#69 – The Gift, by Vladimir Nabokov

I wasn’t quite able to finish this, my sixty-ninth book, in 2008. New Year’s Eve celebrations tripped me up with forty pages to go. Still, I regret nothing, except perhaps that various circumstances prevented me from giving this novel the attention it deserved during most of the month (!) that it took me to read it. (The saddest part of that being that I probably only spent about ten days with the book over that period, being distracted or busy or suffering from the holiday blues or whatever the rest of the time.) Like with most of Nabokov’s books, I finished The Gift feeling like I’d just experienced something profound without necessarily being able to identify, let alone understand, what that something was. On the surface the book is pretty straightforward; in the mid-1930s an impoverished Russian émigré poet, the son of an adventerous and quite dead minor noble, moves from one crowded, dingy Berlin apartment to another, falls in love with the landlady’s daughter and writes a controversial biography of a middling Russian literary figure from two or three generations before, all the while dreaming of the true, grand work of literature he will one day compose, the work that will mark him forever as a giant of Russian literature. Nothing with Nabokov is ever quite that easy.

To begin with, and a less attentive reader may have missed this entirely, it’s not always clear who is narrating the book. The five chapters shift perspective quite heavily (the fourth doesn’t really count, as it is the text of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s biography of Chernyshevski), sometimes intimately omnipotent, other times distant and purely superficial, and sometimes even in the first person, although who this first person actually is, Godunov-Cherdyntsev or perhaps even Nabokov himself, is open to debate, depending on when and how it crops up. To a reader not familiar with the history of Russian literature (with a few exceptions, that’s me) or Berlin’s émigré community between the wars (me again), it’s quite easy to get lost amongst the plethora of casual literary references and complicated but eerily similar Russian names. What one ultimately gets is the sense of a community that is rather makeshift, still somewhat in shock, taking themselves far too seriously and unable to reconcile their newfound poverty and dinginess with the glory and dignity of their past. No doubt such circumstances could create a similar degree of cognitive dissonance in the mind of almost anyone. With his spectacularly damning biography of Chernyshevski, Godunov-Cherdynstev (and indeed, Nabokov himself) seems to be suggesting that such a condition existed amongst the Russian intelligentsia for a great many years before the diaspora, to the point where it may have become their natural state. I’m led to wonder: if extreme cognitive dissonance is one’s natural state, how can one trust what one sees in a mirror, no matter who holds it up?

Michael Scammell’s translation (with Nabokov collaborating, of course) seems a bit murkier than the other translations of his work from this period that I’ve read, but I’m willing to allow that I may only get that impression because there’s so much in The Gift that’s specific to a particular time, place, and cultural context that the nuances are simply sailing past me. On a sentence by sentence level, The Gift in translation is every bit as beautiful as Nabokov’s English language work.

The Gift was my final book for the Reading 2008 project, although now that the year is actually over, I plan to do a “best of” post (I prefer to save those until the year is actually over, in case my favourite book somehow manages to be which one I read last; after all, the reason most year-end lists happen in early or mid-December is to either give journalists a break from doing real work, or to help publishers sell more books as gifts, neither purpose having any particular relevance to this site). My next book, the first for 2009, will be Georges Simenon’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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