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Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

Although it was his first novel, Vladimir Nabokov’s Mary (1926) was not translated until 1970, and one can well imagine the author peering over translator Michael Glenny‘s shoulder as he rendered the Russian into English, suggesting changes here, le mot juste there. Either way, it all comes down to an apprentice piece by Nabokov that serves to demonstrate the early development of one of his major themes in later works: memory.

Less tricksy than later works, Mary is an extremely tight narrative centred around Lev Glebovich Ganin, a Russian émigré, uprooted by the revolution, currently living in a Berlin pension. Stuck in Berlin, and similarly stuck in a dull relationship, he spends his time dreaming of escape, of moving on with his life. All around him, also resident in the pension, are a number of fellow Russians, similarly displaced, who act as cyphers to Ganin’s predicament, while still showing enough character to be strong in their own right.

Of these residents, Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov provides the spark of the novel when one day he shows a photograph of his wife, Mary, to Ganin, who immediately recognises her as his lost love from many years before. And with the revelation that she is due to arrive in Berlin on Saturday, Ganin becomes preoccupied with his past with Mary, convincing himself that she may still be in love with him.

While Ganin’s memories recall the ealier time, his idea of what happened would seem to colour the reality, as in one scene where she submits herself so easily that one can’t suspect element of fantasy:

‘I am yours,’ she said, ‘do what you like with me.’

Like his country – a past irretrievable; no future in sight – Ganin’s state of flux allows him to find comfort in his recollections of Mary, and he finds himself delving so deep that the delights of the past are much stronger than the reality of the present:

It was not simply reminiscence but a life that was much more real, much more intense than the life lived by his shadow in Berlin. It was a marvelous romance that developed with genuine, tender care.

That Mary is only a few days away in arriving to see her husband, so Ganin spends those days idly dreaming of her. It would seem from all that happened between them there was never a dull moment. And if there was, Ganin won’t let it cloud his vision:

And although his affair with Mary in those far-off days had lasted not just for three days, not for a week but for much longer, he did not feel any discrepancy between actual time and that other time in which he relived the past, since his memory did not take account of every moment and skipped over the blank unmemorable stretches, only illuminating those connected with Mary. Thus no discrepancy existed between the course of life past and life present.

With Ganin having trapped himself in the past, it therefore seems appropriate that he should, in the drab pension, be equally trapped. Other residents, such as the elderly poet, Podtyagin – who can’t return to Russia and whose French visa proves consistently problematic – find themselves similarly static.

Where Mary comes alive most is in Nabokov’s descriptive ability and the musings on memory. Not reaching the heights of Lolita – or, indeed, coming close – it comes down to what the author chooses to show. In one scene Ganin returns to his childhood, the brightness of the details coming to the fore, accompanied by nostalgia, and the notion of what was lost then comes back, once more, to Mary:

‘And where is it all now?’ mused Ganin. ‘Where is the happiness, the sunshine, where are those thick skittles wood which crashed and bounced so nicely, where is my bicycle with the low handlebars and the big gear? It seems there’s a law which says that nothing ever vanishes, that matter is indestructible; therefore the chips from my skittles and the spokes of my bicycle still exist somewhere to this day. The pity of it is that I’ll never find them again – never.

All that Ganin can hope for is to meet Mary once more and for them to run off together, to France, and continue their lives there. The only problem is that her husband is still very much on the scene. That, and the girl of his past is a malleable, comforting image compared to whoever she could be today. The ultimate joy is the ticking down to Saturday and Mary’s arrival, leaving a delicious question mark over Ganin’s head and the reality of the remembered relationship.

May 18, 2008

4 responses to Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

  1. Beth said:

    Good to see that things are back in top form here. Great review and I look forward to another attempt at Nabokov. I had so many problems with the utter cruelty of HH that, embarrassedly, I was unable to finish Lolita. His wordplay, though, proves so tempting that I want to try Nabokov again. Looking forward to this entire series of choices.

  2. Sarah said:

    Just reading your review has left me wondering about the real Mary and what happens when she arrives in Berlin. I bought this when it came out in the penguin Great Loves series, so will have to actually read it.

  3. Stewart said:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for dropping by. Of course, if I’d said what happens when Mary arrives in Berlin then there would be no spur to read the book. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. J.M. said:

    I enthusiastically read and finished Pnin a few days ago. Per your review, I look forward to Mary and some of his other earlier works in Russian.

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4 responses to Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

  1. Beth said:

    Good to see that things are back in top form here. Great review and I look forward to another attempt at Nabokov. I had so many problems with the utter cruelty of HH that, embarrassedly, I was unable to finish Lolita. His wordplay, though, proves so tempting that I want to try Nabokov again. Looking forward to this entire series of choices.

  2. Sarah said:

    Just reading your review has left me wondering about the real Mary and what happens when she arrives in Berlin. I bought this when it came out in the penguin Great Loves series, so will have to actually read it.

  3. Stewart said:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for dropping by. Of course, if I’d said what happens when Mary arrives in Berlin then there would be no spur to read the book. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. J.M. said:

    I enthusiastically read and finished Pnin a few days ago. Per your review, I look forward to Mary and some of his other earlier works in Russian.

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