Variations in Yellow
At the end of the novel Ganin realizes that his affair with Mary has ended forever, and in the scene in which he decides to leave Berlin without meeting Mary, his sudden change of mind is caused by seeing the sheen of the fresh timber of a house under construction:
Despite the early hour, work was already in progress. The figures of the workmen on the frame showed blue against the morning sky. One was walking along the ridge-piece, as light and free as though he were about to fly away. The wooden frame shone like gold in the sun, while on it two workmen were passing tiles to a third man. They lay on their backs, one above the other in a straight line as if on a staircase. The lower man passed the red slab, like a large book, over his head; the man in the middle took the tile and with the same movement, leg right back and stretching out his arms, passed it on up to the workmen above. This lazy, regular process had a curiously calming effect; the yellow sheen of fresh timber was more alive than the most lifelike dream of the past. As Ganin looked up at the skeletal roof in the ethereal sky he realized with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever. (113-114, emphasis by AN)
The work of the three men passing tiles to each other calms Ganin’s mind, the yellow sheen of the timber seems more vivid than any dream, and he returns to reality.
In Nabokov’s works, yellow and violet often have an important meaning, and in Mary yellow plays an especially significant role.8 Shades of yellow are present in the first chapter when Mary’s name appears, in the barn where her figure makes its first appearance within Ganin’s recollections, in the tawny light of the sunset that is obscured by the grayish peat smoke hovering over the railroad station where they see each other for the last time, and finally in the scene in which Ganin changes his mind upon seeing the sheen of the timber. To this list can be added the scene in which Ganin enters Alfyrov’s room in the latter’s absence to gaze at the picture of Mary, in which yellow lamplight escaping from the room into the corridor is mentioned. The recurrence of the color suggests a relationship between yellow and the figure of Mary. But the instances of the appearance of yellow are not limited to scenes associated with Mary. The pages of Podtyagin’s lost passport are yellow, as is Alfyorov’s characteristic yellow beard, and Lyudmila apparently dyes her hair yellow after the prevailing fashion. As a result of losing the passport, Podtyagin’s heart grows definitively worse, and the beard and hair of these two vulgar people constitute for Ganin a pair of hateful things—both yellow. In contrast, yellow light, or “sheen,” act as harbingers of Mary and of a future together with her. This view is substantiated by the tawny torrent of the sunset in the scene of their parting at the station, where, as if hinting at the hopelessness of a future together, the light is accompanied by the grayish smoke from burning peat-bogs. The genealogy of yellows surrounding Mary comes to an end in the scene in which Ganin changes his mind at the end of the novel. The yellow color previously seen in the light of oil lamps and electrical lights now appears as the sheen of timber. The color has changed from being light energy to matter, a transformation that could be seen as indicative of a newly experienced view of reality. But there are other questions about the scene that must be considered.
In some scenes in which yellow light or brilliance appears, yellow not only serves as a portent of Mary, but also hints at the existence of a different dimension. In the opening scene Ganin and Alfyorov are trapped in the darkness of the malfunctioning elevator, which has come to a stop, and the names of both the protagonist Ganin and the heroine Mary are introduced. Here the state of exile that serves as the setting of the novel is likened to the state of being suspended in mid-air. “Suddenly there came a click from above,” the elevator is “flooded with yellow light” (3) and begins to move, but no one is to be seen on the upper floor. Alfyorov describes this as “symbolic,” and despite Ganin’s disregard of Alfyorov’s mannered exaggeration, there is an invitation to view the scene as symbolic. In other words, just as “no one’s hand” is to be seen in rescuing Ganin from his predicament of hanging in mid-air by setting the elevator in motion, one might say that from the beginning there is a hint of the existence of something that sets the world of the novel in motion. Thus, in the passage cited above about the scene in which Ganin has a change of heart, the sheen of the yellow timber is seen in conjunction with the appearance of a second “hand.”
The Angel Walking on the Ridge-Piece
Based on the distance between Ganin and the narrator the day before Ganin’s departure, the reader can anticipate that Mary is unlikely to appear at the end of the novel and that Ganin and Mary will not meet again. The reason for Ganin’s change of mind in the scene where he sees the house under construction, however, remains unclear. What does the house mean to him? That the house can be taken as an image of the book has been noted by several commentators. Asher Z. Milbauer points out the association for Ganin of the slabs with which the house is being constructed with books (38). For Toker, the construction of the house stands metaphorically for the completion of the book, and the feeling of relief experienced by Ganin in seeing the house reflects the author Nabokov’s feelings on completing the book (46). Yuichi Isahaya, who has noted the importance of construction sites in Nabokov’s work, argues that the scene of the house under construction hints at the composition of the book, and suggests that, for the narrator, Ganin’s awakening, in the context of artistic creation, may bear fruit in the future (“Gânin no kesshin” [Ganin’s Decision], 30-33).9 Considered in light of the movements of the workmen in the scene, Isahaya’s interpretation that “at the end there is a kind of passing of the baton from the protagonist to the narrator” (33) would be even more persuasive. The “lazy, regular process”of the workmen passing tiles so calms Ganin’s mind that soon afterwards he falls asleep, and his attention is drawn especially to the unnatural positions of the workmen passing tiles to each other by the red slab described as being “like a large book.” It would be easy to read the movements with which Mary reaches its completion as analogous to a handing over from Ganin to the narrator, from the narrator to the author, or to the reader. Rather than reflecting merely the imminent completion of the novel, the house under construction could be seen as indicative of Nabokov’s entire future body of work. The hand at the beginning, when Mary is hinted at in the malfunctioning elevator, which then sets the elevator in motion, is here seen clearly, and informs Ganin that his work is done. His work as protagonist having been completed, in the car of the railway train traveling south, like a puppet being put away, he falls asleep.10
There is another detail that attracts our attention to this scene. The solitary workman walking on the ridge-piece reminds us of the workmen from the scene of the film shoot in Chapter 2 (Nakata 1999). In Chapter 17, “[t]he figures of the workmen on the frame showed blue against the morning sky,” and “[o]ne was walking along the ridge-piece, as light and free as though he were about to fly away.” In the scene of the film shoot in Chapter 2, “[Ganin] recalled ... the lazy workmen walking easily and nonchalantly like blue-clad angels from plank to plank high up above ...” The men working on the film all appear in blue, walking lightly on boards high in the air. Described as “about to fly away,” the workman Ganin watches in Chapter 17 suggests Ganin’s own imminent departure. Here the workman is not referred to as an “angel,” but the description cleary recalls the stagehands—the blue-clad angels—and suggests parallels between the two scenes.
There is another similarity. In Chapter 2, the workmen on the planks above are described as “aiming the blinding muzzles of klieg lights at a whole army of Russians herded together onto the huge set and acting in total ignorance of what the film was about” (21). The workmen thus exercise a measure of control over the helpless people participating as extras in the film. As one of these extras, Ganin feels ashamed when he recognizes his own figure on the screen, having gone by chance to see the film. He feels shame because he is a mere extra in the film, because without even knowing what the film was about, he was instructed to play the role of audience member by the director, and finally because he is made to go see the film involuntarily. In watching the film Ganin thinks with repulsion “We know not what we do.” He dislikes the fact that his self is but a “shade” in the film, and that simultaneously he seems to exist as no more than a shade even in the real world. When, afterwards, Ganin continues his work of recreating the world of the past as “a god,” his self is transformed from shade to substance. If this act is considered from the outside, his recreation of the past is akin to a withdrawal into his memories, the world of shadows, and thus when he finally returns to reality by means of his awakening, in his transformation from shade to substance, two stages have elapsed. As echoes of the workmen in Chapter 2, the workmen in Chapter 17 suggest the long path Ganin has traveled from being an extra in a land of shadows to the protagonist in a larger reality.
Moreover, the presence of the workmen suggests an ambiguity to the true import of Ganin’s awakening. Ostensibly a return to reality from the world of shadows caused by seeing the workmen—representatives of the real world—Ganin’s epiphany may not be as definitive as it seems, given that the workmen, as echoes of the stagehands in scene of the film shoot, might be seen as playing the role of stagehands here too. Although there are differences between the workmen carrying slabs and roof tiles and the workmen aiming strong illumination at the extras—in other words, changing them into shadows—they both serve as the author’s agents, calling Ganin’s attention to something significant that has hitherto either been overlooked or only very dimly apprehended. The scene of the house under construction, while providing the impetus for Ganin’s departure, also suggests that Ganin’s success in creating the world of memory in perfect accord with his own desires does not necessarily imply that he occupies a position as the final subject of the novel. Ganin’s awakening and sudden change of mind create an impression of abruptness because they do not occur naturally within him but are prompted by the workmen’s presence. The solitary workman who seems about to fly away reminds Ganin of his departure, the next action he will undertake.
There are elements in the novel that pass beyond space-time and reappear in a changed form. Eric Laursen explains this in terms of Nabokov’s metaphor from Speak, Memory: “I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another” (139). The barn which is the site of the charity concert where the figure of Mary first appears, for example, becomes the barn where the filming of the movie in which Ganin is performing as an extra takes place, and just as Ganin once abruptly leaves Mary, he informs Lyudmila of a coldly unilateral departure from their relationship, and finally leaves the future Mary once again (Laursen 62). In both of the scenes essential to the meaning of the story—the scene of the film shoot and the scene of the house under construction—what seem to be similar characters appear. This fact leads us to an awareness of the overlap and repetition of several concealed elements and of a thread connecting the parts of the work woven by the hand whose presence we are now able to see in a new light. The repetition may constitute evidence that there is no clear-cut division between past and present, or shadow and reality, but it does not mean that the two are equivalent and that Ganin cannot escape the past. The Ganin playing the role of an extra in the barn is not the Ganin who experiences an awakening. By means of the act of reminiscing, the lethargic Ganin playing an extra in a film becomes the leading part in another world and even acquires the strength to leave that same world, although in doing so he is immediately deprived of his position as protagonist. But again, his maturity is not the final point of the novel. The workman who seems about to fly away into the sky hints not only at Ganin’s departure, but suggests the presence of another person whose loftier position Ganin cannot attain, and thus points to the existence of the author. Ganin’s final sleep seems connected to the final scene in Look at the Harlequins! in which Vadim passes beyond space-time in sleep (Nakata 1990, 215). Thus Nabokov’s first and last novels are connected not only by the protagonists’ sleep but insofar as they both suggest the existence of a higher-order creator. When, in the train, Ganin buries his face in the folds of his mackintosh hanging from a hook above the wooden seat, the folds may be those peculiar to the space-time of Nabokov’s fictional worlds.
If we look back from this point, the ambiguity giving form to the novel should be especially clear: Mary’s privileged, yet powerless, omnipresence; memories growing paradoxically more rich as they are created in the act of recollecting; Ganin’s maturity in spite of his solipsistic personality; the awakening at the end of the story that leads both to Ganin’s return to real world as well as to his awareness of the fictitiousness of self; an awakening that is both the climax of the book and simultaneously signifies the protagonist’s abandonment of his position as protagonist; the two possible meanings of Ganin’s final departure.
It is unnecessary to mention that two of Nabokov’s lifelong themes, a lost paradise and nostalgia, are themes of Mary. But this first novel is neither an ordinary Bildungsroman—a genre characterized by a linear chronological structure in which the protagonist flees reality into the world of memory, experiences growth as a result of the escape, and then confronts a future reality—nor is it a straightforward tale of aesthetic nostalgia.
8. Marina Turkevich Naumann points out the importance of the colors yellow and violet in Mary, Lolita, Ada, and Transparent Things, but offers no specific argument in relation to Mary. Cf. p. 42.
9. Isahaya’s paper “'Ashiba' no suii” [“Scaffoldings” Changing] is devoted to the importance of scaffolding in scenes of construction in Nabokov’s Russian novels, with analyses of the meaning of each such scene.
10. Toker argues that at the conclusion of the novel, both Ganin’s awakening and his existence as protagonist are cancelled. See p. 46.
Barthes, Roland. Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, 1978.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
___. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
Connolly, Julian W. Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.
Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art. Boston: Little, 1967.
Foster, Jr., John Burt. Nabokov’s Art of Memory and European Modernism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.
Isahaya, Yuichi. “‘Ashiba’ no suii—Nabokov no roshiago shôsetsu to eiyaku kara—” [“Scaffoldings” Changing: Nabokov’s Russian Novels and Their English Translations]. Daigaku Bungakubu Kenkyu Hokoku [Reports of Faculty of Letters: The University of Tokyo], 6 (1979): 293-311.
___. “Gânin no kesshin—‘Mashenka’ no ketsumatsu o megutte” [Ganin's Decision: On the Denouement of Nabokov's Mashen’ka]. Doshisa Gaikaku Bungaku Kenkyu [Doshisha Studies in Foreign Literature] 76 (1997): 19-39.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
Laursen, Eric. “Memory in Nabokov's Mary.” Russian Review, 1 (January 1996), 55-64.
Milbauer, Asher Z. Transcending Exile: Conrad, Nabokov, I. B. Singer. Miami: Florida International UP, 1985.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1990.
___. The Defense. Trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author. 1964. New York: Vintage, 1990.
___. The Gift. Tran. Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author. 1963. New York: Vintage, 1991.
___. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage, 1989.
___. Look at the Harlequins! 1974. New York: Vintage, 1990.
___. Mary. (Mashen'ka, 1926.) Trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author. 1970. New York: Vintage, 1989.
___. Selected Letters 1940-1977. Ed. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt/Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1989.
___. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. 1967. New York: Vintage, 1989.
___. Transparent Things. 1972. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Nakata, Akiko. “Angels on the Planks: The Workmen in the Two Scenes in Mary.” The Nabokovian 42 (1999): 25-26.
___. “Kagetachi no shuto—Nabokov no Mary” [Capital of Shadows—Nabokov’s Mary]. IVY 23 (1990): 201-15.
Naumann, Marina Turkevich. Blue Evenings in Berlin: Nabokov's Short Stories of the 1920s. New York: New York UP, 1978.
Parker, Stephen Jan. Understanding Vladimir Nabokov. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.
Sicker, Philip. “Practicing Nostalgia: Time and Memory in Nabokov's Early Fiction.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 11(2), 1987, 253-70.
Toker, Leona. Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
Zimmer, Dieter E. "Mary." Ed. Vladimir E. Alexandrov. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Garland, 1995. 346-58.
Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.