In the foreword written for the American edition of Glory, Nabokov recognizes his partial kinship with the hero: “If Martin to some extent can be considered a distant cousin of mine (nicer than I, but also much more naïve than I ever was), with whom I share certain childhood memories, certain later likes and dislikes, his pallid parents, per contra, do not resemble mine in any rational sense” (xi).1 Like Mary, Glory revolves around the loss provoked by leaving for exile, an exile that Martin attempts to annul by returning at the end to Russia, where he disappears forever. This touching character, in fact quite naïve, experiences his first love far from his native land; realizing, however, that his love is not reciprocated, he rushes into a foolish exploit with the hope that upon his return the girl he loves will finally consent to love and to marry him.
The awakening of desire in the protagonist takes place literally in the cradle, thanks to a watercolor painting hung on the wall just above his crib “depicting a dense forest with a winding path disappearing into its depths” (4). The watercolor in and of itself would not have sufficed to arouse Martin’s desire. His mother, in the evening, reads to him in English, always managing to create suspense (“‘And what do you think happened next’” ), and in one of the books “there was a story about just such a picture with a path in the woods, right above the bed of a little boy, who, one fine night, just as he was, nightshirt and all, went from his bed into the picture, onto the path that disappeared into the woods” (4). This passage prefigures almost word for word an equivalent passage in Nabokov’s autobiography.2 Martin, unlike the young Nabokov, is fearful that his mother might notice the resemblance between the book and the watercolor and take down the latter: “Martin prayed God that she would not notice that tempting path right over his head” (5). This “tempting” path represents an imaginary space that he wants to enter and within which he hopes to lose himself; he even wonders if “one night he had not actually hopped from bed to picture, and if this had not been the beginning of the journey, full of joy and anguish, into which his whole life had turned” (5). The difficulty Martin will feel during his brief existence in distinguishing between the real and the imaginary seems to have as its primal source the experience repeated every evening beside his mother: lulled by her voice, bathed in the warmth of a barely foreign tongue, he abandons himself to his fantasies and his drives.
It is noteworthy that this mother maintains an essentially profane belief in higher powers but does not believe in God: “She firmly believed in a certain power that bore the same resemblance to God as the house of a man one has never seen, his belongings, his greenhouse and beehives, his distant voice, heard by chance in an open field, bear to their owner. It would have embarrassed her to call that power ‘God’” (11)—belief that is magical but pagan and has no need of a church to flourish. Nabokov uses a prosaic metaphor here—but one which nonetheless would not have occurred to his protagonist—to represent this power in which Martin’s mother believes, an imaginary power that does not exist in an elsewhere full of promise but which haunts the here-and-now for those who are able to perceive its occult presence, and which incites the individual to elude the banality of the everyday. It is passages such as these that have incited Vladimir Alexandrov to claim that Nabokov believed in an “otherworld” beyond the shams of everyday reality. What is probably at issue here, however, is a desire to escape into the imaginary analogous to the desire he felt every evening thanks to the watercolor hanging above his bed.
In many respects Martin shares this magical thinking. He is easily seduced by mirages like the distant lights of Yalta (20) or better yet by the handful of lights glimpsed from the train while passing through Provence: “a handful of lights in the distance, in a fold of darkness between two black hills: the lights would hide and reappear, and then they came twinkling from a completely different direction, and abruptly vanished, as if somebody had covered them with a black kerchief” (21). This experience repeats itself several times in the novel until the moment when he decides to leave in search of the lights and spends several weeks in Molignac, the small village he believes to be the source of the lights visible from the train. As he leaves, he proudly asks the conductor if the lights are indeed those of Molignac, certain in advance of the response, but the latter replies that “‘Molignac can’t be seen from the railroad’” (166). Nabokov’s characters often meet with this type of disappointment, as if the author were striving perversely to undermine their expectations, to frustrate their desires. Martin believes he has finally found this enchanted place, the final destination of his flight into the imaginary, which, by means of this handful of lights, had been signaling to him for years, but he suddenly discovers that he has gone astray and ended up at the wrong location. Evidence, if more evidence were necessary, that the “otherworld” imagined by Alexandrov in reading Nabokov does not exist: it is the interior world of the imaginary as it enters into a dialogue with the real. If Martin were able to use language for creative ends, this flight would result in the creation of a palpable object, a work. Unfortunately he has not attained this form of symbolic expression. An inveterate dreamer, he seeks to reach out and touch the real beyond the fascinating mirage, but he is disappointed every time.
Alongside these fantasies of flight toward an imaginary universe—fueled since his earliest childhood by his mother—Martin entertains dreams of grandeur and heroism in reading or having read to him stories of King Arthur and his valiant knights, of valorous Tristan, or of Sinbad the Sailor. These legendary characters are, in his eyes, not representatives of his father, for whom he had little affection, but surrogate fathers destined to replace this distant father, who, since the day he left his wife and son, lives alone in his apartment amidst a panoply of weapons of all kinds. Despite his façade of indolence, he is a man of action, who ends up joining the troops of General Wrangel and dies in battle. After having learned of his death, Martin thinks about him for much of the night and even tries to communicate with him: “if, right now, a board in the floor creaks or there is a knock of some kind, that means he hears me and responds” (12). Like his mother, Martin possesses a taste for the irrational, for the occult. The living father was, as it were, of no concern to him; the dead father, on the other hand, will haunt him and influence the course of his life, though he is not aware of it. This situation corresponds rather faithfully to the one evoked by Lacan in his Écrits when he defines the father as the dead father, “signifier for which all other signifiers represent the subject: that is, in the absence of this signifier, all the others would represent nothing.”3 Whereas the mother, the Thing, is in Lacanian theory on the side of the real, the father is on the side of the symbolic and thus of the social sphere. Martin never succeeds in establishing contact with this dead father whose absence he suddenly feels grievously because he continues, even at a distance, to live in quasi-symbiosis with his mother, to be his mother’s phallus. The exclusive love of his mother will render him incapable of finding lasting love with any other woman, or of finding acceptance by any community whatsoever.
It is the dead father, as signifier, who will nevertheless incite Martin, without his knowledge, to attempt to realize exploits analogous to those related in the books of Mayne Reid that he read as a child. It is the fear of not measuring up to this ultimately heroic father that will provoke in him fear in the face of an adversary, even when the latter is less strong than he, like a certain schoolmate: “And yet the possibility of a chance defeat made him so nervous, and he imagined it with such hideous clarity, that never once did he try to start a wrestling match with that coeval” (14). He does not hesitate, on the other hand, to fight with boys stronger and more muscular, who give him a good thrashing, as with his friend Darwin at Cambridge, for he possesses, without knowing it, a taste for failure. Ultimately he will never join the White Army, even if he displays the desire to do so on several occasions, allowing himself to be easily discouraged by his mother, who wants to keep him near her.
He finally falls back on minor gambits and plays at frightening himself, as when, for example, he undertakes an ascent in the Swiss mountains to test his courage and flirt with death: “he lost his grip, felt a burning pain as his knee scraped against the rock, attempted to embrace the steepness that was gliding up and past him—and abruptly salvation bumped against his soles” (85). The danger is entirely relative but his fear quite real; glimpsing the white hotel in the bottom of the valley, he reflects as follows: “‘So that’s what the message was […]. I’ll fall, I’ll perish, that’s what it’s watching for’” (85). He experiences a kind of paranoia like the protagonist of The Defense, who is convinced that the whole world is conspiring against him. Martin is so narcissistic that he believes that the world is there only for him, is interested only in him and is watching him at every moment to witness sadistically the spectacle of his failures. His fear of seeming a coward in the eyes of his acquaintances, at the same time as his perverse taste for failure, will ultimately lead him to undertake the irreparable.
This narcissism is most evident in his romantic relations with women. His initiation occurs in Greece with a passionate poetess, Alla, who seduces him but does not love him. His sexual drive is fueled by a romantic imagination that is, after all, rather banal: “Martin’s avid, unbridled imagination would have been incompatible with chastity. Fantasies known as ‘impure’ had plagued him for the last two or three years, and he made no particular effort to resist them” (33). Excited by Alla’s taunts, he desires, with an impatience mixed with uneasiness, the “main text” (37) and ends up making love with her one afternoon at the hotel: “Martin hurried, pursued rapture, overtook it, and she covered his mouth with her hand, saying under her breath ‘Sh, sh—the people next door…’” (38). Alla is in control of the situation from beginning to end; for her it is merely a meaningless fling. A few days later, the husband returns unexpectedly to the room, which he shares at night with Martin, just after Martin and Alla have made love; the young woman does not lose her composure for a single instant and begins discussing matters with her husband as if Martin were not there.
Martin is not tormented by a very intense desire, but simply by a sexual need that is easy to satisfy. Arriving in London, the first thing he does is sleep with a prostitute, who robs him of some of his money. It cannot be said that he has demonstrated, up until this time, intense feelings toward women, except for his mother. When he meets Sonia, the daughter of the Zilanovs, the Russian émigrés who host him in London, he begins to harbor feelings that are authentically romantic. Sonia, who has noticed how vain and narcissistic he is, strives to subject him to ridicule, teasing him about his shoes and even about his English: “Thus Martin quite unexpectedly found himself classified as ignorant, adolescent, and a mamma’s boy” (54). He tries to correct the image she has of him by showing off his talent at a dance, at soccer, and at tennis. She, less indifferent to him than she appears to be, seems to want to continually sharpen his desire and subject him to a series of tests, like the lady in a chivalric romance, but without ever promising to love him in return. When she comes to visit him with her mother in Cambridge, she continues to mock him. After he cites an aphorism by his professor Moon about Russian, she declares mercilessly “‘What bothers me […] is the platitudes some people spout’” (67). On the occasion of subsequent meetings, she displays a growing interest in Darwin, Martin’s classmate, a poet and former soldier. She does not genuinely love him but esteems him for his courage, his intelligence, his talent as a writer. She never dreams of marrying him; one gets the feeling that she spends time with him only to further fan Martin’s jealousy.
She sees the latter, in fact, as a brother, and even allows herself one evening to join him in his room, formerly the room of her sister Nelly, who has recently died in childbirth. She sits on the corner of the bed, slips beneath the covers that he has obligingly turned back for her, and begins to talk about her sister, while he, aroused, tries in vain to seduce her by evoking his mountain-climbing exploits. In the end, unable to restrain himself, he kisses her on the cheek, immediately unleashing her anger and scorn: “‘[H]ow couldn’t you see that this was the way I used to come to Nelly, and we talked and talked till dawn’” (94). A rather implausible scene, certainly, in which the two characters seem equally naïve, but which confirms that Sonia experiences only fraternal feelings toward Martin. The poor boy, whose desire has been treated with such disdain, is at a complete loss. Sonia, when she sees him again the following morning, limits herself to calling him a “cretin,” thereby refusing to see things in a tragic light, as she would have had she experienced authentic desire towards him.
This refusal by the girl to acknowledge the boy’s desire, or at least to respond to it, occurs frequently in Nabokov’s work. Masculine desire often has something inadmissible about it, is even scandalous in the eyes of numerous female characters, as seen for example in the poem from 1928 “Lilith,” in which a boy on the verge of making love to a girl is shown the door and spills his semen in front of lewd creatures:
“Let me in!”
The boy’s desire here takes on a genuinely tragic dimension, not only because the girl refuses to respond to it but because it manifests itself in the light of day, in a grotesque fashion, before the eyes of demonic characters with clogs cloven like the feet of goats. It is not so much the rivalry with another man that exacerbates the male character’s desire in Nabokov’s work as perverse refusal by the girl, by the woman, to acknowledge the intensity of masculine desire and to take it seriously. Masculine desire often appears ridiculous and trivial to the Nabokovian heroine, who, except perhaps in Ada, never experiences an intense desire worthy of this term. Nabokov, following numerous great novelists like Defoe, Richardson, Choderlos de Laclos, Flaubert, Joyce and many others, seems to have spent a good part of his career as a writer attempting to respond to the question to which neither Freud nor Lacan was ever really able to respond: “What does woman want?” (“Was will das Weib?”) in Freudian terms. The man is able to desire woman but is convinced ultimately that woman, recalcitrant object, does not desire man, who for her is merely a place of passage rather than an object of desire.
The entire relationship between Martin and Sonia unfolds in conformance with this logic. When she is on the verge of leaving with her family for Berlin, he tries in vain to sound out her feelings toward him but meets only rebuffs. He takes as a pretext for this exchange the fact that she has refused to marry Darwin, after having amply demonstrated her interest in him: “‘You can’t build up a person’s hopes and then turn him down’” (116). The impersonal wording he uses gives us to understand that he is reproaching Sonia for having employed the same perverse, cruel strategy toward him: she freely toys with the emotions of the boys she meets and does not seem to be conscious of the desires she arouses in them; ostensibly she seeks only their friendship, their brotherly closeness, but secretly takes pleasure in making them suffer. In the course of this same conversation, she calls him a “very sweet boy” (117) and tells him “‘For goodness’ sake, why can’t we keep everything nice and simple?’” (117), evidence that she harbors no romantic feelings toward him and refuses the complications that such feelings might engender. She ends the conversation by giving him a chaste kiss on the tip of his nose, unleashing in him a renewed flood of sensuality which she hurries to quell.
In setting out once more for Cambridge, he never stops thinking romantically of her and begins to dream of extraordinary adventures liable to secure his beauty’s favors: “he imagined how, after many adventures, he would arrive in Berlin, look up Sonia, and, like Othello, begin to tell a story of hairbreadth escapes, of most dangerous chances. ‘No, it can’t go on like this […]. No, no. Less talk and more action.’ Closing his eyes, and wedging himself comfortably into the corner, he started preparing for a dangerous expedition, studying an imaginary map” (119). The reference to Othello is apt: it is, in fact, by recounting his lofty deeds that the Moor succeeds in seducing Desdemona. Martin, borrowing from Nabokov a reference he would perhaps not have thought of himself, finally realizes that Sonia is exasperated by his fine words, by his boasting, and even by the laughable successes he enjoys in tennis or in soccer as a goalie.
When in his turn he goes to settle in Berlin, he realizes that he can expect nothing from her and that he does not even find her to be pretty: “Everything about her was unfamiliar: the bronze-colored sweater, the exposed ears, the stuffy voice—she was in the throes of a bad cold, and the skin was red around her nostrils” (138). It is upon his contact with the poet Bubnov, who, we later learn, is in love with Sonia, that his feelings for her begin to reawaken. One day, the poet lauds in his presence the charms of the girl he loves, without however naming her: “‘I may lack talent, but I’m in love with her. Her name is like a church dome, like the swish of doves’ wings […]. A woman’s charm is a terrible thing—you understand me, terrible’” (141-142). This conversation makes Martin very ill at ease, as if he has understood intuitively that Bubnov is speaking of Sonia.
In the orbit of the second-rate poet, he rediscovers bit by bit the feelings he once had for her, even though she continues to treat him like a child and to ignore his advances and his thoughtfulness. And yet, one day she agrees to give him a kiss on the lips that literally makes her feverish: “little shivers shook her, her lips parted under his, but breaking the spell her hand pushed his face aside, and her teeth were chattering, and in a half-whisper she implored him to stop” (144). This is the first and only time she seems to experience sensual, if not sexual, desire for Martin, but she immediately steels herself against it by saying “‘And what if I’m in love with somebody else?’” (144) and by accusing him of behaving “‘like a Sunday shop clerk’” (145). And she begins to sadistically sing the praises of the man she pretends to love, perhaps to stave off the feelings she is beginning to feel for Martin and to incite his jealousy. He then thinks back to Darwin, whom she treated with the same offhandedness.
In the course of the months that follow, Sonia and he indulge in harmless little games, imagining for example a magical world they call Zoorland, which will oddly reappear in Bubnov’s poetry, evidence that Sonia has betrayed their secret and is not very attached to him. This new stage in their relationship ends up once more in failure. During his stay in Provence, where for the first time he truly develops a taste for life, he is so happy that he wonders whether it would not be better to renounce “the desire to peer into the merciless Zoorland night, and to get settled with a young wife right here” (165), but when he shares this dream with Sonia in a letter and asks her to marry him, she replies by begging him to stop harassing her: “ ‘Stop tormenting me […]. Enough, for Christ’s sake! I will never marry you. Moreover, I loathe vineyards, the heat, snakes, and, especially, garlic. Cross me out, do me that favor, darling’” (165). The refusal is, however, less brutal than before; Sonia acknowledges experiencing feelings if not amorous then at least affectionate for him as evidenced by the term of endearment at the end.
From this moment on Martin believes he has no other choice but to undertake a grandiose expedition. One evening in Switzerland, after his mother has mentioned Russia in passing, he gives himself up to a reverie in the dark, facing the mountains: “‘Travel,’ said Martin softly, and he repeated this word for a long time, until he had squeezed all meaning out of it, upon which he set aside the long, silky skin it had shed” (48). He does not suspect at that moment that the desire to travel, which dates back to his earliest childhood, as we have seen, is currently being dictated in good measure by his desire to return to Russia, the country for which his father died. If he feels such respect for Mr. Zilanov, Sonia’s father, it is because Zilanov is very active in anti-Boshevist movements and frequents individuals very involved in the struggle, like Iogolevich, who, having entered Russia clandestinely, evokes for Martin the tribulations of his mother land: “It was obvious that the only thing that filled his consciousness, the only thing that preoccupied and affected him, was Russia’s woe” (90). He sees in these characters substitutes for his father, who shared this same love for Russia.
Feeling himself discredited in Sonia’s eyes, he begins to imbue himself with the imagination of a political activist. Shortly after she tells him that she is perhaps in love with another man, he attempts to restore his image by pretending to be a part of a secret movement: “With the intent of striking Sonia’s imagination, Martin vaguely alluded to his having joined a secret group of anti-Bolshevist conspirators that organized reconnaissance operations” (146). It is Iogolevich and especially Gruzinov, whom Zilanov spoke to him about, who serve as examples in this case. Sonia having pointed out, quite rightly, that it would be better not to boast about what he is doing, he responds: “‘Oh, I was only joking’” (147) with a slight enigmatic smile that could be taken to signify quite the opposite. Sonia apparently does not catch the undertone and limits herself to evoking a thought that comes to her often with regard to “a land where ordinary mortals were not admitted” (147). While she contents herself with dreaming of an imaginary universe, the Zoorland of their conversations, he begins genuinely to envision returning to Russia, obviously not so much to fight as to test his courage and to boast to her upon his return of having realized such an exploit. When he returns to the subject, he meets with a stinging setback: “‘There’ll never be anything,’ she exclaimed in the tones of Pushkin’s Naïna (‘Hero, I still do not love thee!’)” (151). Sonia believes that the sole aim of this braggadocio is to force her to love him. Martin’s desire is, however, more confused than she thinks and ultimately, without a doubt, lacks an object: to this request for love is blended a request for recognition and approval addressed to the surrogate fathers, a desire, never acknowledged as such, to return to his native land, which is in fact a desire for death, a desire to desire no more. For he is weary of desiring in vain and prefers to risk everything.
The different facets of his desire lead him, in the presence of the Frenchman he meets in the train, to adopt several identities that do not correspond with reality: he pretends to be an Englishman (at Molignac, he would pretend to be German and then Swiss) and a seasoned traveler. When the stranger asks him if he is traveling for pleasure or to do scientific research, he implies that more than that is involved, without being able to say precisely what he is researching: “‘But—how shall I put it?—science, knowledge—all that is not the main point. The main point, the main purpose is—No, I really don’t know how to explain’” (155). For once he is no doubt telling the truth: he is conscious of the confused, ambiguous nature of his motives. The stranger eventually obligates him to state his idea more precisely: “‘There are besides—how shall I say?—glory, love, tenderness for the soil, a thousand rather mysterious feelings’” (156). In fact certain components are lacking from his diffuse desire, even if he is supplying here the most complete list he will ever formulate. However, at the very moment when he is finally expressing himself in all sincerity, his interlocutor retorts: “‘One is mocking me, eh?’” (156), and after telling him he is too young to roam the Sahara, he abruptly ends the conversation.
Gruzinov, the valorous resistance-fighter from whom Martin seeks information, ostensibly on behalf of one of his friends who envisions traveling to Russia, understands very quickly that the friend in question is a complete fabrication, and he openly exhorts Martin to abandon the adventure, provoking in the latter a feeling of hatred towards him (178). Here then is Martin’s personal tragedy: at first he imagines the expedition out of boastfulness in the hope of winning the heart of Sonia, who never takes him seriously, and at the moment when he prepares to act and attempts, eventually quite sincerely, to explain his motives to a stranger, the latter places no credence in his words and believes he is being made fun of; he is no more taken seriously by Gruzinov and again meets with a snub. From having never joined the resistance against the Bolsheviks, Martin has always perceived in himself an irredeemable shortcoming that prevents him from seeming credible, as a lover, as a soldier, and eventually as a subject, in the eyes of his acquaintances and even of perfect strangers. In the presence of Darwin, who realized true exploits during the war and writes texts that are published, he feels himself to be an impostor; in Sonia’s eyes, in the eyes of the Frenchman, ultimately in his own eyes, he remains an imposter, because the desires he displays do not tally with his character. He has only second-hand desires, the totality of which does not succeed in making him a credible subject in the eyes of others: to dissipate these shams and acquire recognition as a desiring subject, ballasted by an authentic “lack of being” (Lacan’s pet formula to explain what desire is), he wagers everything on his adventure, which he fears in advance will lead to his death. If there is one desire in him that cannot be contested, it is this one: he will attain the status of subject by disappearing.
On the morning that he leaves his mother forevermore, he recalls those Christmas mornings when, in his room, he would open his presents and then clumsily rewrap them so that she could later witness the ceremony – a pointless stratagem since she always discovered the subterfuge. The shortcoming he senses in himself and hopes to erase by going to Russia makes him a small child who has never truly grown up: he is not returning to his native land to undertake great things, like Gruzinov or Iogolevich, but to find once more his blessed childhood, to return towards non-being, towards death. In the restroom of the train carrying him to Berlin, he takes a rather uncomfortable morning bath in his “collapsible tub” (183), a daily practice that constitutes in his eyes a form of defense: “a defense against the obstinate attack of the earth advancing by means of a film of insidious dust, as if it could not wait to take possession of a man before his time” (182). Martin suffers from obsessional neurosis: he fears seeing the world smother him, annihilate him, and experiences a panicky fear of death, so much so that in the end he throws himself into its arms.
Just before his departure, he sees Darwin one last time, explains his plan to him, and asks him to send one of the four cards he has composed in advance to his mother every week so that she will not worry about him. Darwin does not understand the finality of the expedition and voices a series of hypotheses: a plot against the Soviets, a desire to visit ancestral lands, a taste for risk. Martin replies that he is mistaken and is surprised that he, who once realized lofty deeds himself, does not understand the goal he seeks to achieve; nevertheless, he refrains from explaining to him his true motives, which at this point appear more confused than ever. He is not aware of being urged by a desire for death that is disproportionate to the amorous desire he feels for Sonia.
The latter, when she learns he has disappeared, claims to have been aware of his plans and bursts into tears, exclaiming “‘They’ll kill him, oh God, they’ll kill him’” (204). Is she trying to deceive Darwin and her parents, she who never had faith in him and always took his plans for braggadocio? I think not. She understands all at once that he wanted to cease appearing an impostor in her eyes and to force her and all those around him to believe in him. She feels responsible for his death and is angry with herself for being so cruel to him. He has achieved his aim in a tragic manner: taking the path depicted in the watercolor at the head of his bead, a path Darwin walks along in his own way when he travels to Switzerland to inform Sofia of the news, Martin has renounced the imaginary and has finally reestablished contact with the real, that is, with death.
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