Saturday, June 21, 2008

Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

Mary, Nabokov's first novel, was first published in the early 20s when he was living in exile in Berlin and writing under the pseudonym of "V. Sirin". It was published as Mashenka and in the forward Nabokov says that he thought of using the diminutive of English equivalent for his title of the English translation which would have been Mariette but decided to use Mary instead. (The book is translated by Michael Glenny, "in collaboration with the author" as the book jacket says.) I actually wish they had used the original Russian which sounds really wonderful. He also says that it contains elements from his autobiography in a direct manner, unlike his other later works - something which he is very defensive about: "The beginner's well-known propensity for obtruding uopn his own privacy, by introducing himself, into his first novel, owes less to the attraction of a ready theme than to the relief of getting rid of oneself, before going on to better things." In fact most of the book will remind the readers of his autobiography Speak, Memory (a masterpiece and a huge personal favourite), specially the masterful and unforgettable chapter 12 of the book in which he writes about "Tamara" (Valentina Shulgin in real life), his adolescent love. He in fact says that "headier extract of personal reality" is contained in romanticisation (that is, this book) as compared to his autobiography which is more distanced. He then claims that this apparent paradox has a simple explanation: "in terms of years, Ganin was three times closer to his past than I was to mine in Speak, Memory"

Mary is set in the Russian emigre colony of Berlin. Our hero Ganin lives in a residential apartment which houses other immigrants who fled Russia after the revolution and the civil war. The story starts when Ganin sees the photograph of one of his co-resident's wife who is about to arrive in Berlin from Russia and recognises in her his adolescent love Mary. This event sparks off a chain of reveries about the time he spent with Mary in Russia, which fills up most of the rest of the book. This is of course vintage Nabokov territory and it is nice to see that he had already found his unique voice and style (mostly the extreme sensuousness of his prose) in his first book. His reminiscences are interspliced with characters and events in his current life in Berlin, which a little disappointingly, never really come fully alive. It is never dull but it is also not Nabokov. To get a real portrait of emigre literary circle in Berlin one has to again go back to Speak, Memory. I don't know the reason why Nabokov chose not to make Ganin a full-fledged writer or artist and set the story in a more typical artistic circle, the kind he was used to. The characters here are artists too, and Ganin himself is a man of obvious artistic temperament but it is still a pretty humdrum environment. Most of them are extras in films, ballet and struggling and forgotten poets.

Ganin in the end is able to convice himself that Mary might still be in love with him and it might still be possible to continue from where they lost each other. Thinking this, he plans to whisk her away when she arrives in Berlin after incapacitating her husband through inebriation. But at the last moment the sudden realization of the unalterable finality of the break with the past dawns on him and he leaves off for a different place on his own and alone:

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.

This is one of the recurrent motifs in Nabokov's fiction - the interplay between the idea created in one's imagination by memory and its counterpart physical reality. Like Ganin, Nabokov also chose to live with the idea of home and idea of Russia. In one of his interviews he said that even if the Russian government would allow him to return he wouldn't go there because his Russia didn't exist anymore, not in the physical reality. He also refused to make a home for himself anywhere else. He spent his entire life, after he gained financial independence, living in a hotel! It was as if making a new home for oneself was betraying or repudiating the idea of home one had in one's imagination and that idea was so "real" to him that he didn't feel the need for a real, replacement home. The character of Mary in this sense also represents the idea of home and idea of Russia itself. This correspondence is again much clearer and explicit in Speak, Memory than it is here but it is definitely present in this book too.

Overall it is definitely one of Nabokov's minor works, somewhat dispensable if one has read Speak, Memory but it is still great to see how it all began. It is also immensely interesting to identify themes, images and metaphors that would reappear again and again in his later work. For example this description about an advertising sign reminded me of Nabokov's short story Signs and Symbols about a paranoiac young man in a mental asylum who thinks that everything in nature (clouds, wind etc.) is trying to tell something to him, only it is encoded and indecipherable. But then who can tell what it really is that flickers up there in the dark above the houses - the luminous name of a product or the glow of human thought; a sign, a summons, a question hurled into the sky and suddenly getting a jewel-bright, enraptured answer?

Or elsewhere the comparison of letters with butterflies which is there in the "Tamara" chapter of Speak, Memory too: There was something touching and wonderful about the way letters managed to pass across the terrible Russia of that time - like a cabbage white butterfly flying over the trenches.

The book has fewer Nabokovian touches - the language tricks, the word games, self-conscious cleverness - which actually puts off many readers but which I really like. There is for example this description of shaving: Softened by flakes of lather, the bristles on his taut skin steadily crepitated as they fell to the little steel ploughshare of his safety razor. Ploughshare of a safety razor! I am going to remember this image the next time I shave!!

The final words on the book to Nabokov himself who anticipated criticule (nice word!) of his book:

Because of the unusual remoteness of Russia, and because of nostalgia's remaining throughout one's life an insane companion, with whose heartrending oddities one is accustomed to put up in public, I feel no embarrassment in confessing to the sentimental stab of my attachment to my first book. Its flaws, the artifacts of innocence and inexperience, which any criticule could tabulate with jocose ease, are compensated for me (the sole judge in this case and court) by the presence of several scenes (convalescence, barn concert, boat ride) which, had I thought of it, should have been transported virtually intact into the later work.


Madhuri said...

Coincidentally, I also recently read Mary, along with Speak Memory. The similarity between chapter 12 of latter and Ganin's indulgence with his memories is uncanny and unmistakable. I wrote about it here. I found Mary to be quite a good book, though I yet have to read more of his later works.

Alok said...

Yes, I picked it up after reading your blog... it was a very short and easy read so was able to finish it very quickly.

Speak, Memory is definitely his greatest achievement for me. I have read Pnin and Pale Fire too which are wonderful as well. Both extremely clever and Pnin has some very moving passages about loss and life of exile as well. Pale Fire is a little too clever but definitely worth a look to see if you like it or not. I have also read Invitation to a Beheading which despite its morbid title is a great work too.