Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

 1970 printing jacket, image from
I'm back on the Nabokov trail!

I read Mary like ten years ago, when I was living in New York, but I had forgotten most of it by the time I borrowed it from a university library earlier this month.  (Sometimes I wonder why I read all these books, seeing as I just forget most of what I read; I envy people like Marilu Henner, who have super powerful memories.)  

This week I read the 1970 McGraw-Hill hardcover edition, translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov himself.  Mary originally appeared in Russian in 1926 as Mashenka Ada apparently got a lot of press (it was a Time magazine cover story, for example) and on the cover of this printing of Mary is inscribed "The First Novel by the Author of LOLITA and ADA."

Mary is short, just 114 pages in this edition, but it is very satisfying, full of well-drawn characters, interesting relationships, vivid images and touching emotion.  Like Laughter in the Dark, which I think of as a tale of the triumph of evil over good, and Pnin, which is about a man who loses everything, Mary is a tragic story, showing us several unhappy love relationships.  Like Pnin, Mary is one of the more "real" or "conventional" of Nabokov's novels; there are no science fiction or supernatural elements, nobody has a mental illness or gets involved in an outre erotic relationship.

The setting is a Berlin boarding house in the 1920s inhabited by Russian emigres.  They make a sad group, most of them with personal problems on top of the fact that the Reds drove them out of their country.  There is Podtyagin, the elderly and sick poet who fears he has wasted his life and who is desperate to get to Paris, but finds himself too incompetent to navigate the bureaucracy that hands out passports and visas.  And Klara, a 26 year old woman who hates her job and owns only one dress.  Klara is hopelessly in love with the main character, Ganin, who barely notices her.

Ganin is a young man from a wealthy family and a veteran of the Russian Civil War.  Ganin suddenly realizes that another of the inmates of the boarding house, Alfyorov, is married to his first love, a girl named Mary, and she will be arriving soon in Berlin after being separated from her husband for four years.  Ganin callously dumps the woman he is currently seeing and plots to steal Mary away from her husband, and while waiting for Mary to arrive spends much of the book in vivid reminiscences of his love affair with Mary back in Russia.

In the end, Ganin leaves Berlin before Mary even arrives, abandoning his plan to carry her away with him.  Has he realized that he doesn't really love Mary any more?  Has he had some kind of moral awakening, and decided not to cause trouble for Alfyorov and Mary?  Either way, Nabokov, telling us that the four days in Berlin in which Ganin has been waiting for Mary and reliving his long past relationship with her "were perhaps the happiest days of his life," suggests that our inner lives of fantasy and memory are happier than our real physical lives.     

I enjoyed every page of Mary.  The actions and feelings of all the characters ring true, there are no tedious or difficult passages, and I like all the little details about life in the boarding house and the streets of Berlin.  It is also fun to see little similarities here and there to later Nabokov works; Ganin, for example, once could walk on his hands, like the main character of Ada. 

I've (re)read a lot of Proust, and so I am always finding similarities to Proust in the books I read, but Mary seems particularly Proustian in details and in major themes.  Of course the themes of unhappy love and of memory are very Proustian.  More specifically, Nabokov mentions the ability of smells to evoke memories, and presents to us a protagonist who desires women who are out of his reach, and tires of women as soon as he has possessed them.  In In Search of Lost Time the only people who enjoy their love affairs are lesbians, and in Mary the only people who seem happy are a pair of gay ballet dancers, whom Nabokov tells us are "as giggly as women" and, when organizing a party, are "as excited as two women."  The scene in which Ganin, laying in bed, studies the wallpaper, seeing faces in the printed flowers or tracing a path through their pattern, reminded me of such scenes in Swann's Way as when Marcel is fascinated by the sight of church steeples in the distance, and when he describes his room at the seaside hotel, in which the ocean is reflected in glass bookcases.

A smooth, comfortable, touching piece of work; I strongly recommend Mary.


The 1971 paperback edition of Mary by Fawcett has a charming cover illustration by Tom Miller which reminded me of those old pre-Fabio romance novels.  A few minutes googling brought me to a blog about gothic romance novels called My Love-Haunted Heart, and a website about Tom Miller, where it was revealed that the same image was used a year later on Julie Wellsley's Chateau of Secrets!

Even though the image struck me as being generic, the painting actually reproduces Mary's appearance in one of Ganin's flashbacks, on page 72 of the edition I read: "She was wearing a diaphanous white dress which Ganin did not know.  Her black bow had gone, and, in result, her adorable head seemed smaller.  There were blue cornflowers in her piled-up hair."  That passage immediately brought to mind the Miller illustration, and put a smile on my face.

No comments:

Post a Comment