June 18, 2004

The Gift

Today I finished reading Nabokov's The Gift, the last of his novels written in Russian. (The translation is by Michael Scammell, with Nabokov's input.) I really enjoyed this novel. It's Nabokov's tribute to Russian literature, and not having read Gogol or Pushkin, I'm sure there is much that I missed. But as usual with Nabokov, much of the joy of reading this book comes from the incredible prose.

One passage I particularly liked is this one near the end, in which the main character, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is falling asleep:

As always on the border between consciousness and sleep all sorts of verbal rejects, sparkling and tinkling, broke in: "The crystal crunching of that Christian night beneath a chrysolitic star"... and his thought, listening for a moment, aspired to gather them and use them and began to add of its own: Extinguished, Yasnaya Polyana's light, and Pushkin dead, and Russia far... but since this was no good, the stipple of rhymes extended further: "A falling star, a cruising chrysolite, an aviator's avatar..." His mind sank lower and lower into a hell of alligator alliterations, into infernal cooperatives of words. Through their nonsensical accumulation a round button on the pillowcase prodded him in the cheek; he turned on his other side and against a dark backdrop naked people ran into the Grunewald lake, and a monogram of light resembling an infusorian glided diagonally to the highest corner of his subpalpebral field of vision. Behind a certain closed door in his brain, holding on to its handle but turning away from it, his mind commenced to discuss with somebody a complicated and important secret, but when the door opened for a minute it turned out that they were talking about chairs, tables, stables.

My sleep cycle has been very erratic the past few weeks, and at times I found myself reading this book at moments at which I was drifting off to sleep, the language mingling with my final physics homeworks, and I experienced similar feelings of complicated and important connections that, on jolting awake, were nonsense. It's an interesting feeling, the half-asleep state in which ordinary things seem infused with new meanings coming from dreams. Nabokov's descriptions of this sort of state are beautiful.

Another passage I liked:

But sometimes I get the impression that all this is a rubbishy rumor, a tired legend, that is has been created out of those same suspicious granules of approximate knowledge that I use myself when my dreams muddle through regions known to me only by hearsay or out of books, so that the first knowledgeable person who has really seen at the time the places referred to will refuse to recognize them, will make fun of the exoticism of my thoughts, the hills of my sorrow, the precipices of my imagination, and will find in my conjectures just as many topographical errors as he will anachronisms.

The story itself is compelling. At first I was a bit bored, but the book caught my interest fairly quickly, and its views of the central character (as a struggling writer, as a child wishing he could accompany his father on his long journeys, as a young man in love) are strengthened by the analogs to Nabokov's own life. Fyodor is one of the more completely sympathetic main characters I have encountered in a Nabokov novel, and the love story here is not colored by moral ambiguity as, say, that in Ada is. The Gift falls short of some of Nabokov's later novels in greatness, but it is a substantial and enjoyable work of fiction.

Posted by Matt at June 18, 2004 11:49 PM
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