Mary by Vladimir Nabokov


Mary (1926) is the début of Vladimir Nabokov, whom we all know from his famous novel Lolita. This is quite a short story (only 136 pages) and narrates about Ganin, a Russian émigré living in a small and dirty pension in Berlin. The novel has got a slow pace (the story is already half way through when he starts telling us about Mary) and is very detailed. The other, eccentric guests  are Russian émigrés, just like Ganin. Together they muse about their native country and talk about their personal problems. Nabokov uses beautiful metaphors and employs a rather filmic writing style. The story navigates between Ganin’s reality in the pension and his past in Russia, with Mary, his first real love. Ganin actually isn’t such a nice nor warm person which makes it difficult to really identify with him. He is extremely charming though: everyone in the pension wants to befriend him and all women fall for him like leaves. The memories of him and Mary are beautiful and painful at the same time, exactly the way you would imagine Russian rural romances to take place. Ganin has problems with understanding women and the notion of love. When he has finally grasped it, it’s too late. I loved the way Nabokov wrote this story: not too corny but beautiful nonetheless. I was impressed by his writing style and fascinated by the nostalgic, Russian sphere.

Quote about love

And since the table belonged to them, since it was sacred, sanctified by their meetings, they began calmly and without a word to rub out the damp scribble with tufts of grass. And when the whole surface had turned a ridiculous lilac colour and Mary’s fingers looked as if she had just been picking bilberries, Ganin, turning away and staring hard through narrowed eyes at a yellowy-green, warm, flowing something which at normal times was linden foliage, announced to Mary that he had been in love with her for a long time (71 Nabokov).

Quote about the memory of smells

She used a cheap, sweet perfume called ‘Tagore’. Ganin now tries to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but as we know, memories can restore everything to life except smells , although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it (72 Nabokov).

Quote about heartache and farewells

So with a bow he set off unhurriedly down the staircase. Klara, holding the door handle, watched him go. He carried his suitcase like buckets and his heavy footfalls made noise on the stairs like a slow heartbeat. Long after he had disappeared round the turn of the banisters she stood and listened to that steady, diminishing tap. Finally she shut the door, stood for a moment in the hallway. She repeated aloud, ‘The dancers are asleep on the divan,’ and suddenly burst into soundless but violent sobs, running her index finger up and down the wall (132 Nabokov).

version I read: Nabokov, Vladimir. Mary. Trans. Michael GlennyPenguin Books: London, 2007.


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