Vladimir Nabokov (translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny, in collaboration with Nabokov)
Penguin Great Loves series (Aus, US)
(First published under pen name V Sirin in 1926.)
Love is part attraction, part emotion and much imagination. In Mary, Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel, a Russian man in Berlin, Ganin, recounts his one passionate love affair, with a young woman called Mary. His recollections are inspired by a fellow guest at the pension, Alfyorov – a daft, excitable and noisy man – who awaits his wife, also named Mary, whom he has not seen for some years. Ganin begins to entertain the thought that this Mary will be his Mary.
The book opens with Ganin in a series of interactions with other characters – being stuck in a lift with Alfyorov, and spending time with his girl Lyudmilla. The interactions serve to show Ganin’s boredom bordering on bitterness; and his general dissatisfaction with people, and with life (he has lost his athleticism; the environment has negative effects on him). It takes him some time to break off with Lyudmilla, despite the fact he does not love her and is even a little repulsed by her: ‘Bored and ashamed, Ganin felt a nonsensical tenderness – a melancholy trace of warmth left where love had once fleetingly passed by – which caused him to kiss without passion the painted rubber of her proffered lips…’
In Mary we can already see flashes of Nabokov’s brilliance – both comedic and cruel. There are descriptions to be savoured – wry, sweet, sad and delectable. ‘Klara considered that emotions of that kind ought to be more restrained, without violet irisis and crying violins’. There is also the play with unreliability. Despite the grandeur of their descriptions, Ganin’s past encounters with Mary were fleeting and even quite chaste, but the reader views them through his nostalgic rose-tinted glasses. And he is presented a choice, in the narrative, to continue the sweet, tortuous illusion or confront a tangible, visible person.
Nabokov’s style, here, is nowhere near as sophisticated and awe-inspiring as it is in Lolita (the only other of his I’ve read at this stage, unfortunately); but this is a slim, rich and delightful novel. It’s in third person, and occasionally Nabokov slips from one intimate point of view to another – somehow it works okay, the reader is thrust from one character’s head quickly into another, to get a broader view of the setting, and of the general situation. But it does feel like Nabokov still finding his style and finding what works.
Mary is a joy to read and I’ve added Nabokov to my list of authors whom I must read everything by in the course of my life. (I’ve done so with Franz Kafka, and I will do also with Richard Yates.) Would you like to suggest where I should go to next? Now that I’ve read his first, should I read them in order?