Though he may be best known as the author of “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov was a prolific novelist who penned more than fifteen novels and a number of short stories. Some critics and authors rank him among the most influential and important writers of the 20th century.
If you haven’t read much of Nabokov’s work, as I hadn’t when I picked up “Mary,” this novel is a wonderful introduction to his unorthodox, if very masterful, prose style. The premise is both simple and intriguing, and at approximately 115 pages, “Mary” is a short read that can be devoured in a single night or over the span of a few days.
Lev Ganin is an army officer in his late twenties who finds himself at an unsettled crossroads in his life, caught lingering between the wild indulgence of youth and the respectable tedium of adulthood. Ganin seems stuck drifting passionlessly through life until he learns that Aleksey Ivanovich, one of his more eccentric and “unappealing” neighbors, has married a woman who he was once deeply in love with. Though the Russian Revolution has separated the eponymous Mary from her husband, she will soon arrive at the pension to reunite with Ivanovich. As the days pass and Mary’s impending arrival draws closer, Ganin becomes lost in nostalgia and increasingly obsessed with memories of the summer that he and Mary were together, going so far as to convince himself that she is still in love with him. In the novel’s startling climax, Ganin becomes obsessively intent on running away with Mary and surrendering his mundane, stable life in Berlin for the chance to reclaim his youth.
If you’re looking for a book with a focus on plot or suspenseful action, “Mary” isn’t for you. Throughout the novel, Nabokov lapses in narration to play with words, intricately describe a single memory, or meander off into a discussion of the nature of nostalgia and youth. For most writers, a book like “Mary” would read as an incoherent disaster. But Nabokov has the rare ability to make such details and musings become inter-related parts of a larger idea, making “Mary” a surprisingly good read and a profound book that will resonate with you long after you turn the last page.