Critical Context

This first novel looks so much simpler than Nabokov’s mature work that it may be easy to ignore the obvious signs of connection which are here, as in a five-finger exercise. Ganin has the marks of the later protagonists, not only in his “apartness” but also in his inclination toward mild forms of outlaw conduct: The reader never learns his real name, and he is determined to cross the borders illegally. The male-female love triangle appears repeatedly in Nabokov’s work. Even his sometimes extravagant use of coincidence is evident in Ganin and Alfyorov living in the same boardinghouse, Mary arriving just as Ganin is to leave, and in a reference to Alfyorov and Podtyagin in one of Mary’s last letters to Ganin.

Mary’s generous evocation of young love and its celebration of sexual innocence and ardor seem somewhat too conservative for the Nabokov known through his later works. The ending, which may be read as a sentimental rejection of anything less than the ideal world, which can never be retrieved, may also be read as Nabokov’s ironic refusal to give readers what they want: the happy ending. The overall tone may be bittersweet, but there are intimations of acridity in the novel which anticipate stronger work to come.