Mary, a solid first novel, presages all that’s good and bad with Vladimir Nabokov’s career. At a bit over 100 pages, it’s a short book, and this really works to Nabokov’s advantage. After all, his books — I’m thinking of the autobiography, Pale Fire, and Lolita in particular — are awash in pointless details, overlong scenes, and the occasional cliché. Ironically, many readers praise Nabokov for all these faults, since Nabokov himself was in love with tedium and closed to new ideas, bragging that his ideal editor would only rework a misplaced semicolon, or apologetically suggest a nipped comma, and nothing else. As he says in a taped interview about Lolita, in response to queries about the novel’s “ideas” (which, by the way, turned him off, hence the intellectual dearth in much of his writing), “I don’t want to touch hearts; I don’t even want to touch minds. What I want to produce is really that little sob in the spine of the artist’s reader…”
As a kid, it was great to see such confidence, especially from a writer with talent, toying with ideas indefensible, pouting through bold non-sequiturs, and gritting his teeth at ‘philistines.’ I was surprised, then, to finally see the interview on-screen a few years back, and was shocked at how incredibly different Nabokov was in real life. Obviously, he spent so much time thinking about what his own smirk looked like, that he forgot to prep himself for a world of others — other people, other values, and yes, other, more imaginative ideas than his own. The body language, stuttering, and the fact that he refused to do an unscripted, face-to-face interview (he read from index cards) all point to a great personal insecurity, especially since it’s so hard for Nabokov — or anyone, really — to defend his exaggerated aesthetic positions, off the cuff. As he’s goaded off the chair and to the couch by some (unscripted?) questions, you’re left with that last image forcing through the air — a sob in the spine of the reader. It’s silly, awkward, and it, along with the interview itself, is a good summary of Nabokov’s art: always “reaching,” often in weird, contrived ways, but never quite grasping.
Thus, it’s interesting to look at his earlier fiction, which was, perhaps, from a time before his hatred towards themes, depth, or things of cultural import, for Mary lacks a few Nabokovian faults in its greater control over his unwieldy, hyperbolic flourishes — the very lack Vladimir Nabokov complains of in the foreword. And although Mary is not a great book, it has enough solid or even good material to recommend it to enthusiasts. As noted, its length forced Nabokov to concision, and focusing on the disconnect between Bolshevik and pre-revolutionary Russia invites depth and an interesting, surreal quality to many passages. The plot is also much more straightforward than in later novels, which, in Nabokov’s case, is a plus, since … Continue reading →