Author: Vladimir Nabokov, translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny (with VN)

1926, Slovo (1970 in English)

Filed Under: Literary

Mary is Nabokov’s first novel. Originally written in Russian, it is a short, straightforward novel. The plot and characters are uncomplicated; the themes effective, but not particularly deep. That is not to say, however, that it is not a good book. It is clearly a work of a master.

Lev Glebovich Ganin is a Russian soldier staying in a Berlin boarding house in the early 1920s, exiled from Russia after the Revolution. He spends his time socializing with the other patrons, namely the man in in the neighboring room, Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov. Alfyorov’s wife, Mary, is coming to stay, and Ganin comes to believe this is the same Mary he once had a love affair with.

Much of the novel is Ganin’s reflections on the affair, punctuated by various interactions with the others staying at the boarding house. Ganin plots to steal Mary from her husband, and leave Berlin with her in tow.

As is to be expected of Nabokov, the strength of the novel is in the prose. The book maintains a consistent, mostly serious tone, and plenty of fine lines and passages are to be found on nearly every page, occasionally witty and/or insightful. Here’s a line I like, that I pretty much pulled at random:

Around that time the last wild strawberries, rain-soaked and sweet, were ripening in the ditches. She was unusually fond of them, in fact she was more or less permanently sucking something–a stalk, a leaf, a fruit drop…Ganin now tried to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but, as we know, memory can restore to life everything except smells, although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.

So how does Mary compare to Nabokov’s other works? This isn’t a Lolita or Pale Fire, both of which fine examples of start-to-finish playfullness and linguistic mastery. From what I’ve read thus far by Nabokov, I find this most similar to Pnin, in tone and language. However Mary carries more emotional baggage, delivering a forlorn longing not unlike Humbert Humbert’s in Lolita (though a thousand times less potent), in an almost Proustian tone (though a thousand times quicker to the point).

(Unrelated: look at the Vintage International cover I’ve included. What the hell does that have to do with anything? Certainly a barefoot man doing a handstand and wearing a tank top while looking at a ghost makes no sense for a sober early 20th century literary reminiscence.)

Similar Reads: Pnin (Nabokov), Invitation to a Beheading (Nabokov), Lolita (Nabokov), “The Hostage” (Behan), Swann’s Way (Proust)