Mary, p. 3: time and the émigré

October 17, 2009

Ganin and Alfyorov, fellow Russian émigrés, are stuck in an elevator together in the novel’s opening scene.  We will shortly discover that this pair thrown together by fate in the boarding house they inhabit in Berlin are further connected by the person of Alfyorov’s wife, Mary, who is soon to join him, and who turns out to be Ganin’s first love.  As in  many of Nabokov’s novels, nostalgia for the  homeland and the plight of the exile are visible threads in the weave:  Alfyorov relates that the house poet, Podtyagin (the same name as a character in Chekov’s story, “Oh, the Republic!”), “was arguing with me about the sense of this émigré life of ours, this perpetual waiting.”  Combined with the notion of “return” often linked to the status of the exile, “perpetual waiting” can be taken to indicate waiting for the impossible return to the point of origin.  Another way to put it–the paradox of waiting for the past to happen again, which afflicts many of N’s characters.



  1. Finally starting to catch up here.

    I like the way the book opens–two near-strangers stuck on a dark elevator, with its tone of mystery and suspense (I’m a genre fiction fan, so I tend to note these things); told from the POV of Ganin, Alfyorov comes across as a menacing figure in the darkness. Who is he and what’s his game? I’m wondering: is Ganin already making the connection between the Stranger in the darkened elevator and his long-lost Mary? VN doesn’t seem to tell us, but once G. hears her name spoken, what are his thoughts and feelings?

    • Yes, almost something of a Hitchcockian “Strangers on a Train” effect to this opening.

  2. Anyone an idea about the cipher/flower wordgame in the discussion at the dinner table in the second chapter?

    • Are you referring to Alfyorov’s comment, “I used too say to my wife that if I’m a ‘summer’ you’re surely a spring cinquefoil–” (16), to which Ganin replies, “In short, a flower and a figure”? A cinquefoil is a five-petaled flower (I should have noted this originally and will add it when I get a chance); I take Ganin’s response to mean that Alfyorov’s wordplay with his wife suggests that she is both a flower, in the literal sense, and that she is well-figured, both literally and figuratively. A great example of VN’s complex punning; thanks for noting it.

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