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

The Beginning and the End of Mary

Like the real-world Mary, the Mary recollected by Ganin, who has an overwhelming presence, appears in ways that are strangely suggestive. Boyd rightly notes the “absurdly steady disclosure of Ganin’s memories of Mary … ignoring the psychology of memory” (Boyd 1990, 249). Both this linear temporality and the unnatural vividness are results of the fact that the recollections are not left to revive themselves as they please, but are intentionally evoked by Ganin.

He was a god, re-creating a world that had perished. Gradually he resurrected that world, to please the girl whom he did not dare to place in it until it was absolutely complete. . . . in the end he must resurrect her too—and he intentionally thrust away her image, as he wanted to approach it gradually, step by step, just as he had done nine years before. (33)

On the other hand, Ganin is unable to specify when he met Mary for the first time (Connolly 35).4

Strange to say he could not remember exactly when he had first seen her. Perhaps at a charity concert staged in a barn on the border of his parents' estate. Perhaps though, he had caught a glimpse of her even before that. Her laugh, her soft features, her dark complexion and the big bow in her hair were all somehow familiar to him when a student medical orderly. . . had told him about this fifteen-year-old “sweet and remarkable” girl, as the student had put it—but that conversation had taken place before the concert. . . . Now, many years later, he felt that their imaginary meeting and the meeting which took place in reality had blended and merged imperceptibly into one another, since as a living person she was only an uninterrupted continuation of the image which had foreshadowed her. (44)

This account is in astonishing contrast to the vivid reminiscence that appears in Chapter 12 of Speak, Memory, in which Nabokov glimpses for the first time his teenage sweetheart Tamara—who became the model for Mary—in a birch grove. Although on the level of the plot the ambiguity of Mary’s first appearance is predicated throughout on the unreliability of Ganin’s memories, it gives the impression of having been created by the rhetoric of the narrative itself. Here the apparent distance between Ganin and the narrator (about which more below) is not yet keenly felt, but the paragraph cited above seems already to have been made intentionally intricate. The text relates how Ganin knows of Mary’s existence as a result of several earlier incidents, and then concludes that she is no more than the embodiment of a series of images that herald her arrival. As Ganin recalls his recovery from typhus as a boy, the text relates the same story, describing his premonition of the unknown girl: “It was after all simply a boyish premonition, a delicious mist, but Ganin now felt that never had such a premonition been so completely fulfilled” (33). Not only is Mary in present-day Berlin the natural extension of the images in Ganin’s recollections, but even as his actual lover nine years ago she is characterized by the narrator as merely a succession of images that culminates in the materialization of his premonition. Ganin, as “a god, re-creating a world that had perished,” summons Mary into a recollected environment, and this act is no more than a more perfect carrying out of something undertaken nine years earlier. This seemingly intentional reminiscing can be seen as the realization of Nabokov’s assertion that memory and art are alike: “The act of retention is the act of art, artistic selection, artistic blending, artistic re-combination of actual events” (Strong Opinions 186), and it would be natural to see Ganin’s reminiscing as one more instance of a writer’s creative act (Connolly 38, Zimmer 355).

Of course, the love affair of nine years before is real rather than simply a daydream, and Mary is not a character created by Ganin. But in both present-day Berlin and at the Russian summer estate of the past, Ganin’s acts of evoking Mary, even if aimed in different directions, one toward the future and the other toward the past, amount to the same thing. Both the moment of waiting for the nightingale’s cry while thinking that a meeting with Mary was not destined to occur and, years later, the four days lived in Berlin while recollecting Mary are described as privileged times: “the highest and most important point in his whole life” (47) and “four days which were perhaps the happiest days of his life” (114), respectively. The recollections of longing belong to the same class whether directed toward the future or toward the past, and resemble one another. In contrast to the ambiguity associated with Mary’s beginning, which is coincident with the vagueness of Ganin’s recollections, Ganin appears as the predominant subject of the acts of recollecting, and his fantasies are the chief object of his recollections. Ganin’s reminiscences are neither the rediscovery of something firmly existing nor a mere revival: memories may be manufactured in the act of remembering, imparting richness to what is being recalled.

The happy period of their love affair is replete with images of youthful vivacity, but we cannot deny that there is something ordinary about it, which Podytagin ridicules by saying “Rather hackneyed, though. Sweet sixteen, love in the woods” (42). Their “love in the woods” cannot be characterized as entirely commonplace, however, because it is rich with images of future recollections—what John Burt Foster has labeled “anticipatory memory”5—and continues to be enriched with recollections during the uncomfortable period of their courtship. The affair after their first summer together is made up of both recollections of times when they were happy and reveries about a fulfilling future. During the winter of that year in St. Petersburg their longing is directed toward both the past and the future: “So they roamed all winter, reminiscing about the countryside, dreaming of next summer …” (71). This period of their affair is something akin to a penance for Ganin, and when Mary leaves he is flooded with a sense of relief. Ganin’s propensity for reminiscing does not begin in Berlin.

During a single tryst that takes place the summer of the following year, “Ganin grew to love her more poignantly than ever before and fell out of love with her, as it seemed then, forever” (72). Ganin abruptly “decide[s]” that “it was all over,” that “he was no longer enamored” of Mary (73), and subsequently their affair ceases. Half a year later, as he is seeing off Mary, whom he has happened to meet by chance, we are informed that for Ganin “the further away she went the clearer it became to him that he would never forget her” (75). Ganin’s feelings as related by the narrator are not always understandable to the reader. His “decision” on the occasion of the final tryst causes an unnatural impression, and the reader is unlikely to accept his statement that at the time of this scene he loves Mary more than ever. The feeling that “he would never forget her” is not an accurate premonition of what happens in reality, since we know that he “wonder[s] how he had been able to live for so many years without thinking about Mary” while recalling the past in Berlin (60).

When exactly does his final separation from Mary take place? Just as Ganin himself cannot clearly recall when he met Mary for the first time, the end of their love affair is in fact not precisely defined. At the time of their leave-taking at the station, Ganin thinks that he will never forget Mary, and immediately afterwards, in the train, he experiences a moment of déjà-vu, “as though this had all happened at some time before” (75). The landscape he sees from the window of the train should remind the reader of the impressionistic dusk landscape that Ganin sees in Chapter 6 before having met Mary. Furthermore, the cause of the feeling that “this had all happened at some time before” is ambiguous: it could be something in Nabokov’s own memory, or rather one of the innumerable partings from Mary that have taken place until then (Sicker 268).6 Certainly Mary and Ganin have experienced separation many times. Farewells like the one in Chapter 9, “protracted and sorrowful, as though before a long separation,” recur throughout their first summer together; there is Ganin’s earlier departure from his country villa, Mary’s departure from St. Petersburg for Moscow, their departure following their only tryst in the second summer, and their final parting. The series of separations come to an end when Ganin leaves Russia, permanently separated from Russia and permanently parted from Mary. At the end of the novel, at the moment of Ganin’s realization that his love for Mary has ended, it is conceivable that a final and complete separation has occurred, or this separation may be, yet again, a repetition of the “last” time repeated to excess. Just as Ganin is unable to recall the “beginning” of Mary, his memories of the “end” of Mary have grown completely dim. Paradoxically, the ambiguity surrounding Mary privileges her existence, just as the happy period of their love affair is enriched by being repeatedly recalled. At the same time, Ganin continues to demonstrate his power through the act of evoking everything that is remembered.

The Letters

Chapter 13 is devoted to Ganin’s rereadings of the letters received from Mary after their separation. The letters are all we know of the communication between the lovers after their parting at the railway station. It seems unnatural that Ganin would have completely forgotten Mary despite carrying these five letters around with him; furthermore, it is a mystery as to why Ganin, as a result of reading the letters, remains confident in the love of present-day Mary. “He stood motionless, preoccupied with secret, delicious thoughts. He had no doubt that Mary still loved him” (93). This same sentiment is repeated in Chapter 14 on the occasion of the party. “. . . Ganin thought, 'What happiness! Tomorrow—no, it's today, it's already past midnight. Mary cannot have changed since then, her Tartar eyes still burn and smile just as they did.' He would take her away, he would work tirelessly for her. Tomorrow all his youth, his Russia, was coming back to him again” (102).

What we know from the letters is that at the time they were written seven years ago, Mary’s love for Ganin had already been considerably shaken. One need not be particularly astute to guess from reading the letters that a character who seems to be Alfyorov already exists for the Mary of that time, that she harbors feelings of guilt for having begun seeing Alfyorov without Ganin's knowledge, and that she nevertheless appears to have a lingering affection for Ganin. The last letter, which speaks the most frankly of love, appears to have been written as a reply to a passionate letter from Ganin, but even this reply does not sound like the enthusiastic love letter he apparently believes it to be. Based on the fact that Ganin did send passionate letters in response to four of the letters from Mary, we know that even at that time, Ganin, strangely, seems not to have noticed the letters’ true tone. He repeats the word “happiness” from the letter she wrote seven years before, and immersed in memories of her, he stops reading without reaching the end. And thus his feeling of happiness continues until his final awakening the next morning.

The letters serve to delay the end of the love affair and cause the reader to be less and less certain about when the affair actually ends. In contrast to Ganin’s evident happiness, Mary’s motives for continuing the correspondence may stem more from her nostalgia for the first year of their love affair than from hope for a future with Ganin.

In Chapter 13 it again becomes clear how coercive Ganin’s reading is, and how weak Mary is in proportion to it. She is not a heroine who overwhelms other people by means of her perceived presence even while being absent. As an example of the heroine who has such a presence while existing only in the recollections of the other characters, we might give the eponymous heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Although the protagonist/narrator’s forename is not mentioned, Rebecca’s name repeatedly materializes in the narrator’s surroundings and casts a spell over her. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Rebecca (1940), this effect is employed even more skillfully, and Rebecca, while not appearing at all on screen, is ubiquitous in the space of the work, acquiring after her death a power over the other characters that is even stronger than that wielded by her while she was alive. Mary is a long way from the invisible femme fatale, the woman who controls while being absent, and she decisively lacks the power particular to a heroine who casts spells over the people around her. In contrast to Rebecca, who posthumously makes use of her own death to control her husband, for Ganin, Mary remains passive both in reality and in his recollections. Unsuited to being an abject of intermingled fascination, dislike, and fear, she remains harmless until the end.7

Ganin may seem passive while waiting for Mary and reminiscing about her, but in fact he creates an existence for her within his recollections and sets her in motion. In so doing, he acquires a certain activeness. Roland Barthes says of the male lover suffering from the absence of the loved one, “[I]n any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is described: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized” (14). This statement agrees with Alfyorov’s demeanor but is not applicable to Ganin. Suffering while waiting, and a display of feminization in Barthes’ sense, are utterly absent. After all, waiting for Mary is not a source of suffering for Ganin: in fact, thinking about Mary in her absence is the source of his bliss. It can be said that he has normal relationships only with “absent others” (Connolly 32-34).

Ganin’s obsession with being happy in disregard of reality can be considered an act of creating happiness as a challenge to crude reality. Ganin’s attitude recalls the writer in the short story “A Letter That Never Reached Russia.” In the story, written as the first chapter of a novel called Happiness that would have been a precursor to Mary, the narrator insists that he is happy and states his happiness as a kind of challenge. But in the short story, written in the first person, the narrator’s position is consistent, whereas in the case of Mary, written in the third person, the narrator’s detachment from Ganin, beginning from the moment Ganin is filled with a sense of happiness while reading the letters, seems to be made intentionally conspicuous. The dramatic irony is heightened insofar as Ganin’s power of persuasion with regard to his feelings is deficient. The reader cannot help but entertain misgivings about the optimistic hope that the bloom of his and Mary’s youth and the Russia of former times will return. In fact, Ganin’s confidence that Mary’s love has not changed is not expressed through direct firsthand speech, but through the narrator’s indirect narration, and therein the narrator’s concealed intention can be seen. Ganin’s optimistic expectation is carried forward until the following morning, while simultaneously there is a persistent hint of his impending awakening.

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4. In his book dealing with the question of the self and other in Nabokov’s work, Connolly links the vagueness of the memories about Mary to the fact that Ganin attaches more importance to fantasy than reality, and considers this the germination of an exceedingly important mental phenomenon in Nabokov’s later work. That is to say, an idealized image of the inner life of the other person is superimposed upon the real person, often at the expense of sacrificing the autonomy of the person in question. See p. 35.

5. See John Burt Foster, Jr., Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism, pp. 52-69.

6. With regard to the fact that Ganin cannot recollect the exact time and place of their final parting as a result of the large number of their separations, Nabokov says similarly of his separation with Tamara in Speak, Memory: “… no matter how I worry the screws of memory, I cannot recall the way Tamara and I parted. There is possibly another reason, too, for this blurring: we had parted too many times before” (240).

7. For a definition of "abject," see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, especially Chapter 1.

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