Chapter Three


For three years the mental image of those cahiers laid edge to edge on Berthoud's desk blotter burned in my brain like a neon eidolon. Here was V. Sirin's first book of prose, in fair copy, before me. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book, one can only reread it, as the Master once wrote. And this I did, many times, savoring the turns of phrase and the shades of words, staunch in my belief that a careful rereader, forearmed with a knowledge of what is to come, is more apt to catch the glimpses of future greatness that the prose of a first novel allows.

After having considered and discarded one by one a series of clever but clumsy titles for this chapter I settled on the pedestrian choice above. Engaging in verbal legerdemain while speaking of Nabokov is a perilous and perhaps foolhardy undertaking, given his own multilingual mastery over words--one might compare it to beginning a talk on Nijinsky by stepping from behind the lectern to attempt a jeté or two.

While much, indeed too much, has been written about Nabokov's English novels, much less has been said about his earliest Russian fiction. It is to this I must now turn. My editor has chided me for diverging too frequently and too widely from my subject--but what is a life if not a series of diversions from some hidden, ineffable theme?

Mashen'ka opens with the tongue-twisting name and patronymic of the protagonist Ganin, Lev Glebovich, which, complains the character Alferov, "iazyk vyzvikhnut' mozhno" (7). Instantly we are made aware of the potential treachery of words. With Alferov's statement a few paragraphs later that "vsiakoe imia obiazyvaet," we are also reminded of their power. The first stylistic glimmer of the mature Nabokov, which comes after the brief dialogue between Ganin and Alferov of which chapter one wholly consists, is the sequence "i bubliki, i brilliantin i prosto brillianty" (17-18) a harbinger of such later alliterative lists as "the brook and the boughs and the beauty of the Beyond"1 and "glacial drifts, drumlins, and gremlins, and kremlins."2 In the sentence "Tak meshalis' v nem chustvo chesti i chustvo zhalosti, otumanivaia tvorcheskie podvigi, na vsiakii trud, i prinimaiushchagosia za etot trud zhadno, s okhotoi, s radostnym namereniem vse odolet' i vsego dostich'," (33) we are struck by the phrase's musicality and especially by the aptness of the final "dostich'"--chosen in preference to the alternative perfective form of dostigat', dostignut' (lined out in the fair copy), which would not have scanned. From the first it is apparent that the young Nabokov is a tireless seeker after the mot juste. Profoundly appreciative of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (of which he would say some thirty years later that "Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do"), a writer afflicted (or blessed) with audition coloreé and whose first published works, as I think I have said or should have said, were books of verse3, Nabokov by 1925, the year the composition of Mashen'ka commenced, had already begun his apprenticeship in the seemingly effortless blending of sound and sense.

Three years prior to the appearance of Mashen'ka, the then twenty-four-year-old Nabokov had published, also in Berlin, a Russian translation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland--the Master's first verifiable brush with an affliction prudish commentators have evaded. As you know, the backroom and darkroom antics of Alice's creator were more than slightly dodgey, son. As is pointed out in the publisher's note which prefaces the 1976 reprint of the original edition, Nabokov managed to render into Russian many of Carroll's puns and linguistic tricks; one of the examples cited is Nabokov's Chepupakha, "a conflation of cherepakha (tortoise) and chepukha (nonsense)" for Carroll's Mock Turtle. (Incidentally, the mot-valise nearly works in Zemblan too: karuglee + utsyonee gives the lilting karutsyonee.) The same ludic language finds its way into Mashen'ka. A neat (and equally beguiling) analog to "chepupakha" is Ganin's "printsitutka. Smes' institutki i printsessy." The mathematician Alferov, long-windedly reminiscing about his soon-to-have-arrived wife, says "Byvalo, govoril zhene: raz ia matematik, ty mat'-i-machekha." To which a bored Ganin replies "Odnim slovom, tsyfra i tsvetok" (28). This sort of wordplay, both amusing and densely meaningful, with its symbolic juxtapositioning of Alferov's figure to Mary's flower (the botanically-minded Nabokov would have known that the leaves of coltsfoot are heart-shaped) and the obvious near homophony of machekha and Mashen'ka, is a quintessentially Nabokovian exchange. Its descendant is the learned banter we will later witness between, for example, Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty in Lolita.

Unlike the girl Lolita, who is palpably present from the first three syllables of Nabokov's most infamous book, we never meet the eponymous heroine of Mashen'ka. Or, it would be more accurate to say, we meet her only through the screens of other characters' words and remembrances: Alferov's, Ganin's. In addition to allowing Nabokov to dwell lovingly on the theme of memory (about which more below), the anticipated event of Mary's arrival neatly illustrates a certain blind Argentinian bibliophile's definition of the aesthetic phenomenon as "the imminence of a revelation which does not occur." Gogol's Revizor provides, of course, a precedent in Russian literature for this device, to which Nabokov will frequently return: in Podvig (in which "nothing much happens at the very end"4); in Dar (in which Fyodor's longed-for reunion with his missing father is never realized); in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (in which the narrator is certain that his famous brother is privy to "some momentous truth he would impart to me before dying"5--but does not). Had Mashen'ka been written two decades later, in the language of Nabokov's third adopted home (after Cambridge and Berlin), its title might have been En attendant Marie.

Speak, Memory, Nabokov exhorts his most faithful muse in the title of his autobiography, first published in 1951. In Mashen'ka, when she is not in the limelight, Mnemosyne is never far off in the wings. The book's Pushkin epigraph "Vospomnia prezhnikh let romany, Vospomnia prezhniuiu liubov'" sets the stage.6 Indeed, the verb vspominat' appears in its various conjugations no less than eight times in the first two chapters alone. Mashen'ka is a celebration of memory in the same vein as Humbert Humbert's passionate evocation of his "poor doomed darling" and the nonagenarian Van Veen's monumental reconstruction of his and Ada's long life together. Memory is a theme Nabokov, exiled not only from his beloved Russia, but also, like each of us, from childhood's irrecuperable magic kingdom, will never abandon. O Exile!

The most important consequence of memory's power in Mashen'ka is Ganin's decision to leave the city without seeing again his first love. His detailed recollections, expanded and explored between the end of chapter two, when he learns the identity of Alferov's bride7, and the book's final paragraphs, gradually affirm the existence of a Mary wholly his own, an image with more substance in his own head and heart than the flesh-and-blood stranger, another man's wife, due to arrive Saturday next. In the end it is this mental simulacrum which gains ascendancy over dull reality, inevitably disappointing when compared with imagination's timeless, sparkling, infinitely plastic realm:

...eti chetyre dnia byli byt' mozhet schastliveishei poroi ego zhizni. No teper' on do kontsa ischerpal svoe vospominan'e, do kontsa nasytilsia im, i obraz Mashen'ki ostalsia vmeste s umiraiushchim starym poetom tam, v dome tenei, kotoryi sam uzhe stal' vospominaniem.

I krome etogo obraza, drugoi Mashen'ki net, i byt' ne mozhet. (168)

This realization of the primacy of art is not so different from Humbert's last lines:
I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, Zemblan sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (311)
The two Marys, the real and the remembered, have counterparts in the two Ganins: the first a vigorous young man capable of walking on his hands, picking up a chair with his teeth, and snapping twine with a flex of his bicep8, the second, as his landlady observes, "vial i ugrium." In his loveless affair with Liudmila, the vital Ganin tries half-heartedly to maintain a semblance of romantic interest, but his listless other self is constantly foiling his efforts. He and Liudmila have just made love: "I Ganinu stanovilos' skuchno opiat, on shagal vdol komnaty ot okna k dveri i obratno, do slez pozevyval, i ona, nadevaia shliapu, iskosa v zerkalo nabliudala za nim" (22). It is significant that Liudmila watches Ganin in a mirror. The theme of doubles and reflections, a theme familiar to every reader of Nabokov's English work, is ubiquitous in Mashen'ka. A few pages after Ganin's surreptitious yawn, while watching a film he recognizes himself amidst a crowd of extras. To describe this otherworldly, cinematographic shade, Nabokov uses the term "dvoinik." In deference to the Master's professed dislike for him, I won't mention Dostoevsky.

Mashen'ka most unfortunate and tasteless double, inspired no doubt by the author's recent translation of Alice, are the powdered and mincing dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov, a pair who, like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, until late in the books are distinguishable one from the other only by their names.

Multiple levels of narrative so-called reality have become a commonplace in what is blithely known in the inbred circles of academia as postmodernist fiction, but Nabokov's oeuvre was bristling with such structures decades before they achieved the status of an acceptable, in fact expected, technique: the biography within a book of Dar, or the startling (and at that time, revolutionary, in both senses of the term) ending of Bend Sinister, in which "comfortably Krug returns unto the bosom of his maker," to cite but two examples. In Mashen'ka there is a passage which can been seen as the prototype of these later interpenetrating strata of sense. As mentioned above, early in the novel Ganin goes to the cinema (and sits between cosy Klara and more-or-less tritely lascivious Liudmila--another reflective doubling). The film being shown is the story of an opera singer who, while playing before an elegant audience (in reality the crowd of seedy Russian extras amongst whom Ganin recognizes himself) the role of a murderess, suddenly recalls a death she herself unintentionally caused. She collapses, the audience mistakes her faint for the planned and exquisitely executed end of the act, and the theatre explodes in a thunderous ovation. Restated in terms of the several narrative levels we have Ganin (who, though it is obvious, I still point out is a character in a book: first level) watching a film (second level) about an opera (third level) in which the diva's genuine distress (fourth level) is mistaken by the audience for a part of the opera they came to see.9

This device is closely related to what André Gide has called the mise en abîme, the repetition with variations on ever smaller scales of certain incidents or images drawn from a text's principal level of action (if one can be said to exist), akin in form and function to a set of nested boxes, each one identical but for size to the one previous, within which it snugly fits.

Each of Nabokov's books is a tapestry of such rich and varied threads that each demands a reading at least as careful as its weaving. Mashen'ka, certainly the least discussed of Nabokov's novels, has sometimes, as is too often the case with artists' first efforts, been dismissed as juvenilia. Of course the motley butterfly, fluttering by to alight on a swaying clover stem, where it will pause, its wings slowly beating, arouses more dumb admiration in the layperson than does the slow, clumsy caterpillar or the pupa dormant in its cocoon, but the lepidopterist knows that some of the drabbest bugs produce the most spectacular adult specimens: Provencal Fritillaries, Corsican Swallowtails, Great-Banded Graylings, and even the exceedingly rare Plebejus (Lysandra) cormion Nabokov.


Page references to Mashen'ka appear in the body of the text between parentheses. The edition referenced is the first, Berlin: Slovo, 1926.

1. Look at the Harlequins! (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974) p. 16.

2. Lolita (New York: Perigree Books, 1980), pp. 35-36.

3. While on the subject of verse I cannot resist pointing out that in Mashen'ka the elderly poet Podtiagin's wail, in bemoaning his disheartening attemps to obtain an exit visa from the Kafkaesque German bureaucracy, "papki, papki, bez kontsa!" echoes the line from Blok's "Dvenadtsat'": Ekh, ekh, bez kresta!"

4. See the author's foreword to the first English edition of Glory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. xiv.

5. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Directions, 1959), p. 202.

6. For the lazy or dull among you who haven't bothered to learn the Master's mother tongue, I point out that in Russian (as in French), "roman" can signify both "romance" and "novel." For Nabokov, that most intertextual of intertextualists, Pushkin's verse would have had special resonance, as would the novel's subtitle, "roman" which could signify either "a novel" or "a romance." For the self-styled Nabokovians among you, un conseil--as Swiss border guards begin a polite warning to obtain a proper carte de séjour before tarrying too long in France--learn Russian. The conceit of explicating Nabokov without knowing Russian is tantamount to studying Van Gogh without knowing yellow, orange, and blue.

7. At least one careless commentator has suggested that Ganin's Mary and Alferov's are not the same person, that Ganin's entire reverie is the result of mistaken identity based on his brief viewing of a single snapshot. Nabokov has made this claim easy to refute. In chapter one, when the lights flicker back on in the stalled elevator, we learn that Alferov is an odd-looking character with a "zolotistaia borodka." In chapter thirteen, Ganin is going through Mashen'ka's old letters to him and comes across a passage in which she describes a party at which she meets an "ochen' smeshnoi gospodin s zheltoi borodkoi." This is of course her future husband.

8. Forerunner of Vasco da Gama!

9. The misunderstanding of people smug in the certainty of their own comprehension--a neat model for the world of literary criticism.

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