Vladimir Nabokov: Mary

Mary is another paperback I picked up in a used book store in Copenhagen. I’ve been meaning to read Nabokov for the longest time; it was a real stroke of luck then that Mary happens to be Nabokov’s first novel. I like to read novels, if possible, in the order that they’ve been written.

Mary tells the story of Ganin, a Russian expat living in a pension in Berlin. Things happen and Ganin takes an extended stroll down memory lane.

Though I found it hard to get into Nabokov’s language, I loved Mary. The descriptions of the scenery didn’t do anything for me and I just wanted to skip over them. But the characters and the way they move through the book—that’s the magic of this novel. Perhaps I saw a little too much of myself in Ganin.

There are some technical feats in Mary that work very well. The ending is abrupt and just as it should be. And there are some sentences and paragraphs that stand out: sentences and paragraphs that perfectly enfold within them whole thoughts and feelings. Some are clever, others simply beautiful.

Ganin plans to leave Berlin:

“His remaining money was enough for him to leave Berlin, but that would mean shedding Lyudmila, and he did not know how to break with her. And although he had given himself a week to do it in and had told the landlady that he had finally decided to leave on Saturday, Ganin felt that neither this week nor the next would change anything. Meanwhile nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.”

Ganin’s restlessness:

“He spent about an hour drinking coffee, sitting at a picture window and watching the passers-by. Back in his room he tried to read, but he found the contents of the book so alien and inappropriate that he abandoned it in the middle of a subordinate clause. He was in the kind of mood that he called ‘dispersion of the will.’ He sat motionless at his table unable to decide what to do: to shift the position of his body, to get up and wash his hands, or to open the window, outside which the bleak day was fading into twilight. It was dreadful, agonizing state rather like that dull sense of unease when we wake up but at first cannot open our eyelids, as though they were stuck for good. Ganin felt that the murky twilight that was gradually seeping into the room was also slowly penetrating his body, transforming his blood into fog, and that he was powerless to stop the spell that was being cast on him by the twilight.

“He was powerless because he had no precise desire, and this tortured him because he was vainly seeking something to desire. He could not even make himself stretch out his hand to switch on the light. The simple transition of intention to action seemed an unimaginable miracle. Nothing relieved his depression, his thought slithered aimlessly, his heartbeat was faint, his underclothes stuck unpleasantly to his body. At one moment he felt he should at once write a letter to Lyudmila explaining firmly that it was time to break off this dreary affair, then at the next he remembered he was going to the cinema with her that evening and that somehow it was much harder to make himself ring her up and cancel today’s date than it was to write a letter, which prevented him from doing either.”

And when Mary’s train will arrive at 8:05:

“His mind, used as it was to figures, was now preoccupied with a single figure, made up of a unit and a decimal fraction: eight point zero five. This was the percentage of happiness which fate had allotted to him.”

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