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The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
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The Gift (1952)

by Vladimir Nabokov

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Looking at the cover of the Popular Library (1963) paperback edition of "The Gift" by Vladimir Nabokov, it is difficult to imagine how that cover came to be, in fact it is difficult to imagine that this book could be considered a 'popular'--in the sense of appreciated by the general population--book. The front cover is reminiscent of a "From Here to Eternity" romance, and the quotes on the book are nothing if not cryptic: "a bizarre and special romp", "a powerful kick", "an occasion of delight". What is this book about? If I had to sum it up, I would say it is about creativity, nostalgia, writing.
Is this book worth reading? Absolutely! Is it accessible? I can only tell you my experience. More than 30 years ago I was beginning graduate school in Slavic literature and languages. Before flying to Poland for a summer school program, I spent a few days at a high school friend's garret in New York City. She was renting a room on the top floor of a 6 floor walkup which in actuality was an attic with a working bathtub in the middle of the room (she shared a toilet down the hall with the rest of the tenants on that floor). On one side of the attic were piles and piles of paperback books which the owner of the attic (a writer of some sort) stored there. These books looked like they hadn't been touched in decades, and among them I found this very edition of "the Gift". Thinking I would read it during my stay in Poland, and return it on my way homeward, I filched it from the attic. Throughout that summer I would read snatches of it whenever I had a few free moments. I don't remember whether I finished the novel or not, I just remember not being able to recall anything that happened or anything about the main character--even as I was reading it.
A few weeks ago I glimpsed this same edition in the Library resale book store and it called to me. Oh what a difference 30 years make! What I realize now is that, first of all, this is a novel that demands attention and leisure--no quick sips every now and again, no! it needs to be savored with no interruptions for a minimum of a couple hours at a time. Secondly, I was a complete ignoramus back then--I thought I knew Russian literature and culture, but in actuality I had just barely brushed the surface, and this novel is front and foremost a love poem to and about Russian literary culture as well as a critique of some of Russia's most beloved cultural figures.
The main character is a Russian emigre poet/writer living in Berlin during the 20s. He lives among the squalor and pettiness of the Russian literary refugees. He writes about the lost world of his childhood, he writes about his father--an explorer and searcher of butterflies who never returned from his last expedition, and in a chapter that was excised until the 1950s edition, he writes a biography/evisceration of the literary and social critic/martyr Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In a strange twist of life imitating art, the Russian emigre publishing world was outraged by this biography, as were the emigres in the novel itself. Why was this chapter left out of the original Russian version? Was it salacious? Was it obscene? It was because Nabokov depicted an icon of Russian 19th century social/progressive thought as an untalented, awkward, and frankly, ridiculous figure.
I didn't even mention the language, his analysis of various authors' styles, use of poetic meter, even particular words. Oh there is a love story too. The writer falls for a girl in the boarding house where he lives, and this story is the novel that will come into being as you read the book.
If ever a book needed an annotated edition, then this is the one...and it turns out someone has done just that. I found "Keys to the Gift" through interlibrary loan. I can't wait to discover what I've missed. ( )
  Marse | Jan 7, 2015 |
La figura di N. in letteratura mi ricorda assai quella di Brian Eno in musica; non per le collaborazioni - infinite per il conte e non conosciute per l'entomologo - quanto per il genio misto a pesantezza mista a visione celestiale in lunghissimi periodi, mista a maniacale cura del dettaglio e frapposta ad intuizioni lessicali onomatopeiche inudite, e poi esperimenti, e poi troppo avanti, sempre su un livello *oltre* quello del normale lettore distratto dalle immagini e dall'epoca internettiana. Poi c'e' la storia, ci sono 5 capitoli sganciabili - il 4^ era davvero *troppo* noioso, tanto che l'ho saltato e la lettura del 5^ non ne ha punto risentito.
C'e' una storia russa raccontata con sensibilità planetaria, con immagini e descrizioni di personaggi davvero incredibili - quelle del popolino tedesco sono pagine a sè. Ci sono dialoghi e descrizioni infinitamente lente, tanto che lo sbadiglio e lo stropiccìo (con accento sulla i) degli occhi sono compagni necessari per procedere per queste 454 pagine che a volte sembra non debbano finire mai, a volte si spera non finiscano mai.

[Poi si arriva alla postfazione e, grazie alla cortesia della traduttrice, ci si accorge di quanta letteratura non ci si era accorti; di quanti rimandi e citazioni è intessuto questo romanzo; di quanto in realta' di quest'opera, pur apprezzandola, se ne è colto solo il minimo necessario per proseguire nella lettura, tralasciando tutto quello che di fatto ne costituisce l'ossatura - ossa di cui in larga parte era poi costituito il capitolo 4^, quello appunto saltato per noia]. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
The Gift, Nabokov's last novel written in Russian (in the 1930's), translated into English in 1963, is another lovely example of Nabokov's eye for detail, as well as his deft use of sound. Although Nabokov likes to write about people who are perhaps not normal, he does so with such clarity that one sympathizes even with the obsessed, the bigoted, and the self-centered, even while disliking them.

The main character tutors someone in the English language, while the author manipulates the metaphor of communication as message-passing:

"The bus rolled on--and presently he arrived at his destination--the place of a lone and lonesome young woman, very attractive in spite of her freckles, always wearing a black dress opened at the neck and with lips like sealing-wax on a letter in which there was nothing. She continually looked at Fyodor with pensive curiosity, not only taking no interest int he remarkable novel by Stevenson which he had been reading with her for the past three months (and before that they had read Kipling at the same rate), but also not understanding a single sentence, and noting down words as you would note down the address of someone you knew you would never visit."

The book touches also on nature, romance, poetics, and, in chapter 4, a kind of modernist half-biography that is meant to be more true than the truth. The book does not have a fast-paced plot, but rather lovingly builds up the details of surprisingly quiet lives in unquiet times. Thus, instead of being a page-turner, it is a book to take your time over.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote chellerystick | Mar 20, 2008 |
Is it possible to be bored with a novel, and yet be fascinated by it? Or perhaps, contrariwise, to have a fascination that verges on boredom?

This novel may have it! At least for me.

The Gift has passages of exquiste beauty decribing butterfly hunting in far-off central Asia, for example, including a dream of a butterfly-covered landscape of unsurpassed brilliance and fantasy. It has wonderful scenes -- regrettably far, far too few -- where Fyodor gets to know and love Zina, in whose alert intelligence we can easily recognize the appealing earmarks of Vera, Nabokov's own true real-life and enduring love.

But, at root, it is the story of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, an unknown, unrecognized, undistinguished, down-and-out, would-be author with an obsessive desire to make his literary mark in the world. We read the details of Fyodor's day-to-day struggles with his mundane life, and with his inner literary demon, in an ordinary world that is vividly and meticulously described as only Nabokov can describe it. We read of Fyodor obsessed with developing a writing technique, compiling lists of adjectives, analyzing the metrics of rhyming in Russian poetry, and finally trying to figure out just how to research and organize the details for the biography he has chosen to write of a historically-famous author and critic.

And that is where Nabokov, and Fyodor, begin to lose me.

The novel was written mainly in 1935-37 in Berlin, where an emigre audience would still have fresh memories of pre-revolutionary social and literary hardships under the Tsars in late nineteenth century Russia. I am sure the novel would have greater resonance and meaning with its emigree audience then, than it does with my exceedingly slender knowldge of that era now.

Fyodor chooses to write the life story of Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevski, the real-life writer and critic, whose novel "What is to be Done?" was destined to be noticed and used by Lenin for his own revolutionary purpose. During the writing, an immense number of nineteenth-century Russian authors, from famous to obscure, receive Fyodor's critical appraisal as he does his research. Eventually Fyodor's demythologized and highly critical The Life of Chenryshevski is published and included in its entirety as a very long section in The Gift.

Finally, Fyodor's inspiration in the closing pages of The Gift provides the key to seeing the hitherto disparate elements of the novel as an organic whole. One is then armed to reread the novel and gain its full enjoyment. But for me, that reread will have to be done with an encyclopedic social and literary history of Russia in my other hand. Only then will I be able to fully recognize the nuances and jibes that I can now only dimly see written into this mammoth novel on Nabokov's favorite topic. In Nabokov's own words, from the Introduction, the hero of the novel is Russian Literature. ( )
1 vote Karlus | Sep 2, 2006 |
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An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable. — P. Smirnovski, A Textbook of Russian Grammar
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To Véra
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One cloudy but luminous day, towards four in the afternoon on April the first, 192- (a foreign critic once remarked that while many novels, most German ones for example, begin with a date, it is only Russian authors who, in keeping with the honesty peculiar to our literature, omit the final digit) a moving van, very long and very yellow, hitched to a tractor that was also yellow, with hypertrophied rear wheels and a shamelessly exposed anatomy, pulled up in front of Number Seven Tannenberg Street, in the west part of Berlin.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679727256, Paperback)

For most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov was quite literally a man without a country. It's a small irony, then, that his career falls so neatly into national phases: Russian, German, French, and American, plus the protracted coda he spend in a Swiss luxury hotel during his final decade. The Gift, which he wrote between 1935 and 1937 in Berlin, is the grand summation of his second phase. It describes, for starters, the sentimental education of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev. This hyphenated creation has more than a few things in common with the author, despite Nabokov's vehement denial in the novel's foreword. Still, only a nitwit would read The Gift for its autobiographical revelations. What this early masterpiece does offer is a wealth of lyrical, witty, heartbreaking prose, beautifully translated from the Russian by Michael Scammell (with an assist from Nabokov himself). Who else would note the way a street rises "at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel"? Who else has ever administered the satirical shiv to his characters with such deadly, almost affectionate aplomb?
Shirin himself was a thickset man with a reddish crew cut, always badly shaved and wearing large spectacles behind which, as in two aquariums, swam two tiny, transparent eyes--which were completely impervious to visual impressions. He was blind like Milton, deaf like Beethoven, and a blockhead to boot.
Of course, only a fraction of The Gift is taken up with this sort of demolition derby. Fyodor's romance with Zina, for example, occasions the most ardent prose of Nabokov's career: "And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensible, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them." (Shades of Volodya and Véra? Only the deceased husband and wife, and perhaps Stacy Schiff, know for sure.)

At the same time, The Gift is a brilliant, mesmerizing riff on the history of Russian literature, with elaborate bouquets tossed to Pushkin and Gogol. There's also a hilarious yet somehow tender evisceration of the do-gooding polemicist Nikolai Chernyshevski--which was suppressed, in fact, when the novel was originally serialized by a Russian émigré magazine. As should be clear by now, The Gift defies any attempt at quick-and-dirty summary. But the book plays the most pleasurable kind of havoc with our stuffy notions of narrative structure and linguistic protocol. And as Nabokov repeatedly wraps the reader's consciousness around his little finger, he never holds back on that ultimate literary gift: pleasure. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:48 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The Gift is the last of the novels Nabokov wrote in his native Russian and the crowning achievement of that period in his literary career. It is also his ode to Russian literature, evoking the works of Pushkin, Gogol, and others in the course of its narrative: the story of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, an impoverished emigre poet living in Berlin, who dreams of the book he will someday write--a book very much like The Gift itself.… (more)

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