Of Nabokov’s Russian novels, Glory1 has been appraised with the most reserve. From Andrew Field’s evaluation of the work as “the least exciting”2 of the novels and his comment that “[Glory] does not challenge the reader with subtle multiplicity of meaning,”3 to A.S. Muliarchik’s observation that in Glory, compared to works that preceded it, there is “much less stylistic refinement, brilliance, literary virtuosity,”4 Glory has received somewhat different treatment from Nabokov’s more dazzling works. It is therefore perhaps natural that the novel has not been much discussed: “scholarship on Glory is sparse.”5
The work’s structure, however, is not nearly as simple as it may appear. In the preface to the English edition, Nabokov himself explains that “(the fun of Glory) is to be sought in the echoing and linking of minor events in back-and-forth switches, which produce an illusion of impetus…,”6 so that, if read closely, the various devices characteristic of Nabokov’s work surface here too. The most often discussed of such devices is “recurrent imagery.”7
What can be said of Nabokov’s work in general with regard to recurrent imagery has been previously commented on, to some extent, with respect to Glory. According to Leona Toker, for example, two of the work’s leitmotivs are “the winding path that disappears into a forest”8 and “the sound of water,”9; there is no doubt that the first image, especially, is essential to forming the “fairy-tale”-like framework of the novel.10 Moreover, “train journeys,”11 “the trail,”12 and other such motifs could be added to the list.
Many of the passages cited by commentators, however, make no mention of images of “lights,” which should attract the careful reader’s attention no less than do the motifs enumerated above, and nothing is said about the significance of this particular “recurrent imagery.” Furthermore, it could be said that hitherto almost no attention has been paid to the words “black,” “dark,” and “darkness,” which often appear as background for the “lights” and emphasize them by providing contrast. In pursuing the images of light(s) and darkness or blackness that appear in Glory from this perspective, I would like to consider their significance.
* * *
In any discussion of Nabokov’s novels certain questions inevitably arise. First is whether the Russian or the English edition should be discussed, a question that is unexpectedly troublesome to settle. One approach is to maintain, given its status as “the original work,” that the Russian edition should be discussed. In recent years, however, there has been a strong trend, even among European and American researchers proficient in Russian, to give serious consideration to the English edition. This tendency is no doubt due to the fact that Nabokov is both the author and translator of the original work, so there is little rationale for disregarding the new, i.e. English, edition.
In addition, given that the extent to which the Russian and English versions differ varies by work, the question becomes even more troublesome. In the case of Glory, the differences are not particularly great,13 but they cannot be ignored, given that in the English edition the single term “light(s)” may be used to render what in the Russian edition is expressed by either svet or ogon’. In this article, the themes outlined above will be discussed taking the English edition as the principal text, while the Russian text will be consulted as necessary.
* * *
Foremost among the images of light(s) in Glory (ogon’/ogonek in the Russian edition) are those seen in the distance by Martin from the window of a train at night. Traveling on the Sud Express with his parents as a young boy, he notices from the train window “a handful of lights in the distance, in a fold of darkness between two black hills” (21). These lights not only overlap with an experience Nabokov describes in his autobiography,14 but they are directly linked to the lights discovered by Martin from the window of the night train in the second half of the story as he heads for the South of France: “A necklace of lights, far away, among dark hills” (157). The marked similarity of the two passages makes plain the author’s intent to link them.
Although there are theories about Martin’s misunderstanding as to the source of the lights seen from the train window (believing that a village called Molignac is the source of the lights and having visited it, he is later told that in fact Molignac is not visible from the train),15 the gem metaphor implicit in the second English quote above,16 and of the numerous allusions related to lights, there has been no discussion of the fact that these lights are glimpsed “in a fold of darkness, between two black hills,” and “among dark hills” [emphasis YI]. One cannot ignore, however, that the images of light(s) that appear frequently in the book are often juxtaposed with the concepts of darkness and blackness. Let’s begin by examining specific examples of the phenomenon.
* * *
The first scene in the English edition in which light(s) appear is in Chapter 5,17 as Martin is gazing at the Black Sea in the post-revolution Crimea one evening: “To the left, in the murky, mysterious distance, shimmered the diamond lights of Yalta” (20; the jewel metaphor is again evident). Here the word “murky,” whose meaning is akin to “dark,” is used.18
In the opening of Chapter 6, where this image is repeated—“the clustered lights of Yalta amid the extensive blackness” (20)—the opposition of “lights” and “blackness” is still more plain. It is in this same chapter, furthermore, that the previously cited account appears: Martin, as a young boy, sees lights from the window of the night train. There immediately follows this description:
the lights would hide and reappear, and they came twinkling from a completely different direction, and abruptly vanished, as if somebody had covered them with a black kerchief (21; emphasis YI).
Description of the lights seen from the night train is continued later in Chapter 6: one can draw a connection between “everything grew dark” following naturally the appearance of “the familiar lights” (22) and, after the lights have disappeared, “The undulating black night resumed its smooth course and the elusive lights gradually thinned into nothingness” (22). Chapters 5 and 6 are replete with darkness and lights placed in precise opposition.19
Later in 1919 Martin and his mother are exiled from Russia, travel on board ship past Greece, and arrive in Marseille. As they are traveling on a night train from Marseille to Switzerland, where his uncle Henry lives (Chapter 10), Martin once again seeks out “his beloved lights” (41). What Martin finds more enchanting than anything else are “those lights, those wails in the night” (41).
Temporarily settled in Switzerland after emigrating, Martin, having decided to attend Cambridge University, sees lights outside the house immediately prior to his departure for England: “The outlines of the mountains were indistinct, and here and there, in the folds of the darkness, dots of light scintillated in twos and threes” (48). These lights are not glimpsed from a train window, but worthy of note is the resemblance between the description in Chapter 6, “in a fold of darkness,” and the description given here in Chapter 11: “in the folds of darkness.” In the course of the narrative thus far, that light(s) always appear juxtaposed with darkness and blackness is easily confirmed.
After Martin moves to England, however, lights disappear from his surroundings. In Chapter 11, upon his arrival in London, Martin sees “lights on the Thames” (49)20 (paralleled by things such as “the black handsome cabs” and “a policeman in a shiny black cape” ) and “sparkling lights” (51) (these, however, are lights reflected in a prostitute’s eyes), but later, during his life at Cambridge University, lights make no appearance whatsoever.21 On the few occasions when the term “light” appears—such as “a point of light” (82) or “on which the light changed” (83) in Chapter 20—it renders the Russian term svet (here referring to the headlight of a bicycle and sunlight, respectively)22 rather than ogon’. When Martin yields to his feelings for Sonia after graduating from Cambridge University and moves to Berlin to pursue her, circumstances do not change. The “light” in the phrase “the staircase light flashed on” (139), which appears in Chapter 32, is again a translation of svet (here, connoting the light from a light bulb). In fact, the frequency of the term “lights” as equivalent to svet—as in the descriptions “I see a radiant light in her name, that special light” (142) and “a light from there” (142), both in Chapter 33, and “with which the light of a streetlamp animated” (143-144) in Chapter 34—increases during the Berlin period.
It is not until Martin finally tries to overcome his feelings for Sonia and leaves for the South of France that “lights” corresponding to the Russian ogon’ appear once again. Thereafter, from Chapter 37, in which lights are seen in the distance from the train window to Chapter 39, when Martin leaves the village in the South of France, the text is replete with juxtapositions of light(s) and darkness.
In Chapter 37, after the above-mentioned “necklace of lights … among dark hills” discerned from the train window, Martin gets off the train to go “in search of those lights” (157). Telling the restaurant proprietress “I saw lights in the distance” (159) and asking her about them, he is told they come from Molignac, whereupon he steps out into “a dark square” (159), determined to visit the village. In Chapter 38, having finally managed to reach Molignac on foot, he is deeply moved:
So this was where they sparked at night, the lights which had beckoned to him ever since his childhood” (161; emphasis YI).
Convinced he has found the source of the dreams he has had since childhood, Martin begins working on a farm in Molignac (Chapter 39); as the day’s heavy manual labor ends and night falls, he goes outside to look for the lights in the distance:
Night fell, lights trembled on the silhouetted hills, the windows of the farmhouse lit up; and when far, far away, in the unknown gloom23, a tiny rattling train would pass by broken into small fiery segments and vanish, Martin told himself with deep satisfaction that from there, from that train, the farm and Molignac looked like a handful of jewels. He was glad to have heeded the call of those lights, to have uncovered their lovely quiet essence (164-165; emphasis YI).
This scene perhaps reveals a hint of the meaning of the lights for Martin. There can be no doubt that lights in the distance—with darkness as a background—hold an essential significance in his life.
After working for some time on the farm in Molignac, Martin heads back to Berlin. Wishing to take his leave of them, he waits for the appearance of the lights in the window of the train he has boarded: “He stood … waiting for the appearance of his beloved lights, to bid them good-bye” (166). As the lights appear “in the blackness” (166), Martin asks the conductor “Those lights there—that’s Molignac, isn’t it?” (166), seeking confirmation of the fact that they are indeed Molignac’s lights. His expectation, however, is blithely betrayed: “In any case it’s not Molignac … Molignac can’t be seen from the railroad” (166). The fact that Molignac turns out not to be the source of the lights in no way diminishes their significance. The imagery of light(s) central to the book reaches its climax in Chapters 37-39.
Lights then disappear from the text until Chapter 48 (Chapter 50 in the Russian edition), until after Martin has returned to Berlin and finally undertaken a secret entry into the Soviet Union (represented in the context of the novel by the imaginary country Zoorland) and gone missing, and his friend Darwin has come to Switzerland to tell Martin’s mother the news. Given the climax of the lights theme in Chapters 37-39 and their subsequent disappearance until Chapter 48, this section of the novel almost seems like an epilogue..
* * *
In examining the images of light(s) that appear in the book, we realize they are not distributed evenly throughout the text, but that their concentration varies considerably. Understanding their significance should not be too difficult, given that their appearances are often accompanied by explanations of their import.
When light(s) appear for the first time in Chapter 5, for example, Martin experiences the following after seeing “the diamond lights of Yalta” in the vicinity of the Black Sea:
… and suddenly Martin again experienced a feeling he had known on more than one occasion as a child: an unbearable intensification of all his senses, a magical and demanding impulse, the presence of something for which alone it was worth living (20).
What Martin feels—the “intensification of all his senses”—is something that he experienced frequently as a child. Then, as now, it is tied to a mysterious feeling, a revelation somehow connected to the significance of human life. Stated differently, the experience reveals Martin’s romantic temperament. Nabokov writes in the preface to the English edition, in fact, that the work was originally titled Romanticheskii vek (Romantic Times, or, The Age of Romance). Based on the statement in Chapter 9 that “What fired him as a rule was the remote, the forbidden, the vague—anything sufficiently indistinct to make his fantasy work at establishing details” (34), it is natural to see Martin as a romantic.24
Furthermore, lights in the distance are connected with images of travel. In the description from the opening of Chapter 7 cited below (cf. footnote 19),"travels" and "distant lights," as things that pulls at Martin's spirit, are placed in parallel; in Chapter 11, immediately after seeing dots of light, Martin whispers “Travel” (49). A romantic by temperament, Martin dreams continually of trips to strange lands, and his final departure for Zoorland can be taken as an extension of this propensity.
Martin is bound for Molignac in Chapters 37-39, and at the end of Chapter 37, his plan to visit the source of the lights is itself depicted as something unrealistic, as an event within a fantasy: “Who knows—perhaps, by some caprice of space, he was already beyond the Zoorland border, in the uncertain night, and presently would be challenged” (159). Lights are clearly tied to the unrealistic. As in the passage cited previously, Martin, having responded to “the call of those lights” flashing past in the distance as glimpsed from the train window, recalls the satisfaction at having discovered “their lovely quiet essence.” Here again, his fanciful and mystical sensibility is put into relief. That the revelation turns out to be a misunderstanding is fitting, given Martin’s romantic temperament. That which is easily attained is unsuited to being the object of romantic yearning.
* * *
Supposing then that the “lights” that recur throughout the book are tied to Martin’s romantic temperament, hint at distant or unattainable things, and are connected to both travel and to the truth of human existence, what would be the significance of the images of dark(ness) and black(ness) which frequently occur juxtaposed with them?
Until now, “black” has been associated with death. In the preface to the English version, Nabokov himself states that “The memory of the childish reverie blends with the expectation of death” (xii). Martin’s departure for Zoorland is tied to a wish for death, and throughout the work there is an intimate connection between darkness/blackness and Zoorland: in Chapter 35, for example, “The night of Zoorland seemed to him ever darker” (150), and again in Chapter 39, the association of night with Zoorland appears in the form “the desire to peer into the merciless Zoorland night” (165). The link between death and darkness-blackness-Zoorland is most pronounced at the end of the story. In the scene in which Martin’s friend Darwin goes to Switzerland to inform Martin’s mother of his status as missing, the link is unmistakable, and is emphasized too by repetitions in the description of the Russian forest when Martin secretly crosses the border from Latvia into the Soviet Union:25
The air was dingy, here and there tree roots traversed the trail, black fir needles now and then brushed against his shoulder, the dark path passed between the tree trunks in picturesque and mysterious windings (205; emphasis YI).
It would not be implausible to consider this occurrence of “dark” and “black” at the story’s end as hinting at Martin’s death (inside the Soviet Union).
Furthermore, Nassim Berdjis calls attention to the appearance in Chapter 21, as Martin attempts rock-climbing in Switzerland and nearly falls to his death, of “the entirely black butterfly” (86), which she glosses as “a traditional premonition of death.”26 Also in Chapter 21, Sonia, who has lost both her older sister Nelly and Nelly’s husband, appears “dressed all in black” (87), again a natural connection of black (via her mourning dress) with death.
The link between death and dark/black thus cannot be entirely discounted, but to see the dark(s) and black(s) that are juxtaposed to the frequently occurring light(s)—themselves associated above all with the romantic—as connected solely to death is incorrect. Let’s consider other possibilities.
* * *
One hint of the significance of dark/black is that Sonia, who could be called the heroine, is often linked to the color black. In the passage cited above from Chapter 21, she appears “dressed all in black,” and her association with black is not limited to the clothing she wears but extends to the color of her hair and eyes as well.
In Chapter 16, Sonia and her mother visit Martin at Cambridge for the first time. In the English edition her clothing is described only as a “navy-blue suit” (67), but in the Russian edition as a “temnon-sinem kostume” (200; emphasis YI), which adjectives, translated literally, would be “dark blue,” thereby stressing the suit’s darkness. Furthermore, her hair and eyes are described as follows: “Her bobbed black, somewhat coarse-looking hair” (67); “her dull-dark, slightly slanting eyes” (67).27 The repetition is intended to instill in the reader’s mind a connection between Sonia and the color black.
Such descriptions recur in Chapter 20, when Martin visits London with Darwin to see Sonia: “her short black hair” (80); “her black hair” (82). Then, in Chapter 22, “her black hair” (93) and “[h]er dark eyes” (94) are evoked; furthermore, by means of the phrase “in her black dress” (96), which refers back to Chapter 21, the link between Sonia and the color black is firmly imprinted in the reader’s mind.
The list of such examples could be continued at some length, so let’s direct our attention to Chapter 45, in which Martin sees Sonia for the last time. Here again she appears wearing a “black jumper” (186), and attention is called to her “one black strand of hair” (187). In contrast, the woman chosen by Darwin, once rejected by Sonia, as his new fiancée—the topic of a conversation between Martin and Sonia in this chapter—has “light eyes” (197) (svetlye glaza ), as we learn in Chapter 48. One cannot help concluding that the contrast in the color of the two women’s eyes is intentional.
Considering that the decadent female poet Alla whom Martin meets on board ship during the flight from Russia is connected above all to the color red (“her red lips” [28-29], “with rubies as red as blood” , “the rubineous fumes of sin” 28), the conclusion Nabokov associates specific colors with women in the book is not implausible. The connection between Sonia and the color black is not accidental, and one may ask whether there is some significance in the fact that the color black governs the extinguishment of light(s) from Martin’s environment during his stay in England.
* * *
The link between Sonia and the color black has not been overlooked. E.C. Haber, for example, notes that her surname, Zilanov, is snake-like in nature (symbolizing dissension and death)29, and compares Sonia to a “snake maiden”30:
Sonia’s destructive character—her penchant for tormenting and ultimately rejecting her suitors, her wicked tongue—reveals a snake-like nature. Her black hair and dark, lusterless eyes reinforce the demonic impression.
Counting her among women who toy with the feelings of men and ultimately repel their proposals of marriage, Sonia can be seen as a “cruel lady.”31 For Haber, however, only her “demonic” nature is emphasized, and although the color black is mentioned in relation to this, a more important side of the woman Sonia is, unfortunately, neglected. She should be seen as a more “ordinary” young woman.
In the preface to the English edition of the novel, Nabokov himself notes that Martin is “the kindest, uprightest, and most touching of all my young men” (xi) (elsewhere describing him as “naïve” [xi]), and it is natural to see Martin as an “ordinary youth”32 If his love for Sonia counts among “the most ordinary pleasures” (x) he discovers in life, then to consider Sonia, per Nabokov’s comment, “a moody and ruthless flirt” (xi), an “ordinary girl”33 who enagages only in trifiling love affairs, is not at all unwarranted.
Of course, she is also significant for having inspired in Martin the ideas connected to Zoorland, and in repeating to him her dead sister Nelly’s statement that “the most important thing in life was to do one’s duty and think of nothing else” (93) (further expanded as “she didn’t mean work or job, but a kind of—well, the kind of thing which has an inner importance” ). Both actions inspire Martin, but neither nullifies the image of Sonia as an “ordinary” young woman. Considered from this angle, might not Glory be seen as “a work that highlights the charm of a protagonist who is a so-called poshliak,”34 and the most important characteristic of the woman whom the poshliak35 Martin loves, Sonia, is her poshlust’?36
* * *
That the contrast between light and shadow is deeply significant in Nabokov’s novels need not be repeated here,37 but something might be said about the effect of this “chiaroscuro.” In discussing Nabokov’s early Russian short stories, Naumann, says that in “The Return of Chorb” (“Vozvrashchenie Chorba,” 1925) “The light-infused beaches of Nice and snow-covered Switzerland mountains contrast with the pointedly quiet, dark, dead German town”38 (emphasis YI). A contrast could be said to have been established between dark(ness), expressing melancholy everydayness, and light, symbolizing hope and happiness (the protagonist and his wife visit Nice on their honeymoon).
Supposing this, it would not be unusual for the contrast of light and darkness (blackness) in Glory to embody an opposition of the everyday, the commonplace, the worldly with the unfamiliar, the unknown, the yearned-for. As already noted several times, because darkness and the color black frequently appear juxtaposed with light(s), it should be possible to deduce the significance of darkness/black from the significance of light(s). Even if darkness and the color black stand for things like death and ruin, in Glory their central significance lies elsewhere.
Reordering the book’s course of events once more, we see that Martin is a romantic young man who has yearned for “lights” since he was a child. He is then cut off from lights of his childhood, enters Cambridge University after being exiled, and having become enamored of the young woman Sonia, becomes immersed in a world of darkness associated with poshlust’. Near the end of his stay at Cambridge University, there is a scene in which Martin and Darwin fight a boxing match39 after which the two young men, lying side by side, look up at the sky, “across which a dark branch passed every now and then” (126). As something that deprives them of “light,” the “dark branch” possibly hints at Sonia, the woman they both love.
But Martin, who pursues Sonia to Berlin after graduating from the University, ultimately rediscovers light(s) during his travels in the South of France, and thanks to their guidance plots a trip to Zoorland. In so doing his romantic temperament seems to have subjugated “darkness,” but the trip ultimately ends with another kind of darkness, death.
The contrast of light(s) and darkness/blacknesss could therefore be seen as constituting the novel’s fundamental framework.
4. A.S. Muliarchik, Russkaia proza Vladimira
Nabokova (Moskva: Izd-vo Moskovskogo universiteta, 1997), p. 75.
13. Cf. Jane Grayson, Nabokov Translated: A Comparison of Nabokov’s Russian and English Prose (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.119. Grayson notes, furthermore, that in the English edition “Some of the colour epithets are more vivid” (Ibid., p. 122).
14. The “handful of fabulous lights that beckoned to me from a distant hillside” which appear in Nabokov’s autobiography are also glimpsed from the window of a train. (V. Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited [New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966], p. 24). See also J.B. Foster, Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 30.
16. Cf. N.W. Berdjis, Imagery in Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Russian Novel (Dar), Its English Translation (The Gift), and Other Prose Works of the 1930s (Frankfurt am Main; New York: Peter Lang, 1995), pp. 64-65.
17. The term lights in the English version corresponds to a plural form of ogon’ in the Russian edition, and a singular form of ogon’ appears shortly before the passage cited, in “rumiano-karimi ot ognia glazami” (V, Nabokov, Podvig, in V. Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii v chertyrekh tomakh, tom 2 [Moskva: Izd-vo “Pravda,” 1990], p. 167. All subsequent page references to Podvig are to this edition). In the latter case, however, the word lights does not appear in the English version: “eyes, reddish-brown from the flames” (20), ogon’ being rendered in this case by the word flames. The other Russian term rendered as lights, svet, appears frequently in the same chapter.
18. The Russian original has “vo mrake,” literally “in the gloom/darkness,” making the image of darkness all the more plain. The use of the term murky may have appealed to Nabokov’s sense of the serendipitous, given the chance congruence of the sounds m, r, and k in both the Russian mrak and the English murk.
19. In addition, at the beginning of Chapter 7 the following passage occurs: “From that year on Martin developed a passion for trains, travels, distant lights, the heartrending wails of locomotives in the dark of night” (24).
21. In Chapter 18 of the Russian original (Chapter 17 of the English version), forms of the word ogon’ are used in two passages: “ves’ gorod plevalsia poteshnymi ogniami” and "oni mchalis’ po ulitsam v meteli ognia” (203), but the word lights appears in neither of the corresponding passages in the English version: “the entire city was spewing fireworks,” “they sped through the streets, nearly burning down …” (71).
24. Charles Nicol notes that “Martin Edelweiss grows up under the influence of fairytales and medieval romances” (Charles Nicol, “Why Darwin Slid into the Ditch: An Embedded Text in Glory,” The Nabokovian 37, 1996, p. 48).
33. Leona Toker compares Sonia to the female protagonist of Nabokov’s story “A Russian Beauty,” commenting that “She is one of the series of Nabokovian wasted women.” Cf. L. Toker, “Nabokov’s Glory: ‘One Example of How Metaphysics Can Fool You,’” Russian Literature XXI, 1987, p. 311.
36. Cf. Nikolai Gogol, pp. 63-74. Viktor Erofeev mentions Alla’s husband and Martin’s Uncle Henry as typifying poshlost’ in Glory; Sonia is not included among his examples (V. Erofeev, V labirinte prokliatykh voprosov [Moskva : Sov. Pisatel’, 1990], p. 191.
37. Nassim Berdjis devotes a chapter of her book cited above to “Light Effects” in which, discussing “Light and Shadow in Contrast to Substantiality,” she compares “darkness as the hiding place” with “light as a refuge” (Cf. Berdjis, op. cit., p. 294). Richard Borden considers one of the distinctive features of Nabokov’s “Arcadian Garden” to be “the flaking or dappling shade and light effect of sun-struck foliage” (Richard Borden, “Nabokov’s Travesties of Childhood Nostalgia,” Nabokov Studies 2, 1995, p. 112).
39. Although Sonia is not the direct cause of the
fight between Darwin and Martin, in describing it as “an expression
of his [Martin’s] jealousy,” L.L. Lee too implies that Sonia
is its underlying cause (L.L. Lee, Vladimir Nabokov [Boston:
Twayne Publishers, 1976], p. 54).
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