Military Intelligence. In 1919, from the Crimea, taken by the Red Army, fled to Constantinople. He graduated from the University in Prague, lived in Paris, where he started emigrating to the United States with the beginning of World War II. During the action of the novel, Pnin is an American citizen, a professor who earns his living by teaching Russian at the Weindell University.
Having come to the USA, Pnin quickly became Americanized: he, despite his age, gladly replaced the stiff European style of clothes by carelessly sporting. Pnin quite decently speaks English, but still makes funny mistakes. Add to this an extraordinary appearance and ineradicable absent-mindedness, and you will understand why he often becomes an object of ridicule, however, good-natured. Colleagues treat him like a big child.
The first chapter is at the end of September 1950. Pnin is traveling by train from Weindell to Cremona, a neighboring town. There he must give a lecture at the Ladies’ Club and earn thus fifty dollars which will be very useful to him. Pnin continuously checks to see if the text of the lecture that he is about to read is in place. In addition, he, in his usual absent-mindedness, made a mistake in the schedule and runs the risk of being late. But in the end, thanks to a lucky coincidence, Pnin arrives at the Carmona Ladies’ Club on time.
Having come face to face with the audience, Pnin seems to be lost in time. He sees himself as a fourteen-year-old boy reading Pushkin’s poem at the gymnasium evening. Pnin’s parents sit in the hall, his aunt in overhead books, his friend, shot by the reds in Odessa in 1919, his first love…
Chapter Two takes us back to 1945, when Timothy Pnin first appeared in Wyndell. He takes a room in the Clements house. Although in his life Pnin behaves like a foolish house, the owners love him. With the head of the family, Lawrence, Pnin discusses all sorts of scientific subjects. Joan maternally takes care of this ridiculous Russian, who, like a child, rejoices, looking at the work of the washing machine. And when his ex-wife should come to Pnina, Clementses delicately disappear from home for the whole day.
Lisa Bogolepova and Timofei Pnin were married in Paris in 1925. Timothy was in love, the girl needed some kind of support after an unsuccessful novel that ended for her attempted suicide. In those days Lisa studied at the medical faculty and wrote poetry, imitating Akhmatova: “I put on a modest dress, and I’m more modest nuns…” This, however, did not prevent her immediately after the wedding to change poor Pnina left and right. Coming with a psychoanalyst Eric Wind, Lisa abandoned her husband. But when the Second World War began, Lisa suddenly returned to Pnina, already pregnant in the seventh month. Together they emigrated: Pnin was happy and even prepared to become the father of a future child. However, on a steamboat going to America, it became clear that a practical Lisa and her new husband were simply using Pnina,
And this time Lisa remembers Pnina for mercenary purposes. With the psychoanalyst, she broke up, she has the following hobby. But her son Victor should go to school, and Lisa wants Pnin to send him money, and on her behalf. The kindest Pnin agrees. But, secretly hoping for a reunion, is very afflicted when Lisa, having discussed the matter, immediately leaves.
Chapter three describes the usual works and days of Timothy Pnin. He gives Russian lessons for beginners and works on the Minor History of Russian culture, carefully collecting all kinds of funny cases, absurdities, anecdotes, etc. Trepidulously referring to the book, he hurries to hand over to the library the still-needed eighteenth volume of Leo Tolstoy’s works, because In the queue for this book, someone signed up. The question of who this unknown reader, who is interested in Tolstoy in the American wilderness, takes Pnin very much. But it turns... out that the reader is himself, Timothy Pnin. The misunderstanding arose because of an error in the form.
One evening Pnin is watching a documentary Soviet film of the late 1940s at the cinema. And when real pictures of Russia come through Stalin’s propaganda, Pnin cries for the lost homeland forever.
The main event of the fourth chapter is the visit to Pnina Lizina’s son Victor. He is already fourteen years old, he is gifted to genius by the artist’s talent and has an intelligence factor of 180. In his fantasies, the boy imagined that Pnin, unknown to him, after whom his mother was married, and who teaches somewhere a mysterious Russian language, is his real father, a lone king expelled from his kingdom. In turn, Timofey Pavlovich, guided by a typical image of an American teenager, arrives for Victor to buy a soccer ball and, having already remembered his childhood, takes in the library the book of Jack London “Sea Wolf”. Victor is not interested in all this. Nevertheless, they really liked each other.
In chapter five, Pnin, who recently learned to drive a car and bought himself a shabby sedan for a hundred dollars, with some adventures gets to a manor called “Pines”. Here lives the son of a rich Moscow merchant Alexander Petrovich Kukolnikov, or in American terms, Al Cook. He is a prosperous businessman and a silent, cautious man: he is only revived from time to time after midnight, when he starts talking with his fellow countrymen about God, about Lermontov, about Freedom… Cook is married to a pretty American woman. They have no children. But their house is always hospitably opened for guests – Russian emigrants. Writers, artists, philosophers here conduct endless conversations about high matters, exchange news, etc. After one such conversation, Pnin’s vision is his first love, the beautiful Jewish girl of the World of Belochkin.
Chapter Six begins with the fall semester of 1954 at the University of Wyndell. Timofey Pnin finally decides, after thirty-five years of homeless life, to buy a house. He takes a long and careful preparation for reception in honor of the housewarming: he makes a list of guests, chooses a menu, etc. The evening was a success, Pnin learns from the president of the university that he is being fired. In frustrated feelings, the now retired professor was washing dishes after the guests and almost broke the beautiful blue cup – a gift from Victor. But the cup remains unscathed, and this instills in Pnina the hope for a better and a sense of self-confidence.
In the last chapter, the seventh, we finally face to face those who, in fact, told us the whole story. Let’s call it conditionally a Storyteller. The narrator remembers his meeting with Timofei Pnin in Petersburg in 1911, when they were both gymnasium students; Father Pnina, an ophthalmologist, took a painful speck from the Storyteller’s eye. It becomes clear that it was because of the Narrator, the fashionable Russian emigre writer, Lisa Bogolepova, who was poisoned with tablets in Paris in 1925. Moreover, she handed the Storyteller a letter in which Pnin proposed to her. On top of that, the Storyteller turns out to be the person who was invited to take Pnin’s place at Wyndell University. He, in a kind way referring to Pninu, in turn offers him a job. Pnin, however, reports that he has finished his teaching and is leaving Wyndell.
On the evening of the fourteenth day of February 1955, the Narrator comes to Wyndell and stops at the dean of the English department of Cockerell. Over dinner, the host of the house talently depicts Timofei Pavlovich Pnin, with all his habits and quirks. Meanwhile, Pnin himself still did not go anywhere, but simply hid and in a changed voice answers on the phone: “He’s not at home.” In the morning the Storyteller unsuccessfully tries to catch up with Pnin, leaving on his old sedan – with a white dog inside and a van with things behind. At breakfast, Cockerell continues his numbers: he shows Pnin arriving at the Cremona Ladies’ Club at the end of September 1950, climbed onto the stage and found himself taking the wrong lecture that was needed. The circle closes.