The Gift is a study of the creative process enveloped in a brilliant display of Nabokovian structural and stylistic pyrotechnics. The theme is elaborated in two parallel plot lines: the gradual coming together of Fyodor and Zina, and the ripening of Fyodor’s talent, leading to the creation of The Gift. The basic plan of the novel is circular, the legendary snake swallowing its own tail.
The “gift” of the title has several meanings. The most central is Fyodor’s talent. His very name, the Russian form of Theodore, means “God’s gift.” The word also refers to the Russian literary heritage. Fyodor’s biography of his father and his study of Chernyshevski are written under the respective stars of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, the founding fathers of modern Russian literature. The Gift is Fyodor’s (and Nabokov’s) original contribution to that heritage and also a provocative reevaluation of Russian cultural history.
The Gift has a leitmotif that echoes and augments the book’s theme of art and the artist. Keys play an important role in the plot and also have symbolic meaning. Although an exile, locked out from his native land, Fyodor retains its keys, the Russian language and cultural tradition. The Russian word for “key” (klyuch) also means “spring,” suggesting the Castalian Spring of Greek mythology from which artists drink in inspiration. Yet another association is the crucial “key move” in the solution of chess problems. Nabokov’s seemingly realistic novel, like Fyodor’s projected work, is designed or plotted on the model of a chess problem which Fyodor composes in the course of the book. Nabokov has repeatedly remarked on the parallels between the composition of novels and his beloved hobby of composing chess problems. The Gift is both a loving tribute to, and a parody of the traditional Russian realistic novel.