Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov's Mary is the story of a man with the opportunity to be reunited with an old flame. Nostalgia is a difficult emotion to build a book around. Our fond remembrance of our past, or at least my remembrance of mine, is built around a thousand little moments gone forever.

I am not nostalgic for a holiday. I have no fond memories of this or that Thanksgiving, a wonderful New Year's Eve or a splendid Fourth of July. I have memories of those events, some are even good. But the holidays and big events are simply built up too far. I dislike most of them before they are over; and I can't think of one I'd wish back.

But the every day moments.... My grandparents used to come over every Monday night for pasta. During Lent, we would get fried fish I would douse in ketchup. I spent a summer teaching myself to play Dungeons & Dragons because we had an adventure in a box in the house, and it seemed like a shame not to use it. I spent hours building space ships with my Legos for the express purpose of having the ship crash and explode spectacularly, so that it could be rebuilt. In the fall, while I was in high school, I would buy a bag of apples from one of the farms and leave it in my car as an after school snack.

Do any of those things mean anything to you? Unless you lived a portion of it with me, of course not.

All of which is to say, Nabokov took quite a leap in writing his first book about a character living in the grips of nostalgia. Lev Ganin is a boarder in a rooming house, and the horrible little man across the hall has spent most of the past year ranting about house his wife "will be here soon." Suddenly, soon is Saturday, and when Ganin sees a picture of the wife, he realizes it's his old girlfriend Mary, "his first affair." Cue the violins.

Who is more deserving of happiness than I? Ganin starts to plot his new life with Mary. Of course he'll steal her away from her husband, and then they can have the life together they could have had if life had been different.

Nabokov keeps the plot simple, and he made Ganin just likable enough to keep me reading. In some ways, I like Ganin's antihero-ness, while there are plenty of moments I want to slap him in the head and tell him to stop acting like he's 16 years old.

Mary lacks a lot of the playfulness I liked so much in Lolita and Pale Fire. I'm chocking that up to #firstbookproblems.

I won't spoil the ending, except to say that most of the book occurs before Saturday, and my wish, my little nostalgia for Mary, is that I would have liked to have known more of Ganin when he was not caught up daydreaming about his past.

Book 41 of my book-a-week challenge.

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