The Gift, Nabokov’s last and greatest Russian novel, is set in Russian émigré Berlin in the late 1920’s. The hero, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is a young poet and writer seeking to find his own voice and place in the Russian literary tradition. The former aristocrat, forever barred from his homeland, leads a pleasantly precarious existence giving lessons, doing translations, and selling an occasional poem. The Gift has a dual plot line: the evolution of Fyodor’s art, and the course of his love affair with fellow émigré Zina Mertz.
As the novel opens, Fyodor, who just published his first book of poems, is settling in at a new rooming house. That evening he visits Alexander and Alexandra Chernyshevski, who have befriended the young poet after the suicide of their son. Exercising his artistic imagination, Fyodor tries to enter the mind of each of the people present. Alexander Chernyshevski is on the verge of madness, and through Alexander’s eyes Fyodor sees the shadowy figure of his dead son, Yasha, among the guests.
A few months pass, and Fyodor receives a visit from his mother, who lives in Paris. They reminisce about their idyllic family life in Russia before the revolution. Their greatest concern, however, is the fate of Fyodor’s father, a famous explorer who disappeared while returning from Tibet. Although he is presumed dead, both mother and son still hope for his return. An austere scientist as well as a man of action, Fyodor’s father possessed an aura of secret knowledge that set him apart from others. Fyodor, who idolizes his father, decides to write his biography. After many months, he abandons the project, feeling that he is unable to capture his father’s mysterious essence. Fyodor has not yet mastered the themes and techniques that will mark him as a great artist.
The young writer must once again change his lodgings, and he takes a room in the apartment of a Russian family named Shchyogolev. Zina, Mrs. Shchyogolev’s daughter from an earlier marriage, proves to be a longtime admirer of Fyodor’s poetry, and the young people are drawn together. Meanwhile Fyodor, an accomplished composer of chess problems, has come across an excerpt from the diary of Nikolai Chernyshevski in a Soviet chess magazine. Nikolai Chernyshevski (who is not to be confused with the novel’s other Chernyshevskis) was a...
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