Missing Keys, Stunted Blooms, and
Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Best known for his extraordinary English-language novels, particularly Lolita, which he suggested in its 1956 afterward was a record of his love affair with the English language, Vladimir Nabokov had almost as distinguished a literary career in his native Russian language, publishing nine novels and countless stories and poems and plays while living as an émigré in Berlin between 1923 and 1937, a period that ended when Nabokov and his wife, Véra (who was Jewish), fled a regime that was even more insane than the one they and their families had fled almost two decades earlier in Russia. Nabokov claimed in the same afterward that his English was a feeble shadow of his magisterial Russian—an astonishing thing to imagine—but his precarious years in Germany left him and his fellow exiles with an extremely limited reading audience and opportunity to thrive as working artists. While his Russian works are almost as vividly modern and ambitious as his later English works, Nabokov’s writing in these years can be likened to an amber encapsulation of Russia’s great literary past, which in many ways he both culminated and exhausted, in part because of how his works serve as a brilliant coda for a scattered tradition and in part because of how his severed relationship to his homeland made it impossible for his use of the language to grow and evolve for the rest of his life. His estrangement from living Russian became startlingly evident to him when, decades later, he translated Lolita into Russian and was shocked to discover that he had no idea what the Russian words for such modern terms as “glove compartment” were. Still reveling in artistic possibility in Berlin, however, Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, is a tiny diamond of loveliness, while later Russian novels such as The Eye and Laughter in the Dark and Despair are all masterpieces of grotesque and glorious strangeness. Perhaps only somewhat intentionally, never knowing which way history would turn, but probably suspecting that that he’d never get to return home, his final Russian novel, The Gift, features a tour through Russian literature that serves as a swan song for Nabokov’s fertile but increasingly uprooted relationship with his native literary soil.
Detailing the artistic growth of a Russian émigré writer named Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in 1920s Berlin, The Gift, like so many of Nabokov’s other works, features a protagonist who shares much of the author’s history and aesthetic and intellectual predilections. This is not an autobiographical novel, however, as Nabokov insists in his foreword to the book’s English translation, but even though Godunov-Cherdyntsev is not a disguised version of the author, the book still paints a fascinating panorama of the world in which Nabokov, like his novel’s invented young writer, began his literary apprenticeship. Nabokov also significantly notes that the heroine of the novel isn’t Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s girlfriend, Zina, but rather Russian literature itself, which the novel’s progressions imitate and often mock, ravishing it the way that Nabokov ravishes Lolita’s own true heroine, the English language.
The opening chapter finds Godunov-Cherdyntsev having just moved into a new flat on the same week that his first book of poems has been published. With significance that will be mirrored and amplified in the final chapter, the young writer is out walking and doesn’t have the key to get into his flat—an accidental linguistic pun: there’s a repeatedly missing clef in this non-roman à clef. Through a series of reflections and samples and authorial explications, the reader enters into Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s early life through his poems, which in his case are keys to his autobiography, both personal and artistic. Subsequent chapters of The Gift evoke Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol in both literary mode and subject matter as they follow Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s desires and plans to write a great novel about his father, who was/is an explorer who disappeared before the Russian Revolution and who haunts his son’s dreams of both life and art. Delving into Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s research and notes for his projected novel, The Gift in many ways is that novel, but The Gift’s self-reflexive nature insists on being and encompassing more—and unfortunately, though its single-minded focus on the processes of (and varied critical reactions to) artistic creation, it often offers much less.
The Gift’s serious wrong-turn comes in Chapter Four, which comprises a brutally mocking biographical appraisal of the life and work of the nineteenth-century critic and writer Nikolay Chernyshevski, whose social novel What is to Be Done? (What to Do? in Nabokov’s translation) inspired generations of revolutionaries, most notably Lenin, who reused the novel’s title as the name of one of his most influential political tracts. Serving for Nabokov and Godunov-Cherdyntsev as both a historical and an artistic catastrophe—the novel so hackneyed and over/underwrought that even in my Russophile youth I was unable to force myself to read it in full—Chernyshevski’s work and life find themselves relentlessly drawn and quartered within The Gift’s hundred-page diversion away from literary exploration and into literary impalement. Inspired by a coincidence of names and influences, and perhaps needing to develop his prose muscles before writing the book that he wants to write, Godunov-Cherdyntsev embarks upon this cruel and pointless display of virtuosic learning as a reaction to the wrong-turn he feels that history and literary thought have taken. Aesthetically, politically, and personally, this book-within-a-book is spot-on, and it’s in fact amazingly informative and often hilarious, especially in its ingenious bending of facts and dates and authorities, its dizzying contortions working to make its final twists extra ruthless, but all in all this brilliant tour-de-force is a serious drag on the novel’s thrust and leaves a bitter aftertaste that mars the beautiful arc of The Gift’s mirror of Russian literature, which may in fact be Nabokov’s plan in reflecting the vicissitudes of art in his lost country’s lost mind.
Nabokov has great fun having his characters—and even his invented author—criticize this work of creative criticism, whose circular structure Nabokov would later reprise in his own much more favorable (but still critical) book on Gogol, but this long chapter’s elaborately dense trashing/thrashing of its subject takes Nabokov’s often childish invectives to a new low. Like Dante, who even in the most intoxicating celestial spheres can’t help spewing his obloquy upon the disappointments of reality, Nabokov’s hatreds overtake him constantly, and while he usually satisfies himself with a few crushing words about the things he despises and then moves along to the glories of his own artistic universe, this novel contents itself with highlighting negativity rather than aspiring to the heights. In a novel in which Russian literature is ostensibly the heroine, it’s surprising—and telling—that Tolstoy and his work are mentioned exactly three times, while so much time and space and energy are expended upon a writer whose work and influence Nabokov sees as a tremendous waste of time and space and energy.
Leaving this lamentable chapter behind and moving forward, Godunov-Cherdyntsev surges toward full artistic maturity—as well as full union with Zina—and this final chapter simply dazzles as Nabokov delights in all the pleasures and opportunities available to a novelist in full control of his language and his artistic form. The book often shifts from third person to first person, with Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s inner voice supplanting the novel’s outer narration, and with so much literary discussion and sleight-of-hand at play, The Gift often serves as a metafictional dialogue about its own devices and structures and aesthetics. The ending especially leads the book back (or forward) toward itself, and while this Möbius-strip contrivance could simply seem contrived in another writer’s hands, Nabokov and his readers thrill to Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s discovery of the key to his own masterwork as he and Zina walk together, happily keyless, to the flat that contains their shared future.
The sad thing about all this is that the novel’s surge forward simply ends here and doesn’t bloom into anything near the level of Tolstoy, who Nabokov possibly could have matched as a novelist in Russian under vastly different circumstances but whose rarefied company Nabokov would join only after switching to English. The Gift has much in common with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—a novel that Nabokov detested—and it’s disheartening that Nabokov had to stop with Godunov-Cherdyntsev discovering how to write the novel that we’ve just read rather than moving on to write a Russian Ulysses, a novel that Nabokov revered, and which also features a main character wandering around keyless. A fascinating glimmer of Nabokov’s future literary mastery comes from a wholly unexpected direction, though, and quite ironically. About halfway through the novel, Zina’s detestable stepfather mentions a novel that he’d like to write himself, “from real life”:
An old dog—but still in his prime, fiery, thirsting for happiness—gets to know a widow, and she has a daughter, still quite a little girl—you know what I mean—when nothing is formed yet but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind—A slip of a girl, very fair, pale, with blue under the eyes—and of course she doesn’t even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the widow. Okay. They settle down the three of them. Here you can go on indefinitely—the temptation, the eternal torment, the itch, the mad hopes. And the upshot—a miscalculation. Time flies, he gets older, she blossoms out—and not a sausage. Just walks by and scorches you with a look of contempt. Eh? D’you feel here a kind of Dostoyevskian tragedy? That story, you see, happened to a great friend of mine, once upon a time in fairyland when old King Cole was a merry old soul….
This is of course the seed for Lolita, which takes a far darker course than the one that Zina luckily evaded. Even the grossly nostalgic “once upon a time in fairyland when old King Cole was a merry old soul” prefigures Lolita’s use of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in its opening pages:
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Near the end of The Gift, Godunov-Cherdyntsev writes a letter to his mother in Paris and discusses his thoughts of writing a “classical novel” and lampoons the “brash trash” that he sees being “considered the crown of literature,” and among his list of despised topics is “incest.” How fitting then that a novel on this rejected topic—and not a classical novel in the vein of Tolstoy—would become his masterpiece, the “crown of literature” that he would never achieve in Russian.
Almost two decades separate The Gift and Lolita, and during that time Nabokov dedicated himself to the exploration of the English language’s wild wilderness, but there’s a significant link between the two novels—and it’s in his native Russian. In 1939, just after completing his first English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov composed a remarkable novella in Russian that he called The Enchanter, an ur-Lolita that he later described as “the first little throb” of the great work that would consume his life between 1949 and 1955—and for years afterward, the novel becoming such a sensation that it changed his life forever. He was dissatisfied with The Enchanter upon completing it and reading it aloud, and in 1957 he recalled that he’d thrown it away—he’d nearly done the same thing with Lolita, which he abandoned several times and which his wife once had to retrieve from the trash can. In 1959, Nabokov discovered The Enchanter in his archives and found it more pleasing than he remembered, and he proposed that it be translated into English by his family, which didn’t happen until 1986 when his son, Dmitri, undertook the task, nearly a decade after Nabokov’s death.
Following all these trails of artistic thread through Nabokov’s work, it’s startling—but not surprising—to find that even the “little throb” of Lolita’s precursor had a precursor. And not in a princedom by the sea, but in the Nazi Germany of the mid-to-late 1930s, in a novel in which the protagonist rejects a theme that reflects the sickness of both a repulsive old man and a literary and historical scene that had little place for truly great Russian literature. The Gift tells the story of one young writer’s growing literary gift, but this gift—in Nabokov’s case—was unfulfillable, even in a novel of The Gift’s scope and complexity. Only when he took up and fully explored the hauntingly vile subject that Godunov-Cherdyntsev so adamantly pushes away from himself—and only after giving up the dream of achieving a true masterwork in Russian—would Nabokov find the key to the literary apotheosis that his own gift so richly deserved.