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 it’s not saturated with pointless digressions. The work revolves around Ganin, a Russian émigré now living in a German boardinghouse with other Russians, his memories of Mary, a first love, and Alfyorov, another boarder and Mary’s husband, waiting on her return. As they’re living together and carrying on little Russian traditions, Nabokov plays each boarder against the seedy, foreign environment. After all, they’re used to the “old” Russia — trees, romance, and long, carefree walks, which Germany cannot give them, not because Germany lacks these things, but because Germany is not Russia. Thus, once Ganin discovers Mary is actually Alfyorov’s wife, she becomes a symbol of his past, not only to Ganin, who spends a great deal of the book stuck in his own memories, but also of ‘the’ past to Alfyorov, who implicitly sees her as the “final link” to his own life. Along the way, Ganin breaks off an unsatisfying relationship with the childish Lyudmila, tries to get a visa for the dying, idyllic poet Podtyagin (a too-obvious symbol of Russia), and eventually plots a way to steal Mary away from her husband before she gets to see him again. At times, Ganin’s reflections are not only emotionally poignant, but spot-on. At other times, Nabokov may have the right idea, but poor execution, a tension Nabokov’s own artistic biases condemned him to for much of his career.
Mary begins with a symbolic scene of Ganin getting stuck in an elevator with Alfyorov. Although it’s an interesting start, with the boarder commenting on the resentful Ganin’s name, Nabokov goes awry by the second page as he forces Alfyorov to ask, in a rather clunky manner, whether there might be “something symbolic” about their meeting, like this. Well, YES – there is, and any good reader should get it. It’s ironic, then, that Nabokov goes on about what a “good reader” is, yet doesn’t trust you to get the most obvious aspects of his art, but hits you over the head with it, even explaining, in languorous detail, why it might be so: “Well, the fact that we’ve stopped, motionless, in this darkness. And that we’re waiting…[this] émigré life of ours, this perpetual waiting…”
It’s the fault of many young writers, I suppose. At 26, it’s hard to juggle giving “just enough” detail with a desire to preen and explain, even if, as with Nabokov, there’s talent behind the bullshit. And although over-explanation is not a common problem in his writing, Nabokov’s more familiar faults — over-description — come through by the second chapter, in his very detailed take on the boarding house. Some of these details are evocative, such as the endless trains that pass through the area, “creating the impression that the whole building was slowly on the move,” or the landlady’s mixing and matching of furniture (and its sawed-off parts) across rooms, giving the boarding house a cheap, almost split-personality feel. But, too many other details, whether of the boardinghouse, or conversations between characters, simply go too far. In short, they may be good for adding the occasional stylistic flourish, but are not really deep, and would have been pointless even in a novel twice the length. And yet, Nabokov often tried to make novels entirely from these stitches. It’s like working on an embroidery without the cloth, just to watch it collapse and tangle through the air. If you know what you’re doing, and what the end product will be, that’s fine, I guess. But, Nabokov was infamously resentful of any attack on his art, no matter how generous or justified, cooing over his pile of thread, but unable to defend it.
As an example of these faults, take the following allegory of émigré life. As an old man, Podtyagin had to work for a living in Germany:
Nothing was beneath his dignity; more than once he had even sold his shadow, as many of us have. In other words he went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness. They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illuminating the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click – but for a long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets – our human shame. The deal was clinched, and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.
To begin with, the idea is good, even compelling, especially the final line, which nicely ties everything up. The choice of symbol is also good, as it captures both the scattering and anonymity of Russian émigrés. But, also note how florid the description is, how forced the imagery, and that abysmal cliché, “our human shame.” It’s hard to believe that such good lines and ideas can sit alongside utter crap, as Nabokov — a wildly inconsistent writer — wouldn’t ever notice the distinction. Now, imagine such a thing going on for pages at a time. In Nabokov, it really happens, and, in later books, happens often. Yes, there is that sense of mystery, pathos, and contrast present in all of Mary, but it’s simply not well done, at least not here. It’s not all bad, though. Just look at Ganin’s own rich and subdued reflection, realizing he is about to meet Mary again, after so many years:
He was a god, re-creating a world that had perished. Gradually, he had resurrected that world, to please the girl he did not dare to place in it until it was absolutely complete. But her image, her presence, the shadow of her memory demanded that in the end he must resurrect her too – and he intentionally thrust away her image, as he wanted to approach it gradually, step by step, just as he had done nine years before. Afraid of making a mistake, of losing his way in the bright labyrinth of memory, he re-created his past life watchfully, fondly, occasionally running back for some forgotten piece of trivia, but never running ahead too fast.
I’d get rid of a modifier or two, but that’s merely personal taste — this is simply a MUCH better passage than the first. Consider how well Nabokov gives you the sense of care, or the fear of a tiny misstep that, years later, might cast a shadow through his world. Perhaps, as Nabokov says in the foreword, he’s able to write so romantically about Mary, here, because she’s based on his own experiences. And perhaps this explains, too, why Nabokov, at his worst, so poorly re-imagines the words for others’ experiences. Although Nabokov was an émigré, it’s obvious the first passage is the product of guesswork. The second, however, is not only realistic and spot-on, but manages to be ethereal, as well. It’s difficult to negotiate this contrast, but Mary, at its best, does precisely that.
Mary has a solid ending, but only on the strength of pure writing — that is, as a passage without context. As Ganin puts the drunk Alfyorov to bed and messes with his alarm clock to make him sleep way past Mary’s arrival, Ganin packs his stuff and heads to the train station to meet his love. Ganin, however, makes a last-minute decision. Despite all of his preparation and fantasy, he chooses to forget Mary, and move on in his life, just before her arrival:
Behind the public garden, a house was being built; he could see the yellow wooden framework of beams – the skeleton of the roof, which in parts was already tiled.
Despite the early hour, work was already in progress. The figures of the workmen on the frame showed blue against the morning sky. One was walking along the ridge-piece, as light and free as though he were about to fly away. The wooden frame shone like gold in the sun, while on it two workmen were passing titles to a third man. They lay on their backs, one above the other in a straight line as if on a staircase. The lower man passed the red slab, like a large book over his head; the man in the middle took the tile and with the same movement, leaning right back and stretching out his arms, passed it on up to the workman above. 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. It had lasted no more than four days – four days which were perhaps the happiest days of his life. But now he had exhausted his memories, was sated by them, and the image of Mary, together with that of the old dying poet, now remained in the house of ghosts, which itself was already a memory.
Other than that image no Mary existed, nor could exist.
It’s good writing, but extraordinarily contrived. Yes, it’s clear from the beginning that Ganin daydreams overmuch, and things will not turn out as expected, but to completely reject Mary so suddenly, with little in the book pointing to this direction, is Nabokov’s way of forcing an ending on to a book that can’t truly justify it, and deepening a character by fiat. It’s abrupt, and although there are small, Nabokovian hints of the surprising end throughout the novel, they’re not deep enough for serious reflection — they’re merely curios. The best one could say here is Mary ends on a poignant note. It’s flawed, machinated, and clunky, but it’s poignant, too, and the writing is good.
Vladimir Nabokov loved these curios and his fans still obsess over them, truly believing that such “details” — whether ineffectual hints, pointless digressions, unnecessary floridity, etc. — are what make art. Yet he was only partly right. They can and often are part of the equation, but if a writer loves twists and details, they must be more than a “Gotcha!” effect, but deep, and deeply pre-meditated. It often seems that Nabokov just throws stuff haphazardly, though, hoping some of the best will stick. It does, but alongside some of the crap, too. That’s because Nabokov lived in one place only: his imagination. A few may argue that’s a sign of a great artist, and they’d be right. It is a sign, but not a landing. It is the entrance to a movie theater, but not one of the dozen side doors, where the most cunning sneak in, and make you feel cheated. It is a cocoon. It is, in brief, a hint, or an impetus, but what’s potential without principle, anyway? Art is bound by rules. Good artists break them, like the kids sneaking in through the back, smiling before you even walk in. But, artists need to break things intelligently, and, even more than that, with meaning.
And yet, Vladimir Nabokov was an artist at his core. To deny the moments of brilliance, occasionally beautiful descriptions and flashes of depth is mere resentment at his success, and I won’t fall into that trap. Still, I think the converse is FAR more relevant. Although Nabokov is praised as one of the very best writers of the 20th century, he was NOT a great novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, or anything, merely a good writer that happened to have written lots of crap, too. Mary, however, is good enough to tantalize with that What-If, as Nabokov’s trajectory, in many ways, would go south after his first novel. Oh well, it was his own fault(s), and arrogance, that did him in.
[This article first appeared on the Cosmoetica website, on 12/19/2010.]
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What would be in the list of your most favourite books of all time?
This question has actually come up a few times in the last couple of weeks, so I’ll just copy a comment from elsewhere:
Re: books- great published books (which are also among my favorite books) include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn/A Connecticut Yankee At King Arthur’s Court, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath/Of Mice And Men, the essays of James Baldwin, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Rilke, Ezra Pound’s Confucius, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Leaves of Grass, Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day (maybe my favorite novel, on a personal level), Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles. You can contact Dan Schneider for unpublished books, as well, as he’s in company with the above.
Subjectively, my favorites include Ishiguro’s novel, the collected essays of James Baldwin, Ezra Pound’s Confucius, Some Prefer Nettles, Siddhartha, Berryman’s The Dream Songs, The Gay Science, Huck Finn, Leaves of Grass, Aurora Leigh, and- of course- Moby-Dick.