Mary, Nabokov’s first novel, is set in the large colony of Russian émigrés who had fled the Russian Revolution for Berlin. The novel’s events take place during the first week of April, 1924, in a boardinghouse whose residents, once well-off but now poor, live in a state of suspension. They feel that their real lives were left behind in the Russia of their dreams and desperately hope to return. Meanwhile they wait in a cold, alien city and dream of the past.
Ganin, the hero, is a former White army officer who fought against the victorious Reds before escaping. Although of sterner fortitude than his fellow lodgers, he too has fallen into an irritable malaise. He wishes to move on, perhaps to France, but lacks the resolve to break off a dreary love affair and go. The novel opens in a setting symbolic of the plight of its characters. Ganin and a new lodger named Alfyorov find themselves temporarily trapped in the dark between floors on an elevator. Alfyorov, an effusively cheerful vulgarian, tells the taciturn Ganin that his (Alfyorov’s) wife, Mary, from whom he was separated by the revolution, will at last be rejoining him. Later in his room, he shows Ganin her picture. Ganin leaves without a word.
The girl in the picture is Mary, Ganin’s first love. For the next few days Ganin walks the streets of Berlin in a trance, reconstructing, scene by scene, the entire story of their affair, the happiest time of his life. Ganin’s...
(The entire section is 461 words.)