Language - The Mother Tongue... and Literature
Nabokov once claimed that his English was a feeble shadow of his magisterial Russian (an astonishing thing to imagine), but his precarious years in Germany left him and his fellow exiles with an extremely limited reading audience and opportunity to thrive as working artists. While his Russian works are almost as vividly modern and ambitious as his later English works, Nabokov's writing in these years can be likened to an amber encapsulation of Russia's great literary past--he culminated and exhausted that past with his writings. His works serve as a brilliant coda for a scattered tradition. Simultaneously, his exile severed any tie with his native tongue. It was not possible for him to grow or evolve his language usage in Russian for the rest of his life.
His estrangement from living Russian became startlingly evident to him when, decades later, he translated Lolita into Russian. He was shocked to discover that he had no idea what the Russian words for modern terms like "glove compartment" were.
Still reveling in artistic possibility in Berlin, however, Nabokov's first novel, Mary, is a tiny diamond of loveliness, while later Russian novels such as The Eye, Laughter in the Dark and Despair are all masterpieces of grotesque and glorious strangeness. And perhaps only somewhat intentionally (never knowing which way history would turn, but probably suspecting that that he'd never return home), his final Russian novel, The Gift, features a tour through Russian literature. The novel serves as a swan song for Nabokov's fertile but increasingly uprooted relationship with his native literary soil.
Detailing the artistic growth of a Russian writer named Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in 1920s Berlin, The Gift features a protagonist who shares much of the author's history and aesthetic and intellectual predilections. This is not an autobiographical novel, however, as Nabokov insists in his Foreword to the book's English translation. Even though Godunov-Cherdyntsev is not a disguised version of the author, the book still paints a fascinating panorama of the world in which Nabokov began his literary apprenticeship. Nabokov also notes that the heroine of the novel isn't Godunov-Cherdyntsev's girlfriend, Zina, but rather Russian literature itself, which the novel's progressions imitate and often mock.
The opening chapter finds Godunov-Cherdyntsev having just moved into a new flat on the same week that his first book of poems has been published. With significance that will be mirrored and amplified in the final chapter, the young writer is out walking and doesn't have the key to get into his flat (an accidental linguistic pun: there's a repeatedly missing clef in this non-roman clef). Through a series of reflections and samples and authorial explications, the reader enters into Godunov-Cherdyntsev's early life via his poems, which in his case are keys to his autobiography--both personal and artistic.
Artistic Creation and RE-Imagination
Subsequent chapters of The Gift evoke Pushkin and Gogol in both literary mode and subject matter as they follow Godunov-Cherdyntsev's desires and plans to write a great novel about his father, an explorer who disappeared before the Russian Revolution and who haunts his son's dreams of both life and art. As it delves into Godunov-Cherdyntsev's research and notes for his projected novel, The Gift is that novel (in many ways). The self-reflexive nature of Nabokov's version insists on being and encompassing more. With a single-minded focus and critical reactions to artistic creation, the "real" novel often offers much less.
The Gift's serious wrong-turn comes in Chapter Four, a mocking biographical appraisal of the life and work of the 19-century critic and writer Nikolay Chernyshevski. His social novel, What is to Be Done? (What to Do?) inspired generations of revolutionaries (including Lenin). For Nabokov and Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the novel is an artistic and historical catastrophe. Chernyshevski's work and life are relentlessly drawn-and-quartered in the 100-page diversion from literary exploration and into literary impalement.
Inspired by a coincidence of names and influences, and perhaps needing to develop his prose muscles before writing the book that he wants to write, Godunov-Cherdyntsev embarks upon this cruel and pointless display of virtuosic learning as a reaction to the wrong-turn he feels that history and literary thought have taken. Aesthetically, politically, and personally, this book-within-a-book is spot-on. It's amazingly informative and often hilarious (especially in its ingenious bending of facts and dates and authorities that makes its final twists extra ruthless). Ultimately, though, the diversion is a serious drag on the novel's thrust and leaves a bitter aftertaste that mars the beautiful arc of The Gift's mirror of Russian literature. Of course, that may have been Nabokov's plan all along (if we reflect upon the vicissitudes of art in his country's lost mind).