(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Ganin, stuck in a dark elevator with Alfyorov, a boring, well-meaning fellow refugee, learns that Alfyorov’s wife, from whom he has been separated for some time, has finally managed to leave Russia and will be arriving in a few days. Ganin, who is thinking of leaving Berlin on the day of her arrival, is uninterested and is more concerned about how he can tell his mistress that he is no longer in love with her and is leaving the city, by himself.

The pension is occupied by a small group of Russian refugees of various occupations. Ganin, gloomily preoccupied by his problems, listens while Alfyorov chatters on about his wife at the communal lunch. Podtyagin, who wants to go to Paris, is cheered that the French have sent him an exit visa, but he complains that the German officials are making things difficult for him. Alfyorov sees the confusion as an example of German efficiency, as opposed to the inefficiency of Russia. Only Russian women are exempt from his scorn, and he suggests that Podtyagin write a poem praising them. Ganin, disgusted and unhappy, goes to his room and thinks of how briefly his love for Lyudmila Rubanski has lasted and of what a nuisance she has become for him.

At the cinema that night with Lyudmila and Klara, Ganin is depressed further by seeing himself as an extra in a film (he makes occasional money by acting in crowd scenes); he regards his image on the screen as a symbol of the transitory nature of human life. Later that night he learns that Alfyorov’s wife is, in fact, the first love of his life, but he says nothing to Alfyorov, who is offended by Ganin’s suddenly leaving the room after being shown a picture of her.

Upset by this revelation, Ganin wanders the streets through the night. The next morning, surprisingly full of energy and purpose, he tells Lyudmila that he loves someone else and is going away. He walks through the city, thinking of when he was fifteen years old and first met Mary, who is now Alfyorov’s wife. On returning to the pension, he slips into Alfyorov’s room, determined to find photographs of Mary. Klara catches him rifling...

(The entire section is 863 words.)