This is the last book Vladimir Nabokov wrote in what he called his `untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue'. The story of Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a young Russian émigré aristocrat in Berlin, told in this novel is both a personal journey and a reflection of Russia's past. Nabokov provides a brief synopsis in his foreword:
`The plot of Chapter One centers in Fyodor's poems. Chapter Two is a surge toward Pushkin in Fyodor's literary progress and contains his attempt to describe his father's zoological explorations. Chapter Three shifts to Gogol, but its real hub is the love poem dedicated to Zina. Fyodor's book on Chernyshevsky, a spiral within a sonnet, takes care of Chapter Four. The last chapter combines all the preceding themes and adumbrates the book Fyodor dreams of writing someday: The Gift.'
I would need to read this book at least two more times to fully appreciate it. It is not a novel to be devoured quickly, it deserves to be savoured slowly. On this, my first read, I simply enjoyed Nabokov's use of language both as he describes Fyodor's progress and as he lampoons Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) in the `spiral within a sonnet'. It's beautifully done, the way that Nabokov works a biography of Chernyshevsky into his novel, contrasting two quite different Russias but with some shared shortcomings.
`Existence is thus an eternal transformation of the future into the past - an essentially phantom process - a mere reflection of the material metamorphosis taking place within us.'
And when the novel ends, will Fyodor's success continue? Will he and Zina be happy? Or will his (and their) moment be brief, like the butterflies? We have seen Fyodor evolve for self-indulgent idleness to focussed observer: one of his roles in the book is complete; the other is neatly transferred to the reader. Or so I think, on this reading.
`Good-bye, my book!'