Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
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,...
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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 radical nineteenth century Russian literary and political journalist exiled by the czar. The inept Chernyshevski became a political martyr revered by the liberal Russian intelligentsia. So respected was he that his primitive, social utilitarian aesthetic views came to dominate much of Russia’s cultural development for more than a century. Fyodor, the young aesthete, sees Nikolai Chernyshevski as the bad seed of Russian cultural and political history and decides to write a book about him. The slight volume, which constitutes chapter 4 of The Gift, outrages almost all segments of the reading public and gains for Fyodor a certain notoriety.
Zina has served as Fyodor’s muse throughout the writing of the Chernyshevski biography. The lovers, although living under the same roof, are never alone together. Their problem is unexpectedly solved when Shchyogolev obtains a job abroad and sublets the family apartment. Until the new tenants arrive, Zina and Fyodor can stay. The young lovers, whose relationship has remained unknown to the Shchyogolevs, see them off at the train station. As they spend their last money on dinner in a sidewalk café, Fyodor outlines the plan of his major novel, which proves to be The Gift.
The Gift is especially rich in themes. The most prominent is that of the artist’s creative process. Fyodor’s artistic development is illustrated through four stages: the early poems, the aborted biography of his father, the witty and elegant biography of Chernyshevski, and The Gift itself. In each case, the actual development of Fyodor’s creative process is followed from its tiny, inconsequential beginnings to the finished work, for Nabokov’s novel is a biographical study of the creative gift from which the novel draws its title. The second major theme isNabokov’s radical reassessment of Russian cultural history and literature. The theme is associated with Fyodor’s withering biography of Nikolai Chernyshevski and with his relationship with a character named Koncheyev, a poet and literary critic. It is in Fyodor’s conversations with Koncheyev (all of which are imaginary) that Nabokov advances his own aesthetically based reevaluation of Russian literature. The third major theme is the hereafter. This theme centers upon Alexander Chernyshevski and, to a lesser extent, upon Fyodor and his father. The demented Chernyshevski at times believes that he is in touch with the spirit world, but at other times he rejects the idea. As he lies dying, listening to water drumming outside his curtained window, he murmurs, “What nonsense. Of course there is nothing afterwards. . . . It is as clear as the fact that it is raining.” In fact, the sun is shining, and a neighbor is watering her plants. The theme surfaces again near the end of the book when Fyodor receives a night summons to come meet his returned father. The sequence proves to be a dream, but other clues throughout the novel suggest the ghostly presence of Fyodor’s father.
The Gift, the most complex of Nabokov’s Russian novels, is also the most deeply rooted in Russian history and culture. Beyond that, what at first seems to be a traditional realistic Russian novel in fact proves to be another example of Nabokov’s artistic ingeniousness, for his novel is plotted on the model of a chess problem composed by Fyodor in the course of the book. Both a loving tribute to and a parody of the traditional Russian realistic novel, The Gift is a fitting climax to Nabokov’s career as a Russian writer.