My millions of readers doubtless recall that I reviewed all the surviving novels by Philip K. Dick, of which there are 44. I now feel called upon by some sinister force to review all the completed novels of Vladimir Nabokov, of which there are only 17 (I'm also going to throw in his autobiography just for fun). Boy, am I asking for trouble.
After all, part of the reason Nabokov wrote fewer novels is that he worked and polished each one, and he loved to plant puzzles and traps in them. He had plenty of time and education to do so - he grew up in pre-Soviet Russia and fled to Berlin in his early adulthood. He taught languages and tennis and boxing, collected butterflies as he had in Russia, and published stories and chess problems in the Russian émigré press.
Chess problems, for God's sake. Let's face it, on the surface the guy sounds pretty useless. I suspect, however, that anyone who's spent time writing, teaching and collecting butterflies is aware of how much effort those activities require.
Nabokov's first novel, "Mary", certainly bears the stamp of careful attention. For one thing, it reads as though it was tossed off as an afterthought, with all kinds of seemingly unnecessary details and philosophical oddments all over the place. And I'm not entirely sure that the author organized each piece of flotsam into a meaningful grid, as James Joyce did with "Ulysses", say, but I'm pretty sure that no one can make a loose collection of events like this read so swiftly and pleasurably without a lot of skillful work.
The story is fairly simple. A young Russian exile named Ganin lives in a Berlin boarding house with a bunch of other Russian exiles. He's pretty bored, but can't seem to motivate himself to make any changes. His obnoxious neighbor, on the other hand, has at least one thing to look forward to - the man's wife, separated from him by the Russian Revolution for some years, is about to arrive. He's so excited, indeed, that he shows Ganin a few pictures of her, gushing over how wonderful she is. Lo and behold, the pictures of this wife show that she is Mary, Ganin's first love from an idyllic Russian country summer back in his teens.
Now, here's where the odd stuff begins. Ganin reacts to this news by breaking up with his girlfriend, a woman he was getting tired of anyway, and giving notice to his landlady. Obviously he intends to somehow convince Mary to leave her husband and run away with him, right? Well, it's not giving anything away to tell you that, after those initial bold action steps, Ganin spends the rest of the time before Mary arrives remembering their initial liaison all those years ago. This includes his recovery from typhus just before their first meeting, the places where they met in the rain, the other people in the local town, and even their attempts to continue their affair back in Petersburg the following winter. All of this becomes so real that Ganin's actual current life begins to seem like a dream to him.
Even at this early stage, Nabokov had a definite mastery of tone. The scenes from Ganin's past with Mary practically glow, with the colors and sounds and smells of life all over them, not to mention a few glancing references to the author's beloved butterflies and moths - it's no accident that Mary strikes Ganin as somehow less alive when she takes that lepidoptera-shaped ribbon out of her hair. Meanwhile, the events of contemporary life drift by in a flat grey manner. Ganin meanders around a young woman in the boarding house who loves him, despite the fact that she thinks she saw him stealing money from another boarder's room (he was actually looking for more pictures of Mary, of course). He meanders into helping another neighbor, an aging poet, to get a passport and visa to France, and when the attempt fails and provokes a heart attack in this neighbor, he meanders right out again. He meanders into a movie theater and notices that he himself worked as an extra in the movie on screen, and idly wonders how many people all over the world will see him. As I said, none of this reads anything like as immediate as the events of his past, which may explain why these details seem to wander into the story at random. They resemble dreams.
I speculate that those random details I mentioned before might be there to add to the contrast between the vivid past and the dull present. Everything in his current life strikes Ganin as pretty much the same while he's re-living his teen years; his neighbor's heart attack impacts him no more than his other neighbor's new job with a ballet company, or his landlady's evident inability to contend with the house's one servant. So the question is, if he (or you or I) find ourselves living in the past to that extent, what does that do to the life we're living now?
In a lot of the critical literature on Nabokov, we read about his interest in memory and its functions - even his autobiography is called "Speak, Memory" - so I'm curious to see how memory and the past appears in his later novels. In "Mary", we might expect Ganin's obsession with his past to leave him passive, or even stymied, in his present. What he actually does with his memories will probably surprise you. And thus we begin our journey with Nabokov, having learned that he's going to defy our expectations whenever he can. Sound good?
Benshlomo says, Dreams of the past have their place.