It is somehow fitting that we should receive Nabokov’s earliest novel after he has presented us with the complex works of his maturity. The first book, Mary, is thus allowed to meet the American reader cloaked in that temporal ambiguity of which its author is so fond and which, in the form of antic memoirs, has been the theme of so many of his later works. For Nabokov’s readers, this narrative of émigré life should have a dual significance: first, there is the literary event itself, the publication in English of the beginnings of a now familiar style; second, there is the substance of the book, an intense act of reminiscence that reminds us of what will, and what has, issued from its creator. If the syntax of the last sentence seems odd, it is because grammarian’s time and Nabokov’s are seldom in precise synchronization.
“Mutability,” “evanescence,” “transitoriness”—these heavy, literary nouns all reduce themselves to the blunt term “time,” which stands for the passing of things, for the continuing shift from what is supposed real to what properly belongs to memory. Those long, looping sentences of Proust which, like oversensitive, hothouse tendrils, delicately prod the past in search of a smell, sound, or image; the clause-heavy incantations of Mann which make something magical out of simple chronology—these are just two examples from the many efforts we have in our literature that attest to the attraction that time has had for our best writers. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that time is the great theme, the most demanding challenge that a poet or novelist can accept.
Somehow, time must be subdued, and in the battle a Pléiade poet, denying the evidence of his senses, which presents a mistress’s profile sagging with age, will throw down a crude, passionate gage and trust the perpetuation of her features and his ego to his poems. A more self-effacing modernist like Borges will attempt to obliterate temporal constrictions through the use of paradox. Both methods are engaging and poignant because, ultimately, they fail, becoming exquisite reminders of the most ruthless condition of life, a condition which, if one rules out standard orthodoxies, only art seems capable of taming even for a moment. The condition becomes, then, something that, in a magnificently perverse way, seems an invigorating complement to life rather than its dark antithesis.
Nabokov is a writer who wants neither to eradicate time through logic nor to outflank its consequences with claims to a spurious immortality. For him, conventional time is not so much a mortal enemy as it is a dull, cloddish conception that takes no account of the prodigious feats of which an imaginative memory is capable. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he gives a blunt warning: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip …