Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Title: Mary
Author: Vladimir Nabokov (translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny)
Publisher: McGraw-Hill International, Inc (1970)

Mary was the first novel written by Nabokov (so the cover tells me) and originally published in 1926 (so the introduction tells me). This is the second of Nabokov's books that I have read and it won't be the last. I didn't like this title (or the other for that matter) as much as I wanted to but the writing keeps me turning pages. The characters have only been just engaging enough to keep me interested and what I'm really waiting for is a plot I can get excited about. Hmm, a plot... why don't I get to that.

Mary is set in Berlin at a lodging house that caters to Russian expatriates. We get to know all of the lodgers but the story mainly centers around Ganin. Ganin is in his mid-20s, not currently working, and dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend. He has tried to leave her several times but is apparently incapable due to his lack of initiative - or maybe follow-through, it was hard for me to decide which. A surprise revelation by one of his housemates triggers his memories of a childhood sweetheart eventually leading to an upheaval of his inertia-controlled life.

One can probably gather from what I said above that it is Nabokov's writing I find so appealing. He has a very distinct style that I can't quite find the words to describe. Instead I will describe how I feel when reading. Often times there's a definite rhythm that I find myself pulled into, then a smirk finds it's way to my face and all of a sudden I find myself laughing out loud at a situation that would not normally make me laugh. So I stop and try to figure out why I'm laughing. Am I laughing at the character, the words, a private joke, laughing with the character? Honestly I can never really decide and I find that fascinating.

One beef I have is that sometimes a huge, jizztastic wrench is thrown into the whole business by a complete loss of rhythm in the writing. And do believe me, I mean a total loss! There were several times where I experienced a serious mental lurch that completely tossed me right out of the story. I found these to be mostly when the POV or situation was changed. Rather than a smooth transition taking the reader to the next locale, it's about three paragraphs of confusion until you figure out just what the heck is now going on. I'd rather demonstrate with a quote but it'd be almost page-length so instead I'll try to describe one of these bizarre "transitions."

We meet Klara, a lodger and friend of Ganin's girlfriend, for the first time at the top of a paragraph that immediately follows a section about Ganin and his girlfriend in the girlfriend's room. Klara is not in this room, or indeed even in the building, but we are suddenly in her head as she thinks about the girlfriend recounting her dates with Ganin. This moves immediately into her crush on Ganin which would all be very well and good but then we move on to the lunch seating assignments in the lodging house and the landlady's tendency to be quiet during lunch and simply ensure that the cook brings the correct dishes to table. Next paragraph Ganin is entering the dining room at lunch, on a different day, mumbling something to his fellow lodgers and where the heck Klara is at this point is anyone's guess. It made my brain fizz a bit. During these oddball transitions it's much like all the walls in Berlin have a stream-of-consciousness output that Nabokov tuned in for and then used periodically in the book.

I'm hoping that the aforementioned lurches are due to this being a first novel and that subsequent books will be a bit more polished. As I said, the writing is so intriguing to me that I'll definitely read more of his books even if this one did not blow me away story-wise. I even think the characters can be improved with a bit more polish. Nabokov does an excellent job of fleshing them out but just when I felt I was really getting under their skin suddenly I was going through one of those stilted transitions and so I had to stop thinking about the characters and try to sort out where I was now located in the story. I'm hoping this aspect of his writing is limited to this book so that I can look forward to his entire backlist for my future reading.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

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