Monday, March 21, 2011

“The Gift” by Vladimir Nabokov

Year of first publication: 1937-38
Genre: novel
Country: Russia

At some point in “The Gift” a man called Valentin Linëv from Warsaw reviews the book written by the protagonist, a mock biography of revolutionary democrat and author Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. The reviewer dismisses the work, considering that its author has, among other faults, a poor use of the Russian language. This fictitious reviewer, I learn from the afterword to the novel, failed to recognize all the allusions to great Russian authors in the book, thus missing its prominent aesthetic value. I am exactly like this wicked reviewer, because my grasp of Russian literature is sketchy, if not worse. “The Gift” has in fact been written for those readers who are familiar with the works of Pushkin, Tolstoj, Turgenev and many other important Russian authors. If you are not one of these lucky readers, then you are excluded from “The Gift”, because the book is entirely about literature and the plot has little importance.
Fëdor Kostantinovich Godunov-Cherdyncev, a Russian expatriate in 1920s Berlin, has just published a book of poetry in a magazine for Russian émigrés, but nobody seems to care or hail him as one of the new talents among the not-so-tiny Russian community in Germany. The verses, reported at length together with a reviewer’s commentary, are mainly about the author’s childhood in his native Russia. Fëdor Kostantinovich describes that poetry comes to him in sudden blazes and he struggles to catch all the words, an adjective sometimes escaping him. Like Nabokov, Godunov-Cherdyncev also experiences synesthesia, a contamination between the senses that allows him to perceive words or sounds as colours or textiles (he recommends the reader to try his ‘flannel cotton “m”’). What does Fëdor Kostantinovich do apart from musing over his own writing, anyway? He often visits other Russian émigrés, for example the Chernyshevskys, who oddly enough are not related to the aforementioned revolutionary hero. They had a son, Jasha, who died in a way highly reminiscent of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, although the afterword to the novel mentions Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” as the implied allusion. This is how the novel works: in a now-common postmodern way that scatters metaliterary references all over the novel. It is not hard to spot the influence of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (1913-1927), for instance, in the constant remembrance and nostalgia for the protagonist’s childhood. With regards to this, Robert Scholes, an influential literary critic, once said that ‘once we knew that fiction was about life and criticism was about fiction – and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metafiction’.
As the novel progresses, the reader understand that the plot revolves around Godunov-Cherdyncev’s maturation as a writer. At first his intention is writing a book about his father, who was an adventurer and an lepidopterist, but then he abandons the project. He meets Zina, a character moulded on Nabokov’s real wife Vera, who is the only one who loved his poems and wants to have a signed copy. She suggests that he should write a biography of Chernishevsky, as an exercise. Here begins the book within the book: more than one hundred pages are devoted to this fake biography of a real man. This chapter of the novel was censored, in the first Russian edition, for the same reasons given for the dismissal of the biography in the novel as a ‘reckless, antisocial, mischievous improvisation’. These words tell us that Nabokov was constantly playing with the reception of the book, because he knew it was not a book for everyone. He constantly mocks and scorns those readers who cannot spot the literary allusions, which can be a little annoying.
In spite of this metafictional feast, the novel failed to arouse my interest above a certain (low) level. Full of juicy titbits (‘the street began as a post office and ended like a church, like an epistolary novel’, p.16 my translation from the Italian), the novel does have some charms, but they are diluted, watered down in a drawn-out book of 450-odd pages, with almost no plot and maybe ruined by a translation that was difficult to make, not to mention an inadequate reader with only a few notions of Russian literature. As he always does, Nabokov tells in a preface what “The Gift” is not: it is not an autobiographical novel, he says, because he did not have an explorer as a father and he never courted Zina Mertz. The problem is that Nabokov never says what his novels really are. It seems to me that, as his other two works I have read so far (read here and here), this is ultimately a novel about writing, the novel that we read being the same novel that the protagonist starts at the end of the book, as if we were in a Moebius strip, a continuum where the end is also the beginning of the novel. The gift of the title is of course the gift of the pen, of poetry and literature, which is all that mattered to Nabokov.


  1. Leggendo "Lolita", si ha la netta impressione che la vicenda sia solo un pretesto per fare altro, metaletteratura, come osservi tu, o giochi di parole, o chissà cos'altro. Vedo che anche "The gift" ha la stessa impostazione...

  2. Sì, "arte per l'arte" era quello che pensava Nabokov ed infatti lo espone anche in questo romanzo, dove al proprio intento estetico contrappone "l'arte di propaganda" di Chernishevky.

    La differenza tra questo libro e "Lolita" è che in "Lolita" c'è una trama, invece qui praticamente non c'è, o meglio, è ridotta veramente all'osso.

  3. As a reader who is largely unfamiliar with Russian literature, I would no doubt be lost reading The Gift. Thanks for the insightful discussion!

  4. You're welcome. I believe that there are several ways of being lost. Being lost in a novel can be pleasant, but in this case it can also be a nightmare.

  5. This is VN's greatest Russian novel, I think, a culmination.

    I actually first read it when I only knew the surface of Russian literature. It was, then, something of an introduction to Russian lit - the conversation can go either way.

    Your last sentence is exactly right.

  6. You see? Different people perceive novels in different ways. For you, "The Gift" opened the doors of Russian literature, but for me it didn't work that way. I felt excluded most of the time, even thogh I was aware of the potential of what I was reading.

  7. I went so far as to read the Chernyshevsky novel! So I perhaps went too far.

  8. Ahah, is it any good? I'd love to read some Pushkin, anyway.

  9. Chernyshevsky's novel is kind of terrible. Incompetent.

    But! Chernyshevsky is responding directly to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground is a direct response to Chernyshevsky. So if I think of his novel as part of an ongoing conversation (a conversation that now includes Nabokov, too) it becomes a lot more interesting.

    Pushkin is wonderful - prose and poetry, both. Pushkin stands by himself - no need to know anything at all about Russian literature. Just good, surprising stories.

  10. I have read "Notes from the Underground" and I remember a lecture at uni trying to explain us (students of other literatures) why it was important.

    Anyway, I'll try some Pushkin, maybe also Chekhov (the latter is completely ignored in Italy)!