Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Gift: Yasha’s death

1/ Whenever somebody criticises Nabokov for being cold and inhuman, interested in nothing but style, patterns, and his little games, I can’t help wondering if they’ve really read his novels. 
This is a passage from The Gift, about Chernyshevski after the death of his son Yasha: 
“Yasha’s death had its most painful effect on his father. He had to spend the whole summer in a sanatorium and he never really recovered: the partition dividing the room temperature of reason from the infinitely ugly, cold, ghostly world into which Yasha had passed suddenly crumbled, and to restore it was impossible, so that the gap had to be draped in makeshift fashion and one tried not to look at the stirring folds. Ever since that day the other world began to seep into his life but there was no way of resolving this constant intercourse with Yasha’s spirit and he finally told his wife about it, in the vain hope that he might thus render harmless a phantom that secrecy had nurtured: the secrecy must have grown back, for soon he again had to seek the tedious, essentially mortal, glass-and-rubber help of doctors. Thus he lived only half in our world, at which he grasped the more greedily and desperately, and when one listened to his sprightly speech and looked at his regular features, it was difficult to imagine the unearthly experiences of his healthy-looking, plump little man, with his bald spot and the thin hair on either side, but then all the more stranger was the convulsion that suddenly disfigured him; also the fact that sometimes for weeks on end he wore a grey cloth glove on his right hand (he suffered from eczema) hinted eerily at a mystery, as if, repelled by life’s unclean touch, or burned by another life, he was reserving his bare handclasp for inhuman, hardly imaginable meetings.” 
How is that not touching? 

2/ Yasha has 2 close friends—Rudolf Baumann and Olya G. Their relationship, when he’s alive, is “a triangle inscribed in a circle”. 
“This was the banal triangle of tragedy, formed within an idyllic circle…” (Ch.1) 
Rudolf loves Olya. 
Olya loves Yasha. 
Yasha, it appears, loves Rudolf. Or in his own words, “I am fiercely in love with the soul of Rudolf. […] I am fiercely in love with this naked, suntanned, lithe soul, which has an answer to everything and proceeds through life as a self-confident woman does across a ballroom floor.” 
He’s gay, to put it simply. 
“My blood throbs, my hands grow icy like a schoolgirl’s when I remain alone with him, and he knows this and I become repulsive to him and he does not conceal his disgust.” 
Fyodor comments (The Gift switches back and forth between 1st-person and 3rd-person narrative):  
“Rudolf’s squeamishness is understandable, but if one looks at the matter more closely, one suspects that Yasha’s passion was perhaps not so abnormal after all, that his excitement was after all very much akin to that of many a Russian youth in the middle of last century, trembling with happiness when, raising his silky eyelashes, his pale-browed teacher, a future leader, a future martyr, would turn to him; and I would have refused to see in Yasha’s case an incorrigible deviation had Rudolf been to the least degree a teacher, a martyr, or a leader; and not what he really was, a so-called ‘Bursh’, a German ‘regular guy’, notwithstanding a certain propensity for obscure poetry, lame music, lopsided art—which did not affect in him that fundamental soundness by which Yasha was captivated, or thought he was.” 
According to Fyodor earlier in the book, Yasha has a mediocre mind—it’s no wonder that he would see Rudolf as much greater than he is, and thus worship him. However, the writer doesn’t refuse to see in him “an incorrigible deviation”, so Yasha is indeed gay. 
But what does that have to do with anything, you may ask. Nothing. It only reminds me of Lev Grossman’s article about the homophobic Vladimir Nabokov’s homosexual brother Sergei:
I never read Nabokov’s works as autobiographical (except when someday reading Speak, Memory), but he’s no robot—he brought part of himself and of people he knew into his world of fiction, and it’s interesting, even if pointless, to ponder about it.


  1. Nabokov wrote a lot of mirror-autobiographies. Alternate-world autobiographies. Versions of himself. His last novel is an outright self-parody.

    1. What does "mirror-autobiographies" mean?
      By last novel, do you mean Look at the Harlequins! or the unfinished The Original of Laura?

  2. Look at the Harlequins. It begins with a list of the author's novels, each one of which is a parody of Nabokov's "real" novels. The narrator's life is a parody of the "real" Nabokov's. Probably incomprehensible to unsuspecting readers who do not know VN pretty well.

    In the mirror-autobiography, the subject looks the same, except everything is reversed. The right becomes the left. Distorted autobiography, upside-down autobiography. Alternate world autobiography. That's Ada, for example, which takes place on Antiterra, where even the planet's mountains have been moved around.

    1. I won't read it until I've read almost everything else by Nabokov then.
      Do you count it as one of his major or minor novels? Minor, I know, doesn't mean not good.
      That bit is interesting. I don't have much to say.

  3. Minor. LatH is like a final gift by the author to his fan club.