Tomofey Pnim is a Russian emigre intellectual. He has been in America for many years and now teaches in an American college, but he still carries Russia in his heart. His Russia is the one before the Revolution and the need to flee the Bolsheviks. Pnim also carries the Russian language in his heart, forced now to deal with the insufficiencies of English. Looking for a literary parallel, he finds one.
Of course! Ophelia’s death! Hamlet! in good old Andrey Dronenberg’s Russian translation, 1844– the joy of Pnim’s youth, and of his father’s and grandfather’s young days!
Unfortunately he cannot check the passage in the book of his youth.
Alas, “Gamlet” Vil’yama Shekspira … was not represented in Waindell College Library, and whenever you were reduced to look up something in the English version, you never found this or that beautiful, noble, sonorous line that you remembered all your life from Kroneberg’s text in Bengerov’s spledndid edition. Sad!
Pnim begins as a character of fun, and his colleagues mock his mispronunciations and misapprehensions. Through a series of incidents and scenes, Nabokov leads us to the gentle and innocent man behind the clown. We meet the Pnim who tries, in vain, to befriend his almost-stepson, the one who planned to buy a house but then learned he had been fired, as well as the one too proud to work under the Nabokov he never acknowledged. Sad!