Friday, 12 January 2018

The Gift—1st impressions

Since 2012, I’ve read Lolita (twice), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Despair, and about ¾ of Ada or Ardor—on average, about a Nabokov novel a year. I’m now reading The Gift (translated by Michael Scammel and Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with Vladimir Nabokov), his last novel in Russian, his farewell and homage to Russian literature. 


1/ Nabokov’s descriptions are always wonderful: 
“The van’s forehead bore a star-shaped ventilator. Running along its entire side was the name of the moving company in yard-high blue letters, each of which (including a square dot) was shaded laterally with black paint: a dishonest attempt to climb onto the next dimension.” (Ch.1) 
2/ The 1st gift (reference to the title): 
“The gift of sight which it now had received did not improve it.” (Ch.1) 
Our character Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is looking at his new room. 
(What a slip, I initially mistyped the name as Cherdyntsex). 
3/ The character, a writer, shares the same 1st name with Dostoyevsky. 
He has a friend named Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski, like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the author of What Is To Be Done?, the book that I’ve been told The Gift parodies. 
4/ The 2nd gift: 
“… after all, though, he had never doubted that it would be this way, that the world, in the person of a few hundred lovers of literature who had left St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, would immediately appreciate his gift.” (Ch.1) 
5/ I am not looking for patterns and meaning; I’m savouring Nabokov’s prose and metaphors/similes: 
“The strategy of inspiration and the tactics of the mind, the flesh of poetry and the spectre of translucent prose—these are the epithets that seem to us to characterize with sufficient accuracy the art of this young poet.” (Ch.1) 
“Now he read in 3 dimensions, as it were, carefully exploring each poem, lifted out like a cube from among the rest and bathed from all sides in that wonderful, fluffy country air after which one is always so tired in the evening.” (Ch.1) 
6/ Chapter 1 of The Gift, or Fyodor’s Poems, has lots of things in it. Things. Objects. 
“an ample painted flowerpot containing an artificial plant from a sunny land, on which was perched a stuffed tropical songbird, so artificially lifelike that it seemed about to take wing, with black plumage and an amethyst breast…” 
“a clown in satin plus-fours who was propping himself on 2 whitewashed parallel bars and who would be set in motion by an accidental jolt” 
“a puppet theatre with cardboard trees and a crenelated castle with celluloid windows the colour of raspberry jelly” 
a toy gun—“a 6-inch stick of coloured wood, deprived of its rubber suction cup in order to increase the impact, with which I struck the gilt tin of a breastplate (worn by a cross between a cuirassier and a redskin), making in it a respectable little dent” 
head band with rainbow feathers 
draperies, tables, silk divans, wardrobe 
“a necklace made of wolf’s teeth; a small bare-bellied idol of almatolite; another, of porcelain, its black tongue stuck out in national greeting; a chess set with camels instead of bishops; an articulated wooden dragon; a Soyot snuffbox of clouded glass; ditto, of agate; a shaman’s tambourine and the rabbi’s foot going with it; a boot of wapiti leather with an innersole made from the bark of the blue honeysuckle; an ensiform Tibetan coin; a cup of Kara jade; a silver brooch with turquoises; a lama’s lampad; and a lot of similar junk which—like dust, like the postcard from a German spa with its mother-of-pearl ‘Gruss’—my father, who could not stomach ethnography, somehow happened to bring up from his fabulous travels” 
a balloon, a “white one with the rooster painted on it and the red embryo floating inside, which, when its mother is destroyed, will escape up to the ceiling and a day later will come, all wrinkled and quite tame” 
sleds—“a rectangular velvet cushion on iron runners curved at each end” 
sealing wax 
“a perfectly ordinary green Faber pencil, which is then lovingly wrapped in brown paper…” 
And so on. You’ve got the idea. 
Are these vivid memories of a remarkably perceptive boy, or detailed reconstructions of the past? 
7/ Look at this tiny bit: 
“I have always been indifferent to the theatre; although I remember that we did have a puppet theatre with cardboard trees and a crenelated castle with celluloid windows the colour of raspberry jelly through which painted flames like those on Vershchagin’s picture of the Moscow Fire flickered when a candle was lighted inside […] A family, seated around a circular table illuminated by a lamp: the boy is dressed in an impossible sailor suit with a red tie…” (Ch.1) 
(my emphasis) 
Remove the red tie, what does this remind you of? Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander
8/ He writes about a clock: 
“Giving an occasional tongue clack with its pendulum and making a strange pause, as if to gather its strength, before striking. Its ticking, like an unrolled tape divided by stripes into inches, served as an endless measure of my insomnias.” (Ch.1) 
That is beautiful. 
9/ Nabokov touches on the subject of exile: 
“It is strange how memory will grow into a wax figure, how the cherub grows suspiciously prettier as its frame darkens with age—strange, strange are the mishaps of memory. I emigrated 7 years ago; this foreign land has by now lost its aura of abroadness just as my own ceased to be a geographic habit. The Year 7. The wandering ghost of an empire immediately adopted this system of reckoning, akin to the one formerly introduced by the ardent French citizen in honour of newborn liberty. But the years roll on, and honour is no consolation; recollections either melt away, or else acquire a deathly gloss, so that instead of marvellous apparitions we are left with a fan of picture postcards…” (Ch.1) 
This has always moved me on a personal level. 
10/ You must wonder why Nabokov’s so specific about colours. 
“… I mentally saw my mother, in chinchilla coat and black-dotted veil, getting into the sleigh (which always seemed in old Russia so small compared to the tremendous stuffed bottom of the coachman) and holding her dove-grey fluffy muff to her face as she sped behind a pair of black horses covered with a blue net.” (Ch.1) 
Dove-grey. I remember remarking on the colour dove-grey in Lolita.


  1. "I've been told" - when it happens, you'll see it, believe me. It is not exactly a parody.

    What a novel, what a novel.

    1. Ah.
      I've just realised that the Chernyshevski people in this book are related to the writer. Ha!