In the 1920s the Soviet Revolution brings together six Russian émigrés in a sleazy Berlin pension. Several of them are at an impasse: the old poet Podtyagin despairingly waits for the visa that will allow him to continue his journey to Paris, where life is cheaper; Alfyorov counts the days until his wife arrives from Russia so they can start a new life together; and Lev Glebovich Ganin, the young protagonist, feels trapped in an unbearable relationship with a woman, without the strength to break it off. They’re all experiencing what Alfyorov calls ‘the sense of this émigré life of ours, this perpetual waiting. Russia’s social turmoil echoes throughout the novel, but Vladimir Nabokov merely uses the revolution as a backstage against which to build his story of love and memory. One day, Alfyorov shows Ganin a photo of his wife, and Ganin is certain it’s Mary, a woman he once loved when he still lived in Russia, and whose unexpected sight awakens old memories of love for her.
Notice that I wrote that it awakens memories of love. It is disputable whether Ganin builds genuine new feelings for Mary at this point in his life. The novel informs us that in the past their love was already ‘fraying and wearing thin.’ Ganin spends most of the novel promenading in the ‘bright labyrinth of memory,’ recreating the past “watchfully, fondly, occasionally turning back for some forgotten piece of trivia, but never running ahead too fast.” Ganin’s affair with Mary was an adolescent love that lasted only a few years, from the time when he was recovering from typhus at a hospital and she worked there as a nurse, tending him, till the outbreak of World War I, when he left for the front and stopped corresponding with her. His sudden love for Mary then is quite fragile. But for me the mind’s construction of reality is the main point the novel explores: the contrast between real emotions and our remembrance of them, how our state of mind can alter memories, and reality’s inability to live up to our idealized version of it.
Like I wrote above, as the novel starts Ganin is involved in a relationship with Lyudmila, a woman he’s growing tired of. But he lacks the courage to tell her he no longer loves her. He tries to avoid her but hesitates to give her the bad news. As the novel puts it:
He was powerless because he had no precise desire, and this tortured him because he was vainly seeking something to desire. He could not even make himself stretch out his hand to switch on the light. The simple transition from intention to action seemed an unimaginable miracle. Nothing relieved his depression, his thoughts slithered aimlessly, his heartbeat was faint, his underclothes stuck unpleasantly to his body.
But immediately after discovering Mary’s arrival he suddenly finds the determination with break off with Lyudmila. It’s like Mary becomes the ‘precise desire’ he needed to stop being powerless. This passage suggests that his newfound love for Mary may not be real at all, but just a psychological need he latched onto. It’s even debatable whether the Mary of the photograph is the Mary of his youth. The only evidence he has is an old photograph of a woman he’s certain is Mary. But Ganin’s temperament is volatile and his penchant for daydreaming may be an indication that he’s deluding himself. Although he’s mostly concerned with savouring the past, while living in a miserable condition surrounded by people he dislikes (and Alfyorov, even before Ganin knew he was Mary’s husband, already irritated him), he also imagines a beautiful new future whether he’ll live happily with Mary, working hard to support her. Mary is less a person and more a beacon of hope for Ganin. She’s more important to him as a symbol than as a real person.
I wonder to what extent Ganin’s love for Mary isn’t just a metaphor for Nabokov’s longing for the old Russia of his privileged youth. And to what extent does Ganin’s final decision about Mary not reflect the author’s own uncertainties about the possibility of ever returning to his homeland? There’s a lot of pessimism for the future of Russia in the novel, with Alfyorov representing the aristocracy that lost everything to the ‘gray scum’ of peasantry and workers who took over the power, and Ganin showing some sympathy for their cause. Politics, however, are almost absent from the novel, apart from a few references. Like Podtyagin says, “No politics, please. Why must we talk politics?” Podtyagin is a curious poet, who’s given up writing after feeling he’s wasted his life, but is prodded by Alfyorov to write about ‘Russian womanhood,’ which, he claims, is ‘stronger than any revolution and can survive it all.” This is of course the test of the novel, as Ganin is pitted against his love for a Russian woman. Although Alfyorov praises Mary for having endured the tribulations of the revolution, the novel asks if love has managed to survive it.
I didn’t care much for Mary. Published in 1926, and translated into English in 1970 by Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author, it’s Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel, and I don’t think it’s very good. I mean, after the dense, mind-splitting novel Knowledge of Hell, I guess it was the sort of light entertainment I needed to unwind. It has many good things about it: Ganin’s personality is hilarious at times and the author has no problems showing what a ruthless bastard he is. The novel has a fine sense of time and space: it opens with Ganin and Alfyorov suspended in darkness inside a modern ‘contraption,’ a faulty, dark elevator, a strange wonder that gives Alfyorov opportunity to philosophize about the symbolism of their first meeting. And I chuckled when the novel described Ganin’s job as a film extra as selling his ‘shadow.’ But the digressions about memory lack originality, and I found myself caring less about Ganin’s love for Mary and more about Podtyagin’s comical travails to acquire a visa from the authorities: the novel’s descriptions of him ping-ponging from one department to another recall Franz Kafka’s descriptions of bureaucracy in their absurdity and facelessness, although I read somewhere Nabokov wasn’t familiar with Kafka at the time. More probably he based Podtyagin on his own experiences as an émigré living in Berlin, and I can’t help thinking how much more interesting a novel about that would have been.
This novel left me disappointed. Vladimir Nabokov is, I’m sure, a great novelist, and I only have myself to blame for my stubborn devotion to reading writers chronologically. Novelists are usually known for one or two novels, but I tend to read the ones in their oeuvres no one talks about; sometimes I find hidden treasures, and sometimes I understand why no one talk about them. With that said, I’m anxious to jump into King, Queen, Knave.