In Mary, Nabokov’s first novel, Lev Glebovich Ganin is a Russian exile living in Berlin among other exiles. His “pension was both Russian and nasty,” and his neighbor in the next room is Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov, also both Russian and nasty.
Alfyorov has just gotten word that his wife is on her way from Russia to join him in Berlin and will arive on Saturday. He excitedly shows Ganin her picture—Mary’s picture. And immediately the rest of Ganin’s week is washed in memory as he realizes his first love is coming, and she’s married to this awful man.
Ganin met her in the countryside one summer; her family was vacationing near his family’s dacha. His first memory of noticing her is at a concert held in the village, and Nabokov’s virtuosity as a writer gets a lot of room to play in all these memories and dreams.
Later, when the concert was over, the Petersburg bass was driven away in the local mill owner’s huge car which cast a mysterious light over the grass and then, with a sweep of its beam, dazzled a sleeping birch tree and the footbridge over a brook; and when the crowd of fair vacationists, in a festive flutter of white frocks, drifted away through the blue darkness across the dew-laden clover, and someone lit a cigarette in the dark, holding the flaring match to his face in cupped hands—Ganin, in a state of lonely excitement, walked home, the spokes of his bicycle clicking faintly as he pushed it by the saddle.
Mary is a land of exiles, a good place for memory and nostalgia. These concern Nabokov in his other work as well, but here they are the main show. I noted more than I ever had before a focus on stream-of-consciousness that (now that I’ve read her) bring Virginia Woolf immediately to mind. Here, Ganin remembers Mary’s old perfume.
Ganin now tried to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but, as we know, memory can restore to life everything except smells, although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
For a moment Ganin stopped recollecting and wondered how he had been able to live for so many years without thinking about Mary—and then he caught up with her again: she was running along a dark, rustling path, her black bow looking in flight like a huge Camberwell Beauty.
Recollecting, pausing, recollecting some more; this makes me think of Woolf. The scent, and the butterfly, are doses of Nabokov.
It can almost be sentimental, not Ganin really but certainly the sentimental poet Podtyagin, who laments: “It’s terrible—oh, terrible—that whenever we dream about Russia we never dream of it as beautiful, as we know it was in reality, but as something monstrous—the sort of dreams where the sky is falling in and you feel the world’s coming to an end.” I prefer this comment, amid reminiscences of the industrial and human grotesquerie Ganin witnessed while fleeing the country: “It was such trivia—and not nostalgia for his abandoned homeland—that stuck in Ganin’s memory, as though only his eyes had been alive and his mind gone into hiding.”