Glory by Vladimir Nabokov

Back when we were running the 1938 Club I came very close to reading another Nabokov title in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, I did enjoy his novella “The Eye” recently and as I was dithering around, trying to decide what to read after “Solaris”, I thought another Nabokov might be the thing. However, choosing which one was the hardest as I have pretty much everything he wrote on the shelves. I pulled out several volumes to flick through but for some reason, “The Gift” caught my eye; I’m not sure why, although it could be that it’s a pretty pale blue Penguin hardback (shallow? me?)… But whatever the reason, it captured me from the first pages, so I kept reading.

glory penguin

Nabokov wrote nine novels in Russian, starting with Mary (first published in 1926) and ending with “The Gift” (from 1952). However, he’d published “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”, his first novel in English, in 1941 and there’s a gap in the Russian novel writing dates between “Invitation to a Beheading” (1938) and “The Gift” (written in 1952). No doubt this will all be explained when I one day read a biography of the man….

However, many of the Russian novels weren’t translated until the 1960s and 1970s, with “The Gift” being the final one to make it into English. Fortunately, translation woes aren’t usually an issue, as the books seem to be translated by Nabokov’s son, in conjunction with the author himself, so the reader can at least be assured that they’re as Nabokov wants them.

“Glory” is the book that followed “The Eye”, and it was published initially in 1932 (while the Nabokovs were based in Berlin). It tells the life story of a young man, Martin Edelweiss, who grows up in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. With Swiss heritage (hence the name), he’s especially close to his mother and grows up in a happy atmosphere, fairly unmoved by the divorce of his parents and the death of his father. However, with conflict looming, Martin and his mother have to flee Russia; first they spend time in the Crimea, and then eventually take a boat to Athens (now why does that kind of escape from the Civil War sound so familiar….?) The pair take refuge in Switzerland with Martin’s uncle (who eventually becomes his stepfather) and Martin continues his life; he attends Cambridge university, maintains contact with the Zilanov family (and in particular the daughter, Sonia, for whom he has an unrequited passion), and flits all over Europe at will. But he’s an unsettled ocharacter, driven by a constant need to be on the move, and it’s not quite clear where he will be finally drawn to….

It was then that Martin understood for the first time that human life flowed in zigzags, that now the first bend had been passed, and that his life had turned at the instant his mother summoned him from the cypress avenue to the terrace and said in a strange voice, ‘I have received a letter from Zilanov,’ then continuing in English, ‘I want you to be brave, very brave – it is about your father – he is no more.’ Martin turned pale and smiled a bewildered smile.

At first, it’s tempting to see the book as simply taking elements from Nabokov’s own life and turn them into fiction, and although the author acknowledges in the introduction that Martin is something of a cousin, the actual events of their lives diverge quite strongly. And Martin is certainly *not* Nabokov, as there is a bit of a vacancy in his life.

Martin’s problem is an unusual one; gifted with a particularly sensitive nature, responsive to nature, beauty, travel and the like, he has no way of expressing this. Instead, his life is one of calm and solidity, relatively untouched by the events that take place around him. Even having to flee from his home country leaves him fairly unmoved; or is he? There is a thread running through the narrative of an emotion perhaps best expressed by the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’; it has no real meaning in English but online sources state “The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. Certainly, Martin feels drawn towards Russia (albeit probably a lost Russia from his childhood) and also feels the need to make some kind of grand gesture. Because he’s seen as so, well, *ordinary*, he despairs of making Sonia love him, and feels he needs to take a course of action that will bring him the glory of the title.

Nabakov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Nabokov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Pivotal to the portrayal of his character is a picture which was on his wall as a child. Showing a winding path leading deep into a forest, in many ways this foreshadows his journey through life; following the route it portrays he will eventually disappear into the forest… He’s captivated by train travel, by the glimpses of lights in the distance and these again will influence his behaviour as he constantly searches for something more. And despite trying any number of things, from supporting himself by giving tennis lessons, to working in the fields, he never finds satisfaction.

But the heartache did not dissipate, although Martin was one of those people for whom a good book before sleep is something to look forward to all day.

Russia itself is always in the background of the narrative; both Martin and Sonia (as well as many of the other characters) are exiles, and despite Martin’s loving his English education and success at football, he’s very protective of his native land. One of the tutors at Cambridge, Archibald Moon, is writing a mammoth book on Russia and although Martin is initially drawn to the man, he eventually rejects his parceling up of a living country in a book. With Sonia he invents the mythical land of Zoorland, a thinly disguised Russia, which is the only way Martin and Sonia can talk about their lost homeland.

The ending of the book is ambiguous, and I’m not going to say too much about it, but despite the uncertainty it creates it’s surprisingly satisfying. This was also a remarkably easy Nabokov book to read; his works are often complex but I just seemed to glide through this one. The writing is of course gorgeous – Nabokov seemed to be a master, no matter which language he chose to write in. “Glory” is wonderfully structured, and there are some very clever transitions between points in Martin’s life, unusually mid-chapter, where Nabokov moves the narrative along in a quite unexpected way.

I’ve read that parts of “Glory” mirror “Speak, Memory”, Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir (which I’ve yet to read); well, that may be the case, but this work of fiction stands on its own. If this is minor Nabokov (I’ve seen it described as such), it’s streets ahead of everything else….

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