(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 971 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Gift is the dual story of the evolution of Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s literary gifts and his love affair with Zina Mertz. The lovers are part of the large emigre colony in Berlin following the Russian Revolution. The young poet and writer, a former aristocrat, leads a happy, if straitened, existence giving lessons, doing translations, and selling an occasional poem to the emigre press while searching for his true literary voice and for his love.

The novel opens on April 1, 1926. Fyodor has just moved into a new room and is basking in the glow of his first book of poems. The exquisitely perceptive review that he mentally composes while skimming through the slender volume is, alas, the only review it is destined to receive. That evening, he sets out to visit his friends, the Chernyshevskis, where he has been promised the first, flattering newspaper review of his poems—a promise that turns out to be an “April fool’s” jest. The chagrined poet passes the evening watching the guests and imagining the scene as each of them sees it. Through Alexander Chernyshevski’s troubled eyes, he sees a shadowy figure sitting in the corner. This image is a projection of Chernyshevski’s incipient madness resulting from the bizarre suicide of his son Yasha, an inept aspiring poet. Fyodor’s mental game revives his spirits, and he strolls home composing a poem. On his arrival, he discovers that he, the eternal exile, has the wrong house key.

The summer passes pleasantly, ending in a satirically described emigre literary evening during which the young hero is offered some translation work. He fails to pursue the matter, however, and misses meeting Zina, the woman he will love. As Fyodor leaves the gathering, he falls into a long discussion with the poet and critic Koncheyev, whom he knows slightly. Only at the end of their brilliantly incisive survey of Russian literature does the reader learn that the entire discussion has taken place in Fyodor’s mind.

That Christmas, Fyodor’s mother, Elizaveta Pavlovna,...

(The entire section is 843 words.)