Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mary

I just finished reading Nabokov's first novel, Maschenka, which Nabokov chose to change, unnecessarily and rather jarringly, I think, to "Mary" for the English translation. Aside from this, however, the novel reads beautifully, and it is surprisingly excellent--a fairly straightforward story of a doomed youthful affair that we are made to hope can be rekindled. The book's protagonist, Lev Ganin, is a brusque, sometimes cruel figure, whose energy and impulsiveness are highly entertaining, as are the picaresque details with which Nabokov describes Ganin's apartment building and its other inhabitants.

What's amazing here, though, is not the agreeably suspenseful plot, nor the undeniably Nabakovian prose (which at times here is youthfully overwritten), but the strange, presciently modern motifs that run through the book. It opens, for instance, in a stalled elevator, in total darkness--and this is 1925! There's also a surprising sexual frankness, and, in a section that seems like nothing less than a prediction of Don DeLillo, a scene in which Ganin, watching a movie in a theater, remembers that he himself had served as a crowd scene extra in a movie once, and as he thinks it sees himself there on the screen. The scene in question features an opera prima donna collapsing on stage before an astonished audience:

Straining his eyes, with a deep shudder of shame he recognized himself among all those people clapping to order, and remembered how they had all had to look ahead at an imaginary stage where instead of a prima donna a fat, red-haired coatless man was standing on a platform between floodlights and yelling himself to insanity through a megaphone.

This same sleight of hand is later applied to the notion of love, as compared to the memory of love, in a deftly unsentimental and vexing conclusion. It's a delight to see Nabokov in this comparatively simple mode--considering it's a first book, very little is wasted.

2 comments:

Gary said...

I dont quite see why a stalled elevator in 1925 - great opening -would be surprising, but this feels like a book to pick up. My latest discovery is the early novels of Peter Tinniswood.

jrlennon said...

It's a totally plausible element for 1925, of course, but that particuar problem--strangers in the darkness, isolated by failed technology--feels like something you'd see in a movie circa 2003.