by Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage International: $7.95)
We are introduced to Timofey Pnin, professor of Russian at Waindell College, as he rides a train to Cremona, where he will lecture in English--a language he has yet to master--at the Cremona Women's Club. He is particularly pleased that he had puzzled out the schedules and was taking a train that would save him 12 minutes. Now he is trying to decide whether to place his lecture notes in the coat jacket pocket of the black suit that he will later wear or whether his luggage being stolen was a more likely danger than his forgetting his notes in his room. "All of which does not alter the fact," Nabokov writes, "that Pnin was on the wrong train."
This sort of mishap happens often to Pnin, an earnest Russian emigre who is perhaps "too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight"--and whose charm and humor are frequently revealed unintentionally and at his own expense. "The cat, as Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag."