Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000058, Wed, 11 Aug 1993 10:00:53 -0700

MARY (fwd)
---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 10 Aug 93 21:49 EST
Subject: MARY

Subject: MARY

Dear Galya,

My interpretation of MARY in NABOKOV'S ART OF MEMORY AND
EUROPEAN MODERNISM dates back several years, so I'm not sure
that I now remember everything I had in mind. First,
however, I would stress that I also call the end of the
novel an "open ending" (p. 56), by which I mean that there
is a radical lack of closure about the ultimate fate of the
characters (i.e. we don't know whether Ganin will succeed in
crossing the border without a visa, we don't know how Mary
will react when no one meets her at the station.) This
openness takes priority over any specific interpretation,
including my suggestion that Ganin rejects his past.

I got my sense that he does so (or at least attempts to do
so) from a statement at the end of the fifth paragraph from
the end of MARY: "But now he had exhausted his memories,
was sated by them." I also think that this gesture of
rejecting the past is consistent with what I call Ganin's
"adventurer" ethic, and his tinge of "brutality" (54). But
I do not think that Nabokov himself identifies with this
decision, for as I note Ganin sees certain ironies about
memory but fails to pursue them to their ultimate conclusion

In any case, the key point I wanted to make about the ending
lies elswhere. I had always been intrigued by Ganin's
strangely significant sight of the roofers against the open
sky (also in the fifth paragraph from the end), which in
fact seems to precipitate his decision not to go meet Mary
at the railway station: "As Ganin looked up at the skeletal
roof in the ethereal sky, he realized . . ." I argue that
this image of roof and sky fits into a network of images
that includes Ganin's looking out at the open sky just
before he meets Mary (which I use to define anticipatory
memory, p. 55), the allusions to Russian futurism associated
with Podtyagin (p. 60), and two symbols associated with
Italian futurism (p. 60). The passage thus has a very
complex resonance that is cultural as well as thematic (in
the Nabokovian sense of "themes" as interlocking motifs).
Even if it is true that Ganin does intend to preserve his
memories, this cultural link with futurism still has a
prominent place in the text (it seems to me), and thus gives
me a basis for correlating MARY with Sebastian Knight's
career, which began with a quickly suppressed interest in
futurism (p. 54).

On the further issue of whether Nabokov's art of memory
evolved, I would reply with four points. First, it
certainly did evolve modally: that is to say, there is an
initial lyric mode (which I do not discuss), then a fictive
mode (of which MARY is an example), and finally an
autobiographical mode (which runs from "Mademoiselle O" and
"England and Me" through CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE and DRUGIE
BEREGA to SPEAK, MEMORY). Second, these memories are
mediated by a wide range of personae, from Nabokov as
autobiographer through Fyodor in THE GIFT to more ironically
conceived characters like Luzhin in THE DEFENSE and Hermann
in DESPAIR (I see Ganin as tilting slightly toward the
ironic band of the spectrum). Third, even when the memories
concerned remain the same (e.g., what I call the "summer of
love" master narrative), I think Nabokov usually gains new
perspective on them as time passes and shows greater skill
as a writer in presenting them.

Finally (and this is a basic thesis of my book), Nabokov
keeps shifting the cultural framework within which he places
his art of memory. The picture of European modernism that
emerges by way of this intertextual signposting is a
striking one, and deserves emphasis. For example, among
other things, it questions both an extremely influential
theory of Paul de Man's and the dominant Anglo-American view
of modernism advanced by T.S. Eliot. But let me stress that
in describing a "European" Nabokov I emphatically do NOT
mean to downplay Nabokov's Russian heritage. Rather, I
believe that he had an extraordinarily rich cultural
personality (one with a powerful, if unorthodox relevance at
a time when cultural studies and multiculturalism are
becoming watchwords), and that it will be a real challenge
to Nabokovians to do justice to its many facets and to
understand how and in what sense they interconnect. Ganin's
project of crossing a border "without a single visa" perhaps
highlights the difficulty of tracking Nabokov's wide-ranging
cultural contacts.

John Foster ["jfoster@gmuvax.gmu.edu"]