Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000085, Wed, 18 Aug 1993 11:47:04 -0700

MARY (Reply to John F.) (fwd)
Editor's Note: If you have missed any of the MARY discussion, you can
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Don Johnson

---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 18 Aug 1993 11:31:09 -0700 (PDT)
From: Galya Diment <galya@u.washington.edu>
To: vladimir nabokov <nabokv-l%ucsbvm.BITNET@uwavm.u.washington.edu>
Subject: MARY (Reply to John F.)

Dear John,

I think we should simply agree to disagree on the denial of the past
because we are running the risk of going in circles forever. Let us say we
pretty much "exhausted" this argument, are "sated" by it and are ready to
move on. Here are some other issues you raised which in my mind are still
very much alive as far as all our discussions go.

1. Houses under construction versus Futurism.

I do not doubt that open-ended physical structures at the end of MARY are
neat metaphors for open-ended experiences -- love as well as writing --
which may lie ahead for Ganin and his creator in the future. It may even
be Nabokov's idiom for his relatively new relationship with Vera, as Boyd
suggests, which at that point was still more in the future than it was in
the past. It can also be a glimpse of a new literary project which was
already in VN's head (maybe even Chorb), but that one, unlike MARY, was
still in the future, too. The carcass was there, the house was almost
complete, and then it will have to be populated with people, but at that
point it had this nice open-ended anticipation about it. I think the
open-endedness does not relate to MARY; it simply looks forward to its
successor(s). Ganin, like Nabokov, chooses future and its exciting unknown
over the past and its haunting magic (no rejection, no denial, if I may be
allowed to bring it one last time) because you cannot move back in time
but you can move forward. Future is definitely there. Not only in
unfinished houses but also in all these numerous trains which Ganin
constantly hears from his room. I do not want to state the obvious, but
these trains are of course perfect symbols of Ganin's own travels through
life. They leave people and places behind them, and move on into
open-ended, unpredictable future vistas. When Ganin and a train unite at
the end of the book it is of course a match made in heaven.

Speaking about "heaven," I think the sky at the end of MARY IS heaven,
God's domain, for artists, as Nabokov told his mother, are God's agents,
and they build bridges between the earth and the "otherworldly" by building
structures (just like the workers at the end) which incorporate the sky
into them. The line which you treat as ironic when it crosses Ganin's mind,
to me reads as a rather serious intimation of immortality. Nabokov can be
very funny, and deeply sarcastic but I do believe he took the issues of
immortality very seriously.

And, since I mentioned "intimations of immortality," what about
Wordsworth? Did he have anticipatory memory? (How about "The Child is
Father of the Man"?) Can all these people, Wordsworth, Coleridge,
metaphysical poets, Nabokov have a very personal sense of
memory which has NOTHING to do with their eras? It may coincide with other
people's "art of memory" but not because they were all shaped by the same
culture but because, to use a terrible cliche, "great minds think alike?"
Reflective and thoughtful individuals dealing with their memories and
nostalgia will often come up with similar frameworks for their experience
for the number of possible frameworks is probably quite limited. Don't you

To sum up this part of my response, no, I still do not see any Futurism in
the end of the novel, although I do see Future. And no, I do not think
that the "art of memory" is culturally determined, and that is why I do
not see Joyce and Proust as relevant landmarks here. I cannot even suggest
that preoccupation with one's memory, so strong among the modernists, is
culturally motivated. Longing for one's past is obviously among the most
common human pursuits in any age, and there is plenty of literature to
prove it. Is there any single use or mechanic of art of memory which was
used only or primarily by European modernists? I would like to hear your
thoughts on that.

2. Chorb, Ganin, and vulgar Nietzscheanism.

It is my strong conviction, attained by reading and re-reading MARY quite
a number of times, and arguing over it with numerous groups of students,
both undergraduate and graduate, that our natural tendency as readers who
respect Nabokov's talent and intellect is to give him a huge benefit of a
doubt when the situation calls for it. For you Ganin's "vulgar
Nietzscheanism" is thus another testimony that there MUST BE ironic
distance between VN and the character. If we see how "primitive" Ganin's
macho pursuits are, is it possible that Nabokov, who is what he is, can
possibly not see it? To me, this is readers' fallacy. We see plenty of
wrong with Dostoevsky's and Gogol's anti-Semitism and Tolstoy's
xenophobia, for example, but it is still there, no matter how much more
talented they were than their readers. It is also true, no doubt, that we
are more sensitized to these issues now and notice them even more readily
than their contemporary readers did. The same, it seems to me, applies to
Nabokov. Several of his pre-war protagonists are definitely "ubermenschly"
and "macho" but our sensitivity to these aspects of their personality does
not presuppose his.

As I was writing this John Lavagnino's message came
in, and he quotes there the passage with the notorious "postbox" which I
was also going to mention again. I disagree with Leona that the "butt" is
a sign to us that Ganin is to be taken with certain suspicion. What is
important, as John Lavagnino points out, is the framework of the "exercise
of one's will" (Ganin makes himself get up in the middle of the night --
that is important, not what he does after that) which VN appears to have
believed in. His father is shown, again and again, to exercise not only
his body but also his will. I think it was his father's influence more
than William James' that is felt in Nabokov, but I am also pretty sure that
William James could be found on the shelves of V.D. Nabokov's extensive
library in St. Petersburg for it featured many works on psychology. John
Lavagnino's comment made me reflect on other specifics of our reactions as
readers. I detected more sympathy in his description of Ganin's will exercises
than I can find within myself. Can it be our different

Now briefly to Chorb. In many ways I actually prefer THE RETURN OF CHORB to
MARY; I think it is
a more subtle literary work and also more ambiguous which is a definite
richness. And yet Chorb as an artist (which he is) is closer to the Luzhin
variety: talented yet not strong enough to survive because he may be not
self-sufficient in the same way in which Ganin is. We can pursue it further.

3. Speak, Memory.

I am sure I will be called on that one by Leona as well so I'll postpone
my main argument about it until we hear from her. To me the pre-war and
the post-war Nabokovs (and SM, as a WHOLE, WAS written after the war) are
different precisely because of what intervened -- the WAR. More on that
later. As To Yuri, you may be right that the account in CONCLUSIVE
EVIDENCE may be somewhat less glorifying yet I do not remember essential
differences. I'll make sure I re-read it.