Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

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.” Well, one remembers that there were certainly quite a few barked shins among even the well-intentioned visitors of Ada, the price paid for leaping at conclusions when there is no terra firma underneath.

But Mary is another matter. As befits a debut, its manners are far more conventional than those of the later issues from its parent sensibility, and its use of time will only bother readers who wish their narratives always to be out of breath and stolidly linear. Nevertheless, because of the accidents of history, Mary, like a youthful picture of an old friend whom we have known only since middle age, comes to us aglow with intimations of complexities to come.

Mary is a novel about displaced persons, Russian émigrés living in a Berlin pension in the early Twenties. They form a fine, eccentric collection: a pair of pederasts looking for work as dancers; an aged poet hopelessly lost since being transplanted from the language and landscapes of Russia, which he had celebrated in verses that had often bedecked the bottom halves of calendars; a young secretary caught in perpetual oscillation between throbs of passion and genteel morality; the secretary’s friend, with whom the book’s hero has a tepid affair and who commits every vulgar blunder known to the intrigues of popular romance. (Here let me say that I find it astounding that Nabokov is still considered to be somewhat waggish about coital doings. I know of no writer so insistent on the presence at such couplings of a delicate, febrile passion, which redeems them from fleshy buffoonery and allows them to glow with grace and a little pleasant humor.)

Among the exiles, the novel’s protagonist, Ganin, appears nursing a fine case of Russian torpor. Once a person of extreme mental and physical discipline, he has been turned by the unreal world of exile into someone for whom the most trivial act of will is an exasperating trial. He gradually comes to see himself and his fellow boarders in the pension as insubstantial shadows, specters who are doomed to move through the geography of their exile as unobtrusive, incorporeal spectators. Indeed, one of Ganin’s occupations while drifting around Berlin has been that of a movie extra, and one night, in a theater, while sitting between the whispered banalities of his mistress and her girl friend, he sees himself, along with a hundred or so similar Russian shades, upon the screen. The result is a brief passage which sharply conveys that special apprehension of the loss of human identity that the first half of this century created in a sensitive consciousness:


Suddenly Ganin sensed that he was watching something vaguely yet horribly familiar. He recalled with alarm the roughly carpentered rows of seats, the chairs and parapets of the boxes painted a sinister violet, the lazy workmen walking easily and nonchalantly like blue-clad angels from plank to plank high up above, or aiming the blinding muzzles of klieg lights at a whole army of Russians herded together onto the huge set and acting in total ignorance of what the film was about. He remembered young men in threadbare but marvelously tailored clothes, women’s faces smeared with mauve and yellow make-up, and those innocent exiles, old men and plain girls who were banished to the rear simply to fill in the background. On the screen that cold barn was now transformed into a comfortable auditorium, sacking became velvet, and a mob of paupers a theater audience. Straining his eyes, with a deep shudder of shame he recognized himself among all those people clapping to order, and remembered how they had all had to look ahead at an imaginary stage where instead of a prima donna a fat, redhaired, coatless man was standing on a platform between flood-lights and yelling himself to insanity through a megaphone.

With such an unreal, flickering present around him, Ganin is naturally drawn to the past. By chance, a fellow exile shows him a picture of his wife, who is coming from Russia to join him in a few days, and Ganin recognizes that it is a snapshot of his Mary, the girl of a summer romance acted out in the meadows and forests of his family’s estate several years before war and revolution deprived him forever of those ancestral landscapes.

Touched and revitalized by this image of the past, Ganin gives himself up to extended and intense reverie of such rich detail that it easily replaces the shabby actuality of the present and becomes an aching, gentle foretaste of those quests of H. Humbert and Van Veen for a remembered ecstasy. Ganin’s recollection grows so vivid that he finally decides to spirit Mary away when she arrives in Berlin, certain that she, too, will have remained preserved in the passion of a former time.

However, after arranging to incapacitate the husband so that he will sleep past the arrival of his wife’s train, and after setting forth, bags in hand, to encounter the embodiment of his nostalgia, Ganin is suddenly jolted back into the present and into comprehension that although the last few days of reverie had been perhaps the happiest in his life, he must finally consign them to the already fading time of his life in an exiles’ hotel in Berlin, to those ghostly moments that are themselves slipping into the past. The present, for a time cleared of its miasmal fog, returns clearly to his mind as he watches a group of workers constructing a building.

This lazy, regular process had a curiously calming effect; the yellow sheen of fresh timber was more alive than the most lifelike dream of the past. As Ganin looked up at the skeletal roof in the ethereal sky he realized with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever.

Oddly fortified by the sight of actual labor, Ganin heads south, toward the sea and his future. And so this short study of displacement and memory comes to an end.

By itself, Mary is a highly readable study of recollection. But coming as it does after the author, in later works, has cultivated to lushness the themes and manners of this book, Mary has an incongruous quality: it is a memory of things to come, a remembrance of what in one time sequence has not yet happened, and, not to overburden this fragile book with critical hindsights, it is fair to say that it does round out, for the moment at least, a long association between Nabokov and his readers. For Mary not only presents us with a clear evocation of a past which is redolent of that of Speak, Memory, but it also shows us how memory, meticulously sifted for details, can bring that past into palpable life. It is as if, in Mary, one discovered a primitive formula for Van Veen’s temporal theory in Ada, for his baroque, unsystematic attempt to free time from a coerced alliance with space and to make it something in itself perceptual, something coextensive with the similes and metaphors of language.


And so one comes to the question of style, to that element which, in his brief Introduction to Mary, Nabokov calls the true biography of a writer. By this definition, of course, Nabokov is one of our more revealing authors. Through the intimacies of etymology, he creates around the data of the world a glow of stylistic egotism which some find arch but which an attentive reader accepts gladly for the artistic courage behind it. Such a reader sees that an archaism revived to describe a face or a landscape reveals more about the writer than would paragraphs of gushed, honest confessions. And in this way a pun becomes equal to a bitter narrative of childhood upsets, while a literary allusion takes on the aspect of a bold account of squalid, adolescent intrigue.

In short, it is good to see Nabokov in his first book enjoying a vigorous youth, giving local habitations to those airy substances of Ganin’s past, and trying out the first tricks of language which will be the basis later for so many involved feats of magic. For the final appreciation of Nabokov must lie in the way he sees, catalogues, and reflects. His obsession, if we may still speak from the premise he has set for biography, to pinpoint with his own peculiar exactitude the phenomena of mind and matter is why he is the genius of the madman’s narrative as well as of the aristocrat’s memoirs, for both demand an obsession with detail and a manner of expression that will force the world, or a single reader, to pay attention to what they find important. There is a passage in Speak, Memory that nicely divides the territory of intellect between those who can and those who cannot see. We have just been treated to Nabokov’s favorite lepidopterological images in poetry when he suddenly snaps out the following observation:

It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies. “None,” calmly replied that sturdy Swiss hiker with Camus in his rucksack when purposely asked by me for the benefit of my incredulous companion if he had seen any butterflies while descending the trail where, a moment before, you and I had been delighting in swarms of them.

With Camus in his rucksack! How well this detail informs us of what must have been passing through that sturdy hiker’s mind as he stomped past Nabokov’s butterflies without even a brief acknowledgment. What brooding Alpine vistas must have been there, what sweeping generalities about Man and Nature must have fortified his step, what effusions of awe and significance must have made the perception of an insect seem trivial to him.* From such a mind, of course, may issue all sorts of pronouncements, theories, and moral programs, but certainly never a work of art that could perpetuate a moment of life actually lived on this planet. What Nabokov thinks of such mental output we know from his portraits of bogus creators, those Chernyshevskies, Valentinovs, Kinbotes, and Goodmans who see nothing except what their theories or perversions permit them.

Ganin, on the other hand, is definitely an observer of butterflies and definitely not addicted to overproduced, operatic versions of life. The revolution that has exiled him, the forces of history that are at work remaking the sensibility of Europe—such epic themes intrude into Mary’s narrative only in the guise of their shabbiest effects. A few banal sighs by Mary’s husband over Russia being taken away from him, the battle of the old poet with German bureaucracy, the once elegant clothes of the young men among the movie extras—little bits of human detritus that scale history down to size. And Ganin, who sees all this, reacts by putting an alternative world together. Like Nabokov’s later artists, he challenges the grand designs of popular reality with a private, delicately forged version of his own. In Mary it may be said that the challenge ends in a standoff, but later such works as Invitation to a Beheading and Ada will give the victory to art.

But rich as this first work is with hints of its author’s riper efforts, there is one Nabokovian trait missing: namely, the game playing, the perverse clues and apperceptive comments about the making of the novel itself, the internal puzzles especially devised for the reader who believes, as does Nabokov, that a novel is a struggle not between characters but between its author and the world. There will, of course, be those who will not miss being beset by double meanings, aesthetic enigmas, and ironic interludes about the crude mating habits of fiction and reality. But for others this lack makes Mary seem oddly reticent. For these quirks in Nabokov’s storytelling are really convivial customs, a relaxation of formal novelistic behavior which allows the minds of writer and reader to take a naked measure of each other and to see if they have been brought up on similar pedagogic nourishment.

But this is not a real complaint. Mary has already in this review borne too much investigation for a book that has patiently waited half a century to have its hundred-odd pages put into English. One could have been brief and said simply that it was an estimable beginning for one of the few writers of our century who has proved himself capable, in spite of the difficulties critics seem to think exist for the post Joycean novelist, of blithely creating a major body of work. But because of that work’s plenitude, one is loath to sum up even this small scrutiny of time and memory without cautioning the reader, as the parody at the end of Ada does, that after the minutest examination and the most self-congratulatory personal insights, there is always in a first-rate novel “much, much more.”

This Issue

March 25, 1971