Nabokov completed his first novel at age 26 while in Berlin with his family, which had been forced into exile after the Bolshevik Revolution. Written in Russian, it is heavily autobiographical in inspiration and focused on themes that would be developed further in his later literary output, most essentially young love and memory.
Nabokov's alter-ego in this story in Ganin, a young Russian man who has been forced to flee Russia and who has ended up in Berlin following the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war, in which he fought in the White Army. He is staying in a long-term residency situation with a small group of fellow Russian emigres, and learns that one of them is expecting his wife to join him in 6 days hence. In discussion with this fellow, he learns that this wife is Mary, who was Ganin's first love as a sixteen year old teenager. Quite a coincidence, you might say.
This revelation brings up a flood of memories for Ganin, and he spends the next few days living among them in his head. The reader sees that this first love was primed by Ganin's illness and recovery from typhus, which left him in a heightened emotional state that of necessity led to him falling in love with a girl whose image he formed in his sick room. It happened that this image came to be embodied in Mary.
Nabokov thus explores the idea that Ganin's love for Mary had nothing to do with Mary's actual qualities, but sprang solely from his own reflections and projections. Reliving those memories in Berlin years later is pleasant for Ganin, but also stunts any productivity. Under their influence he decides to meet Mary at her train's arrival in Berlin and arranges to leave her husband behind so he can steal away with her, but then on the morning of arrival, he essentially snaps out of it and realizes that life has to move on. It's the opposite of what happens to Humbert Humbert in Lolita, then, as Humbert is forever arrested in his development by a young love affair, while Ganin leaves it behind.
On a side train of thought, Nabokov has one of the characters speak the line, "We should love Russia. Without the love of us emigres, Russia is finished. None of the people there love her.", which one assumes is his own comment on what has happened politically in his native land.
The debut novel from the author of "Lolita." Originally published in Russian in 1926. Will appeal to those who have already read some of his novels.
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