Lev Glebovich Ganin
Lev Glebovich Ganin (GLEH-boh-vihch GAH-nihn), the alias of a twenty-four-year-old Russian émigré who lives in a Berlin pension with several other émigrés. Bored with a dreary love affair with a woman named Lyudmila, Ganin discovers that a fellow boarder’s wife, a woman named Mary who is due to arrive in Berlin from Russia in just a few days’ time, is actually his own first love. Breaking off his current affair, he spends the next few days dreaming about the romance he shared with Mary as a youth and about the difficult conditions of their separation. Stimulated by these memories, he decides to intercept Mary at the station and to resume his romance with her. He succeeds in getting Mary’s husband, Alfyorov, hopelessly drunk on the eve of Mary’s arrival, but as he sets out to meet her train, he realizes that there is no need to renew their acquaintance, because the image of Mary that he had been reviving in his mind is the only Mary that truly matters. As the novel ends, he boards a train and leaves Berlin for the south.
Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov
Aleksey Ivanovich Alfyorov (ah-lehk-SAY ee-VAH-noh-vihch alf-YOH-rov), Ganin’s garrulous neighbor in the pension. Smug and self-absorbed, Alfyorov waxes eloquently about his admiration for German efficiency and his love for his wife. His essential boorishness emerges when he becomes drunk on the eve of his wife’s arrival. He is easily duped when Ganin resets his alarm clock so that he will sleep through Mary’s arrival.
Anton Sergeevich Podtyagin
Anton Sergeevich Podtyagin (sehr-GEH-yeh-vihch pod-TYA-gihn), an elderly Russian poet who lives in the pension with Ganin. A sympathetic figure, Podtyagin wrote a poem that linked Ganin and Mary. He now seeks in desperation to leave Berlin for a new life in Paris, but after a series of mishaps prevents him from making his scheduled departure, he falls ill. At the end of the novel, it appears that he may die.
Klara, a twenty-six-year-old Russian woman who also lives in Ganin’s pension. Troubled over the fact that she is getting older and has not found a romantic attachment in her life, she focuses her thoughts on the mysterious Ganin, but he does not let her become closely acquainted with his true nature and even allows her to suspect that he may be capable of thievery. His relationship with her friend Lyudmila is also an early source of discomfort for her. He remains an enigma to her until he leaves the pension at the end of the novel.
Lyudmila Rubanski (lyuhd-MIH-lah rew-BAHN-skee), Ganin’s lover at the outset of the novel, a twenty-five-year-old woman who has become repugnant to him because of the thorough triteness of her opinions and the artificiality of her behavior with him.
Kolin (KOH-lihn) and
Gornotsvetov (gohr-noh-TSVEH-tov), two ballet dancers who live together in a room in Ganin’s pension. They hold the party at which Alfyorov becomes drunk on the eve of his wife’s arrival.
Mary, the enchanting woman whom Ganin loved as a teenager. Although she lives a rich life in Ganin’s recollections, she never appears in the present-day setting of the novel.
Lydia Nikolaevna Dorn
Lydia Nikolaevna Dorn (nih-koh-LA-yehv-nah), the widow of a German businessman and the landlady of Ganin’s pension.
There is a piquancy to the use of a third-party narrator in Mary , as the love story is based, at least modestly, on Vladimir Nabokov’s own adolescent love affair with a girl named Tamara. That affair was ended by the intrusion...
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of the Russian Revolution. The third-party voice is used to enter the minds of other characters, but in the main the narrator remains very close to Ganin and manifests much of his tonal and intellectual attitude toward the events of the novel.
Ganin, in many ways, is a precursor of the major male character as he is developed in much of Nabokov’s work. He is intelligent, perceptive, often coldly aristocratic, and distanced from those with whom he associates. Certainly part of his attraction for Klara lies in his ambiguous hauteur, his self-contained confidence. There is, however, an aspect of his character which is only occasionally seen by the other characters. He has been, in the past, a young man of feeling, and his memory of the affair is charged with tenderness and an eye for the beauty of the Russia he has left behind. Now his emotions seem limited to the satisfying of his sexual appetites and he is restrained, if not icily cool, in his relations with others. He can, however, be gratuitously kind, as he is to Podtyagin and in the way he senses the lovelorn despair of Klara.
Perhaps the best thing about Nabokov’s methods of characterization in this novel lies in the ease with which he conveys their feelings. Mary is, in part, a novel about lost, confused, emotionally bruised creatures, all driven from their homeland, all trying to make some sense of their new lives, and often failing to do so. Klara’s tentative, fumbling desire for Ganin is presented with great sensitivity. Nabokov, who is an ironic writer usually, deals here with two homosexual ballet dancers without patronizing them. It is significant that Ganin, for all of his toughness is equally unjudging in his dealings with them. The desultory conversations, the details of dress and gesture, and the subtle movements of this pathetic but likable group flood the work with considerable tenderness. Ganin’s last moments in the pension as he takes leave of Podtyagin and is taken to the door by Klara are an example. Nabokov’s third-party narrator is always clear-eyed; here that eye is admirably understanding, almost caressing in its restraint.
Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art, 1967.
Lee, L. L. Vladimir Nabokov, 1976.
Morton, Donald E. Vladimir Nabokov, 1974.
Proffer, Carl, ed. A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov, 1973.
Rowe, William Woodin. Nabokov’s Deceptive World, 1971.