Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Well, I *did* end up visiting another Nabokov quite soon, didn’t I? To be honest, I’ve been eyeing up this volume for a while – part of my Penguin Great Loves little box set, “Mary” was Nabokov’s first novel, written in Russian in Berlin soon after his marriage in 1925. My version is translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov – which is fascinating because Glenny’s translated many of the Russian books I’ve read and obviously was considered good enough by Nabokov which is praise indeed!

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The book comes with the byline “Love can be rewritten” and that’s a good point at which to start considering “Mary”. The protagonist is a Russian émigré by the name of Ganin, lodging in a dirty Berlin pension with a varied selection of fellow exiles – the old poet Podtyagin, Klara the typist, Alfyorov, plus the two ballet dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov. The book opens idiosyncratically enough with Ganin and Alfyorov temporarily trapped in the old lift, though they are soon free – but the meeting will have consequences. We learn very little of substance about Ganin’s current life apart from the fact that he has had many and varied jobs while in exile, he has a girlfriend (Klara’s best friend Lyudmila) and his money is running out. The strange little pension is positioned next to a main train line and Ganin’s wanderlust is constantly kindled as he hears the trains thundering by. He plans to leave soon, which Alfyorov announces will be wonderful as the latter’s wife Mary is due to arrive in Berlin. He shows a picture of her to Ganin which is a revelation – because this Mary is the love of Ganin’s life and he has not seen her for many years, since before the revolution in Russia.

As what Ganin calls his shadow life in Berlin carries on around him, he slips mentally into reminiscence where memory of his early life in Russia is stronger and more real than the current one. He recalls vividly his young life, his meeting with Mary and the progress of their affair. His poignant and often painful memories are strong and when he does come back into real life it is to plan that he will meet Mary on her arrival in Berlin, they will be together and in effect run off into the romantic sunlight. Meanwhile, he splits up with his girlfriend, tries to help Podtyagin get a visa to go to Paris and ignores the fact that Klara is in love with him. But will Mary really arrive, will she be *his* Mary and will she still love him?

This wonderful little novella is about much more than just a love affair, however. Although the narrator’s love of Mary is never in doubt, the book is about memory, and is also a kind of lament for a lost Russia and an elegy for the Russian émigrés and what they had lost by leaving their country and losing a whole way of life. Ganin has lost his past and therefore feels homeless and unsettled; his constant restlessness and the feeling he wants to leave are exacerbated by the continual rumbling of the trains, reminding him of places he hasn’t seen:

“Meanwhile nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring. His window looked out onto the railway tracks, so that the chance of getting away never ceased to entice him. Every five minutes a subdued rumble would start to move through the house, followed by a huge cloud of smoke billowing outside the window and blotting out the white Berlin daylight. then it would slow dissolve again, revealing the fan of the railway tracks that narrowed in the distance between the black, sliced-off backs of houses, all under a sky as pale as almond milk.”

I wonder if Nabokov had been reading Proust when he wrote “Mary”, because although it’s a fraction of the size of the Frenchman’s epic work, it’s a powerful evocation of how strong memory can be and how things remembered can be more real than current reality itself.

“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.”

For Proust it was the taste of a Madeleine, but smell is just as strong a sense and I know that certain perfumes recall certain times and people for me.

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“Mary” is a beautiful little book – full of poignant memories of Russia before its changes, of lost loves and a lost world, and a wonderful portrait of a microcosmic émigré community surviving as best it can. I feel as if Nabokov’s first novel gives us a little more of a glimpse of the author than some of his other fictions do, as I imagine Ganin’s feelings of loss were mirrored by his author. The end of the book is unexpected in some ways, yet once you’ve assimilated it, the best way for the book to end. Ganin has been recreating and carrying on a relationship with Mary in his mind, and to rediscover her in reality simply wouldn’t work. If you haven’t read any Nabokov, this would be a good place to start; if you have, but have not read “Mary”, you have a treat in store!

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