Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000075, Mon, 16 Aug 1993 15:39:57 -0700

MARY (Reply to Leona Toker) (fwd)
---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 16 Aug 1993 10:30:23 -0700 (PDT)
From: Galya Diment <galya@u.washington.edu>
To: vladimir nabokov <nabokv-l%ucsbvm.BITNET@uwavm.u.washington.edu>
Subject: MARY (Reply to Leona Toker)

Dear Leona,

It is very nice to have you join the discussion. Let me address our
disagreement as to whether Ganin and Co. can get away (in Nabokov's eyes)
with more than mere mortals. I want to say from the outset that SPEAK,
MEMORY, regardless of how one reads it, is not a very relevant text here
because I am talking mostly about the young Nabokov, the writer of MARY,
THE MAN FROM THE USSR, and, to a certain extent, THE GIFT, where the
tendencies I described are most noticeable. We can definitely talk about
why they are stronger there than in his later writings (I do think it has
something to do with one's youth) but that is a different discussion, it
seems to me.

Brian Boyd quotes a very interesting unpublished letter that VN wrote to
his mother at the time of writing MARY (I, 244-245): "My hero is not a
very likeable person, but amongst the others there are very sweet
people... I know how each one smells, walks, eats, and I understand how
God as he created the world found this a pure, thrilling joy. WE [his
emphasis] are translators of God's creation, his little plagiarists and
imitators, we dress up what he wrote, as a charmed commentator sometimes
gives an extra grace to a line of genius."

There are two interesting moments here: one is the description of Ganin as
"not a very likeable person," the other is the depiction of artists as
agents of "God." It is, probably, slightly different from Joyce's
formulation: for Joyce artists were gods, for the young Nabokov they are
merely God's agents. If we read this quote too literally we will
probably assume that Ganin was meant to be a largely unsympathetic
character while Podtyagin, Klara, and even Kolin and Gornotsvetov (despite
humongous homophobic and caricaturistic elements in their portrayal) are
the "sweet" people (after all, the three of them are there at Podtyagin's
deathbed to the very end, we assume, and it is Ganin who leaves) and thus
more worthy of our sympathy than Ganin. But they also happen to be largely
talentless (even Podtyagin) and overall mediocre people. Does it all mean
that Nabokov preferred talentless but "nice" people to "not very likable"
but gifted ones?

As I have already mentioned earlier, Kuznetsov, from THE MAN FROM THE
USSR, written around the same time as MARY and CHORB, is in many ways
similar to Ganin. He is not an artist (like VN) but he is the next best
thing, as far as Nabokov goes, a brave, fearless hero (like he thought his
father and his favorite cousin Yury were). Kuznetsov would also be rather
unlikable to someone like Nabokov's mother, for he treats women
badly and can be ruthless with his subordinates, while some other
characters in the play, though talentless and intellectually insignificant,
are, indeed quite "sweet."

Yet it's people like Ganin (who in addition to his artistic sensibility
also has some elements of a heroic past) and Kuznetsov who interest and
attract Nabokov most in this early stage of his life. They are the ones
who "move," (Ganin does eventually move on, leaving all the "nice" people
behind him to stagnate in Berlin), who change things (Kuznetsov is hoping
to succeed in his anti-Soviet plot even if it costs him his life), who
influence those around them, who leave a trace. Perhaps Nabokov thought
that people like that cannot possibly be totally "likeable" and "nice"
people (it's on ancient belief, after all, that a strong personality has
to be ruthless) and perhaps he even regretted the fact, but it seems to me
that he took it for granted, at this early age, that people are either
nice and conventional or not very nice yet unusual, and without the latter
the world is going to stagnate.The worst for Nabokov were always people
who were ruthless AND mediocre -- like Stalins, Hitlers, and Paduks.

Later on we have some modified variants of "gifted" people. But even
Fyodor has his strong moments of arrogance and "unnice" contempt for
people around him, and even Krug has moments of what we would interpret as
cruelty as when he bullies a much weaker boy (who grows up to become Paduk
and take his revenge on Krug) by physically overpowering him when they are
still in school. Yet at no point we, as readers, are supposed to feel that
Krug as a young child did anything wrong or unseemly. Are we?

It is a huge topic and I hope other people will attempt to tackle it as well.

Galya Diment