Mary: 'Without Any Passport'
by Leona Toker

We know each for himself, that none of us would perpetrate such a folly, yet feel as if some other might.
Hawthorne, "Wakefield"

Nabokov's first novel, Mary (Mashen'ka, 1926), initiates the theme of the need for a balance between human commitment and aesthetic pursuit, focusing on the conflict between sympathy and self-protective detachment. This conflict is reproduced in the tension between the different layers of the novel's meaning: the moral value of the protagonist's actions clashes with their aesthetic value and their symbolic significance.


Mary is set in a Russian pension in Berlin in the mid twenties.1 Nabokov breathes a new life into the classical pension setting (as of Balzac's Père Goriot) by exploring the significance of the proximity imposed on the characters. People from different social and cultural circles suddenly find themselves brought together in shared premises. The partitions between the rooms are thin, and a great deal of the protagonist's irritation with his well-meaning neighbors stems from his want of privacy. The son of a rich upper-class family, Lev Ganin is accustomed not just to greater spaces but also to protected spaces in which he can dream undisturbed.2 Therefore, when he starts re-living his past in his memory, he spends most of his time outdoors, away from noisy rooms and neighbors knocking at the door.

The use of the outdoors as the arena of the action is a major feature of the carnivalesque mode in fiction.3 The collapse of social barriers between exiles sharing an apartment is another expression of this mode. Finding themselves in unwonted proximity, the characters are exposed to the temptation of intimacy, of Dostoevskian confidences and confessions during which the partitions between the individual identities are endangered. Ganin is averse to this carnivalization, as are most of Nabokov's protagonists and narrators: if death is "divestment" and "communion,"4 then unrestrained communion is deathlike. Yet Ganin's uncompromising attempts to preserve the discreteness of his emotional life lead him to the opposite error: his inner life becomes hermetic, and his solipsism threatens to become as destructive to others as communion is to him.

At the beginning of the novel, Lev Ganin, a former White Guard officer, learns that a fellow boarder by the name of Alfyorov is expecting his wife to arrive from Russia in a few days. Shown a picture of this woman, Ganin thinks he recognizes her as his first love, Mary. A sudden influx of emotion enables him to terminate a burdensome affair with a woman called Lyudmila, after which he spends four days in blissful recollection of his lost love. He plans to meet Mary at the railway station and carry her off. Yet as the hour of her arrival draws near, the remaining portion of the novel becomes disconcertingly thin under the reader's fingers.5 As Ganin is waiting for Mary's train, the sordid parting with Lyudmila flashes through his memory. Her words "'I know he won't be able to forget me as quickly as he may think'"6 prove to be perversely prophetic. The aftertaste of the recent liaison suggests that even Mary may turn out to be different from Ganin's Galatea. Realizing “with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever" (p. 144), and, remaining true to the fantasy,7 he beats a hasty retreat, which is almost unanimously applauded by Nabokov's critics.

A young novelist may be suspected of sabotaging a long-anticipated reunion merely in order to avoid the triteness of "happily-ever-aftering." This, however, is not the case with Nabokov, who eventually will show great inventiveness in tackling this topos (compare, for instance, its treatment in "The Doorbell," 1927, "The Reunion," 1932, and in Ada, 1969). In Mary, however, it is aesthetically and symbolically appropriate that Ganin should not meet his first love in the fictional present--yet aesthetics does not suffice to justify the protagonist’s callousness, even though this callousness masks itself as a version of moral autonomy.


The reunion, indeed, can hardly take place in the novel without disrupting the elegance of the pattern of events. Ganin remembers falling in love with Mary during a summer's stay on his family's country estate in pre-revolutionary Russia. In the happy days of his recuperation after typhus he conceived for the first time the image of a girl whom he would like to meet: "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" (p. 44). Unlike Ganin's original meeting Mary, a reunion has not been rehearsed imaginatively and has nothing to blend with. It is therefore appropriate that the romance which started solipsistically in the imagination should end, no less solipsistically, in the memory, with the events of ‘real life’ sandwiched in between.

Like all his subsequent writing, Nabokov's first novel thus describes a circle. Unlike Kurt Dreyer of King, Queen, Knave, who regrets meeting his former mistress because afterward he can never remember Erica as he remembered her before, "Erica number two will always be in the way,"8 Ganin retains his image of Mary intact. He wishes to believe that this image will not die with him--and indeed it does not, though it takes the real artist, Nabokov, rather than the fictional artist manqué, Ganin, to ensure its survival.

The reunion might also have been inappropriate symbolically. Ganin's decision to avoid meeting Mary is parallel to giving up hope of returning to his motherland: he can only go there in his memories--without any passport (see p. 109). Never appearing in the drab fictional present, Mary can be understood to stand for Russia.9 The resurrection that the crucifix in young Ganin's sickroom suggests is, here, a resurrection of (and in) memory. When in chapter 1 the elevator in which Ganin and Alfyorov are stuck suddenly revives and takes them to their destination, Alfyorov comments, "I thought someone had pressed the button and brought us up, but there's no one here. [. . .] Up we came yet there's no one here. That's symbolic too" (p. 4). The words are oddly prophetic: scores of emigrants who succumbed to the temptation to return to their native country found "no one there"--Russia had changed beyond recognition. Yet the symbolism of Mary is held in check: symptomatically, the quoted remark, as well as the one about the stalled elevator as a symbol of émigré existence (see p. 3), comes from a philistine character,10 an apt exponent of the theme of poshlost (or "posh-lust," as Nabokov put it in Nikolai Gogol11), the smug phoniness ridiculed throughout Nabokov's fiction. Moreover, unknown to Alfyorov, his words, "up we came yet there's no one here" also apply to Mary's arrival at the Berlin railway station after the curtain falls. The "merciless clarity" of Ganin's last-minute insight suggests not only the rigid self-discipline of an aesthetician but also a touch of cruelty.

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Copyright © 1989 Cornell University Press. Reprinted here by kind permission of Cornell University Press and Charles Schlacks, Jr. This essay originally appeared, in a slightly different form, as "Ganin in Mary-Land: A Retrospect on Nabokov's First Novel" in Canadian-American Slavic Studies (Vancouver, British Columbia), 19 (3), Fall 1985, pp. 306-313. It was later published as Chapter 3 of the author's Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989). This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission from Cornell University Press and Charles Schlacks, Jr.

1. The doors to the different rooms of the pension are labeled by calendar leafs bearing the dates of April 1 to April 6. This pattern is discussed by Alex de Jonge as the first of the elaborate patterns used in Nabokov's novels; see "Nabokov's Uses of Pattern," in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, ed. Peter Quennell (New York: William Morrow, 1980), p. 60.

2. The pension thus presents a marked contrast to the house on Ganin's country estate, the house which is a perfect illustration of Bachelard's "oneiric house" that shelters daydreaming, protects the dreamer, allows one to dream in peace; see The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1969), pp. 67.

3. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 122-70. The intense carnivalesque element in Dostoevsky’s work must have been among the causes of Nabokov's wary dislike of this writer.

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (London: Heinemann, 1957), p. 20.

5. Cf. the metaphor of the still thick remainder of a novel at the beginning of Invitation to a Beheading, (New York: Putnam, 1979), p. 12 (English trans. by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author).

6. Vladimir Nabokov, Mary, trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. 76. Further parenthetic references in the text are to this edition.

7. Cf. The Gift: "O swear to me that while the heartblood stirs, you will be true to what we shall invent" (New York: Putnam, 1979), p. 169; English trans. by Michael Scammell with the collaboration of the author). Yet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev's fidelity to fantasy in The Gift has a different meaning from that of Ganin: the lovers must live authentically in a creatively perceived world of their own and keep this world from contamination by plagiaristic conformism.

8. Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p.176; English trans. by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author.

9. See Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 128.

10. G. M. Hyde, Vladimir Nabokov: America's Russian Novelist (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), p. 39.

11. (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 63-74.

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