Repetition and Ambiguity: Reconsidering Mary
by Akiko Nakata
translated from the Japanese by Jeff Edmunds in collaboration with Akiko Nakata

While Mary, published in Russian as Mashen’ka in 1926, is Nabokov’s first novel, for readers of the English-speaking world it is Nabokov’s twelfth, appearing in 1970, the year after the elaborate, meticulously crafted late masterwork Ada. As might be expected, readers accustomed to Nabokov’s later fiction tended to respond to the sober, autobiographical nature of this maiden work with reserve, and Mary did not invite as much critical response as did publication in the 1960s of English versions of The Gift or The Defense (Boyd, The American Years 654-55). This tendency to overlook Mary as a straightforward first novel did not change much for nearly twenty years, but when interest in Nabokov as a metafictional writer was in decline, toward the end of the 1980s, the work began to be read, and re-read, in earnest. The fact that, thanks to Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biography came to be known in detail, and the active research that ensued in Russia with the approval of publication of Nabokov’s work there in the late 1980s might both be considered stimuli for this rereading.

In English and Russian criticism, the principal outcome of this rereading was critical analysis of the protagonist Ganin’s character, especially his means of relating to other people.1 Leona Toker, for example, criticizes Ganin’s egoistic indifference towards the people around him (40-42), while Julian W. Connolly considers Ganin to be someone who projects idealized images onto others because he is unable to maintain practical relationships with them (34-36). As a character in the book, Mary too was the subject of similar studies.2 Such appraisals, however, focused chiefly on Ganin and Mary as characters, and no great differences are to be found in the views of Mary as recollected by Ganin. A conventional interpretation that sees Mary as the substantiation of Ganin’s unfulfilled longing, a materialization that takes form during a reenactment of the past and causes him to embark on a new voyage into an unspecified future, remains valid. Even if one chooses to see defects in Mary as a character, it is difficult to deny that Ganin, in experiencing the recollections that revolve around her, achieves a kind of maturity and even apparently gains the mental vigor he needs to leave the city where the action of the novel takes place. But even with the maturity that comes from experiencing his recollections, Ganin disregards the people around him, and we can be certain neither of where Ganin intends to go, nor of whether his departure means that he is bound for a new, more meaningful life. What is the meaning of a novel that might seem to be a Bildungsroman and yet has many features distinguishing it from that genre?

In this article, rather than considering the characters as characters, we will consider the Mary of the novel’s present and the existence of Mary within Ganin’s recollections, the recollections themselves, and the significance of Ganin’s subsequent awakening. By inspecting these matters we hope to clarify the repetitions that occur throughout the novel and the ambiguity that arises as a result.

Proof of Mary’s Existence

Mary, without appearing in the course of the novel, exists only insofar as she figures in Ganin’s recollections or is spoken of by the other characters. Despite the fact that she is, like the other characters, a Russian, she is the only character in the English version of the book granted an English first name.3 Moreover, by virtue of the fact that the name “Mary” suggests the Holy Mother or Mother Russia (Field 128) and that the person Mary does not actually appear in the book, her character occupies a privileged position. In reconstructing his memories for four days, Ganin reverses the real world and the world of memory such that he lives in the latter. During this time Mary’s existence is identified with the time of his youth and with the Russia of which Ganin has been deprived; in other words, the novel is so arranged that Mary is ubiquitous.

On the other hand, during the time of the action of the novel, Mary appears only incompletely by means of her name and such small appurtenances as her photograph and her letters. At the beginning of the book, when the name Mary makes an appearance as referring to Alfyorov’s wife, Ganin displays no reaction, and even though the same scene includes a letter, the handwriting of the letter writer cannot be seen because of the darkness due to the elevator malfunction. At the end of Chapter 2, Ganin sees a photograph of Mary, but the narrator does not describe it. The photograph borders on becoming material proof of Mary’s existence in Chapter 4, when, during Alfyorov’s absence, Ganin gazes at it a second time, but again there is no description of the photograph itself. Based on the fact that no conclusion can be drawn from this scene as to whether the photograph is actually a picture of Mary, and that the handwriting remains unseen, Toker discusses the ambiguity of the identity of Alfyorov’s wife. The ambiguity suggests that whoever Alfyorov’s wife is, she may not be the same Mary whom Ganin once loved. Ganin’s subsequent decision not to meet Mary would then be, from an aesthetic point of view, justified (Toker 43-44). But in Chapter 7, the possibility that Mary is, as expected, Alfyorov’s wife seems less subject to doubt insofar as what Ganin says of the photograph seems to indirectly confirm that the woman in the picture is indeed the Mary whom he once loved. Intentional avoidance of a description of the photograph and the handwriting is a novelistic device, preparation for the fact that Mary does not appear at the end of the book. Considering the question of Mary’s existence only in light of this and other narrative devices, it could be said that Mary, although concealed, actually does exist, or even that she exists by virtue of this very concealment, and that there is nothing ambiguous about her existence. But what seems to be merely a narrative device may be something more, and, as discussed below, it may even be related to the ambiguity of the narrative surrounding Mary.

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An earlier version of this article was published in Chuubu Amerika Bungaku [Chubu American Literature], no 2, 1999, pp. 31-45. An earlier version of part of the article was published in The Nabokovian 42.

1. I am indebted to Yuichi Isahaya’s “Gânin no kesshin” [Ganin's Decision] for a survey of recent Russian criticism of Mashen’ka. Isahaya refers to and quotes from Viktor Erofeev’s V labirinte prokliatykh voprosov (1990), Boris Nosik’s Mir i dar Nabokova: pervaia russkaia biografiia pisatelia (1995), and Petr Palamarchuk’s “Veshchii son, dialog: Vladimir” in Literaturnaia ucheba (1987: 6).

2. When the two women are viewed objectively, the resemblance between Mary and Lyudmila is obvious. Stephen Jan Parker gives as elements common to them their banality, the odor of their cheap perfumes, and their sexual wantonness (see p. 30). The fact that Ganin is sickened by Lyudmila’s perfume while considering Mary’s perfume to be one of her charms makes his subjectivity in judging them conspicuous.

3. As the reason for not choosing “Mashen’ka” as the name of the heroine in the English translation, Nabokov notes his aversion to the syllable “mash” in the English transliteration of the name. See Selected Letters, p. 459.

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