1884 grammar textbook quoted in the epigraph (11)
Nabokov’s foreword to the English edition (9)
(Continued from part 2.)
Nabokov despised clichés, but his life easily fits them. The Gift, his penultimate novel in Russian (the last being Other Shores), is proof that money does not buy happiness. It was written in obscurity, in Berlin, when Nabokov roomed in boarding-houses and made a living as an English tutor. The same drab life is shared by the protagonist of The Gift, and yet he is remarkably free from it. His inner world offers him an escape. In Pale Fire, a quarter-century later, it will lead only to a more restrictive prison.
Like Nabokov, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is a young writer living in Berlin, to which his family had fled after the Russian Revolution. Cherdyntsev has aristocratic roots, evident in his hyphenated last name, and his childhood passed in an environment of refined elegance: he reminisces about “the Godunov-Cherdyntsevs’ mansion on the English Quay of the Neva” in St. Petersburg, where he had played “among draperies, under tables, behind the upright cushions of silk divans, in a wardrobe…whence one could observe unseen a slowly passing manservant[.]” (21) His present life in Berlin is one of respectable, but dreary poverty. Like Nabokov, he works as a private tutor, and in his spare time experiments with different kinds of literary work, though its potential audience has dwindled to “a few hundred lovers of literature who had left St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev,” (16) a few of whom still try to hold shabby semblances of “literary parties” in “smallish, rather tastelessly furnished, badly lighted” (37-38) apartments. Of course, in Nabokov, tasteless furniture is a personification of its owners, signifying their inadequacy as human beings.
The five chapters of The Gift chronicle Cherdyntsev’s literary development, and its occasional interruption by daily life. In Chapter I, he publishes a short collection of poems about his happy childhood. The poems are scattered throughout the text of the chapter itself, reflecting the way in which they pass by in the background of their author’s reveries. In Chapter II, Cherdyntsev considers writing a biography of his father, a famous explorer who vanished in Asia around the time of the Revolution. He immerses himself deeply into his memories of his father, and the latter’s published and unpublished writing, but the book never quite materializes. However, the idea of writing a biography remains, and takes an unexpected turn in Chapter III, when Cherdyntsev decides that its subject should instead be Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a 19th-century publicist idolized by liberals and socialists. The work (which he completes this time) takes a much more independent view of Chernyshevsky, with full awareness of the comedy of rigid ideological thought, but it is not a straightforward satire or critique either. Its text makes up the entirety of Chapter IV. Finally, in Chapter V, Cherdyntsev deals with the aftermath of the book’s publication (reviews of varying degrees of cluelessness) and begins to search for new ideas. By this time, he has fallen in love with a young woman named Zina Mertz, first encountered in Chapter III, and feels that their new life together will become the wellspring of his next work. The Gift closes on this note of pleasant anticipation.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1828-1889.
Western readers and critics tend to approach The Gift as a difficult, purely stylistic experiment, likely because they feel that they have no other way to make sense of Chapter IV. Even at the peak of his popularity, Chernyshevsky had little direct impact or significance outside Russia, for reasons that can be seen from Cherdyntsev’s work. The Western reader can look him up in an encyclopedia, but even then it is hard to see why he of all people should be a focus of a novel written in the 1930s. The reader might then assume that The Gift must be some sort of modernist parody; he may even be tempted to think that Chernyshevsky might just be one of Nabokov’s many inventions, with Chapter IV being completely fictional.
In Russia, Chernyshevsky’s influence was once considerable: Lenin allegedly claimed (according to a onetime comrade) that “he completely ploughed over my whole being,” and often cited Chernyshevsky as an authority and inspiration, writing, e.g., “He was also a revolutionary democrat, he knew how to influence every political event of his time in a revolutionary way, carrying through every obstacle and barricade of censorship the idea of a peasant revolution, the idea of the struggle of the masses to overthrow every old authority.” In the Soviet Union, Chernyshevsky was included in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes, and his main work, the pamphlet-novel What Is to Be Done?, was taught in schools. But rarely has any writer or thinker gone from such great stature to total oblivion so quickly, and it is not only because his ideology was discredited. Mayakovsky was an even more strident ideologue, but, surprisingly, his poetry survives, though perhaps with new, unintended shades of meaning. Mayakovsky expressed the arrogant ferocity, the youthful aggression of Revolution, and through these violent strains one now also hears a note of futility, the exhaustion of blind destruction. Similarly, one can still read Gorky, if not quite in the way he would have liked, or for that matter Zola, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and many other ideologically motivated writers. But no one can read Chernyshevsky — his writing was so singularly inept that it never had any life of its own.
And yet, in another sense, Chernyshevsky is still with us. My American readers, if there are any, actually know him very well, just by a different name. In that incarnation he has even less literary ability, but is worshipped even more. You see, Chernyshevsky was the inventor of the term “rational selfishness.”
from What Is to Be Done?
“Now, folks, I want y’all to lay your hands on your TV screens
and start speaking in tongues.”
You might ask how Chernyshevsky managed to combine this philosophy with utopian socialism. Very easily, in fact: one of his characters says, “There will come a time, when every need of every person will be fully satisfied, this you and I know; but we both know equally well that this time has not come yet,” as part of a theoretical justification of why it is right to sleep with his friend’s wife. Having been thus liberated, the lucky woman has a dream in which a goddess-like figure shows her around an earthly paradise, whose denizens gather in a colossal palace for an evening of Olympian delights: “It is their evening, an ordinary, workaday evening, they spend every evening in such dancing and merriment; but when have I ever seen such energy of merrymaking? …From the morning they have labored hard. Whoever has not labored sufficiently has not readied the nerve to feel the fullness of pleasure… And here there is no memory, no fear of privation or suffering; here there is only the memory of free, voluntary labor, of plenty, of goodness and enjoyment, and the expectation of the same things to come.” At the same time, with a slight change of emphasis it would be easy to make these selflessly selfish socialists shade into productive titans of industry: one of Chernyshevsky’s heroic progressive students “was able to accomplish a frighteningly great deal, because he had forced himself to curb his desires in the disposition of his time as well as in material pleasures…now, at twenty-two years of age, he was already a man of very marvelously substantial learning.” It is very typical of this style of writing that the author is utterly unable to restrain himself: “man of learning” is just not enough, the learning has to be “very marvelously substantial.” The subject matter purports to be philosophical, but really the philosophy can be pulled in any direction; it is only the rigid literary conventions of the genre that brook no violation.
Chernyshevsky’s writing sank into oblivion, yet in some strange, impersonal way continued to be important. One reason is that he was just as stridently half-educated as his followers, both knowing and unknowing, and this quality in him helped to validate it in themselves. Nabokov, through Cherdyntsev, ponders ironically, “I am afraid that the cobbler who visited Apelles’ studio and criticized what he did not understand was a mediocre cobbler. Is all really well from the mathematical point of view in those learned economic works of [Chernyshevsky], whose analysis demands an almost superhuman curiosity on the part of the investigator? Are they really deep, those commentaries of his on Mill…? Do all the boots he made really fit?” (The Gift, 231) This dilettantism is Chernyshevsky’s strongest parallel with Lenin, and perhaps explains why the former resonated so much with the latter:
(The Gift, 232)
But if that was all, he would have eventually been forgotten. Cherdyntsev observes, “It is difficult to escape the impression that Chernyshevsky, who in his youth had dreamed of being the leader of a national uprising, was now revelling in the rarefied air of danger surrounding him… Now, it seemed, he needed only a day, only an hour’s run of luck in the game of history, one moment of passionate union between chance and destiny, in order to soar. A revolution was expected in 1863, and in the cabinet of the future constitutional government he was listed as prime minister. How he nursed that precious ardour within him! That mysterious ‘something’…undoubtedly existed [Emphasis in the Russian original. -FL] in Chernyshevsky and manifested itself with unusual strength just before his banishment to Siberia. Magnetic and dangerous, it was this that frightened the government far more than any proclamations.” (250-251) In Nabokov’s original, the word translated as “ardour” literally means “heat,” also evoking clear parallels with Lenin. Ideological particulars have little bearing on the essence of such people; the content of Lenin’s writing is not communism, but white-hot screaming fury, which had at its root the same resentful, insatiable ambition that Chernyshevsky had previously articulated. But Chernyshevsky himself did not create that feeling. He appeared only after an audience had formed, and served their pained need for expression of their neurotic conceit, their dissatisfaction with having to be, and being, ordinary people. The magnitude of this need was reflected in the uncritical adulation with which they received his work: “an atmosphere of general, pious worship was created around What Is to Be Done? It was read the way liturgical books are read — not a single work by Turgenev or Tolstoy produced such a mighty impression.” (263)
This need has only grown since then, and will always be there, whether one likes it or not. For this reason, Chernyshevsky will never fully die…and, one is forced to conclude, his inevitability is also a kind of justification for his existence. Perhaps that is why Cherdyntsev’s biography is not merely a satirical attack. In the description, “He worked so feverishly, smoked so much and slept so little that the impression he produced was almost frightening: skinny, nervy, his gaze at once blear and piercing, his hands shaky, his speech jerky and distracted… His capacity for work was monstrous,” (237) it is hard to see anything other than grudging admiration. Of course, elsewhere one can find plenty of overt malice as well, for example in Nabokov’s sanctimonious show of sympathy for Chernyshevsky’s helplessness in his private life, when “he must have been sorely tormented by the young men who surrounded his wife and were in different stages of amorous intimacy with her.” To make matters worse, Chernyshevsky compounds his own humiliation through “his attempts to rehabilitate his wife” in the guise of his idealized, but incompetently written heroines. For these fantastical progressive women, “There are no lovers around, only reverential admirers; nor is there that cheap coquetry which led her so-called ‘little men’ to think her even more accessible than she really was, and all that one finds is the vitality of a witty, beautiful woman. Dissipation becomes emancipation, respect for her embattled husband…is made to dominate all her other feelings.” (225) Yet it is this very detail that somehow takes the bite out of Nabokov’s mockery — it is hard to remain hostile toward a man who was so simple-minded and sentimental (quite unlike Lenin, in that regard) that he resorted to this method of making his misery bearable. And, in doing so, he sought to make his wife better than she was. However laughable or futile (or unreadable) the effort, to some extent it reflects well on him. Certainly you don’t see it in his epigones.
In an oddly similar (if stylistically superior) way, Nabokov-Cherdyntsev’s Chapter IV makes Chernyshevsky himself better than he was. Ironically, considering how this chapter is usually received, the portrait that it draws may be much better than its subject deserves. As Cherdyntsev works on his book, Nabokov even makes him “comprehend by degrees that such uncompromising radicals as Chernyshevsky, with all their ludicrous and ghastly blunders, were, no matter how you looked at it, real heroes in their struggle with the governmental order of things (which was even more noxious and more vulgar than was their own fatuity in the realm of literary criticism), and that other oppositionists, the liberals or the Slavophiles, who risked less, were by the same token worth less than these iron squabblers.” (194) Nabokov himself should have been appalled by that statement, and probably would have been if it had come from anyone else. The comparisons with Lenin, whom he saw as the epitome of evil and bad taste (which, to Nabokov, were the same thing), should have closed the issue. But the simple fact is that he, too, was drawn to the “heat” that he perceived in Chernyshevsky. Even though his entire world had irretrievably perished (so he always said) in that heat.
The Russian emigrant community, however, did not appreciate these subtleties. The real problem with ideological thought is not that it does not tolerate dissent, but rather that it does not tolerate support, whenever the latter takes any form other than what is officially prescribed:
(The Gift, 198-199)
Cherdyntsev finds another publisher, and his work is the talk of the community for a short time. But when Nabokov tried to publish The Gift, Chapter IV elicited the exact same reaction, another case of life turning into Nabokov’s parody of it. Eventually he found a Paris-based magazine, “conducted…by a group of former members of the Social Revolutionary party,” (7) which agreed to publication only on the condition that Chapter IV would be removed completely. The first edition looked like this, and the full text was not released until 1952:
The footnote reads: “The fourth chapter,
consisting entirely of the Life of Chernyshevsky,
written by the protagonist of the novel,
has been omitted with the author’s consent.”
If this reaction had come from Soviet functionaries, who were obligated to revere Chernyshevsky as a precursor of their system, it would at least have made sense. But instead it came from dirt-poor emigrants, whom that system had deprived of any hope for the future. They all hated communism, or thought they did — Vasiliev apparently ran numerous articles wishfully foretelling “the imminent end of Bolshevism.” (293) Really these people were nothing more than lost children, left alone in the dark, never to know who or what had hurt them. One could fault Chernyshevsky for making them this way, if not for the fact that he was just as infantile.
And Cherdyntsev’s motive for writing his biography is not to fault him. It may even have nothing to do with him at all. “Gradually…[Cherdyntsev] developed a new yearning for Russia that was less physical than before, a dangerous desire (with which he successfully struggled) to confess something to her and to convince her of something.” (195) The choice of Chernyshevsky may have seemed, half-consciously, like a good way to get her attention, so to speak. Gathering material for the book, Cherdyntsev “read a great deal — more than he had ever read,” (193) and it seems that the artistic interest of his work, to himself, is contained entirely in the very process of immersion into all the oddities and artifacts of Chernyshevsky’s time, however comical or ungainly. Chernyshevsky’s life, so full of furious activity, passes by as in a strange dream, enclosed in a poem that begins after his death and ends before his birth. That, perhaps, is the first time he shares something with his biographer. Cherdyntsev’s own life is dreamlike, transpiring mostly in his own head.
Among all the books we have discussed here, The Gift has the most similarity (remarkably and unexpectedly) with Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World. Both novels are essentially long internal monologues, into which the outside world intrudes only rarely, by young men with artistic inclinations, who are occupied by dreams of some great new work. The nature of this work is not at all clear — at best they have a vague outline of what it might be like — but they find inspiration simply in contemplating it. Everyday life becomes permeated with poetry. Routine annoyances and failures are easier to ignore. One can take genuine pleasure in being caught in a downpour (in Soseki) or walking home in swimming trunks after one’s clothes have been stolen (in Nabokov). Life feels rich with meaning and promise.
In Soseki, however, the protagonist is in harmony with his surroundings. He lives in his home country, which has opened its beauty up to him; it is the sunlight in which his inner world can blossom by itself. Japanese culture is created by his very existence — all he has to do is open his eyes. But, in Nabokov, the outside world is dead. Not once, in any of his writing, in Russian or English, from the first word to the last, does he ever allow the possibility that any life may have remained in Russia after that moment in Other Shores when, “Over a glassy sea in the bay of Sevastopol, under wild machine-gun fire from the shore (the Bolshevik troops had just taken the port), my family and I set out for Constantinople and Piraeus on a small and shoddy Greek ship Nadezhda (Hope) carrying a cargo of dried fruit.” Those fragments of that shattered world that happened to settle in the European capitals are also dead: Nabokov wrote in the foreword to the English translation of The Gift (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963, also used here for page numbers), “The tremendous outflow of intellectuals that formed such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia in the first years of the Bolshevist Revolution seems today like the wanderings of some mythical tribe whose bird-signs and moon-signs I now retrieve from the desert dust. We remained unknown to American intellectuals… That world is now gone.” (8) But, while he could find some warm words for “that world” decades later, The Gift itself is far less charitable. Cherdyntsev is surrounded by caricatures of people, who hold caricatures of social events, feel caricatures of emotions, and write caricatures of literature. He has no interest in life outside the emigrant community, either; he does not speak German and regards Berlin with total indifference. His artistic inspiration has to come entirely from within himself.
The titular “gift” is the ability to create an entire, living, breathing world for oneself, entirely by oneself, and to live self-sufficiently inside it. “Ought one not to reject any longing for one’s homeland, for any homeland besides that which is with me, within me, which…gives depth and distance to the background of life’s every hope?” (169) Nabokov insisted (a bit too loudly for comfort) that it was possible to do this, and his literary career is the record of his own personal attempt. Whether it was successful is best answered by the fact that it ended in Pale Fire. But there was a short time, perhaps only a single instant, in which it seemed that this phantom world of art had truly transformed reality, and this fleeting experience was captured and preserved in The Gift. The novel’s aesthetic center of attraction is not Chapter IV, but rather Cherdyntsev’s solitary daydreams in Chapter III. Now in love with Zina Mertz, he is idly thinking about poetry, vaguely motivated by the question of how to move on from “the little volume Poems, published two years ago now,” which “had remained in his consciousness as a pleasant exercise,” (150) but really letting his mind wander — when, unexpectedly, his thoughts naturally slide into poetic meter, immediately attaining an invisible harmony, an ephemeral perfection of form that never makes it into writing:
(The Gift, 151-152)
Even on the pages of The Gift, the moment is brief. In a blink of an eye, Cherdyntsev is again alone with “the everlasting, chilly thought: there he is, a special, rare and as yet undescribed and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied with God knows what, dashing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages — when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he likes[.]” (157-158) Nonetheless, the feeling of inspiration is too strong to be so easily suffocated; later that evening, while he waits for Zina at their usual meeting place, the dismal setting again dissolves into poetry: “Within the linden’s bloom the streetlight winks. A dark and honeyed hush envelopes us. Across the curb one’s passing shadow slinks: across a stump a sable ripples thus. The night sky melts to peach beyond that gate. There water gleams, there Venice vaguely shows. Look at that street — it runs to China straight, and yonder star above the Volga glows. Oh, swear to me to put in dreams your trust, and to believe in fantasy alone, and never let your soul in prison rust, nor stretch your arm and say: a wall of stone.” (170) This technique is reprised in the final paragraph of The Gift, when Fyodor and Zina make up their minds to turn their backs on the dull and dying Russian community and are about to walk together into some other, better life. Through these moments of boundless joy and liberation, The Gift becomes Nabokov’s brightest and happiest book.
Fyodor and Zina.
Another interesting touchpoint between The Gift and The Three-Cornered World is that, for all of their artistic feelings and aspirations, neither protagonist has quite succeeded in transferring them to reality. Soseki’s painter has very likely never produced a single painting, although he has written some poems (exactly like Cherdyntsev!). On the other hand, Cherdyntsev has a bit more to show for himself, since he does complete and publish Chapter IV. But even this work, if one attempts to view it independently of The Gift itself, is at best a sign of his promise as a writer. The poet Koncheyev, whom Cherdyntsev knows and occasionally imagines in the role of literary rival, praises “the fire and fascination of this fabulously witty composition” (292) — one can agree, and perhaps Cherdyntsev’s impressionistic, alternately lyrical and forgivingly ironic tone is the only way to write anything readable about Chernyshevsky. But, as Nabokov’s Western readers have no doubt always thought to themselves, that alone cannot be the point. It is easier to find meaning in Chapter IV when it is surrounded by the rest of The Gift, and one can perceive it as a kind of indirect consequence of the protagonist’s introspection and inspiration in earlier chapters; it is even easier retroactively, when one knows the story of its reception. But Cherdyntsev’s readers do not have that recourse. Imagine if Nabokov had only ever written Chapter IV.
At the moment when The Gift ends, Cherdyntsev’s entire literary output is extremely modest. His drafts in Chapter II never saw the light of day; his beautiful poetic state of mind in Chapter III was never even written down. But the mere feeling of artistry is extremely insubstantial. Everyone has surely felt some sort of creative impulse at least once, but most of us are happy to leave it at that, without laying claim to genius. People have the fundamental right not to express themselves, or be subjected to the misguided self-expression of others. The subjective nature of Cherdyntsev’s artistic work can just as easily be seen as narcissism, and I can certainly understand any reader who finds him unpleasant. Somehow it always turns out that every single person around him is ridiculous, untalented, one-dimensional. Those miserable “literary parties” that he deigns to visit are presided over by a “forty-five-year-old, plain, indolent woman, who two years ago had lost her only son” and now wants Cherdyntsev to serve as her enabler: “The frankness with which, during our subsequent meetings, she spoke about her son, about all the details of his death and about the way she now dreamed of him…seemed to me vulgar and shameless…I noticed that this rapture of sorrow in which she managed to live without dying of a ruptured aorta was beginning somehow to draw me in and make demands on me.” (41-42) The son in question was given to exaggerated emotional extremes, “tasteless spiritual throes,” poems “replete with fashionable clichés” and “expressed in a pale, haphazard manner, with many vulgarisms and incorrect word accents peculiar to his provincial middle-class set.” (43-44) Finally he got involved in a melodramatic love triangle and killed himself, the silly provincial (a real aristocrat would not draw attention to someone’s middle-class background). Zina Mertz’s stepfather is an overbearing boor, who not only throws around distasteful anti-Semitic slurs, but also has an unwholesome eye on his stepdaughter, at one point literally summarizing the future plot of Lolita: “Imagine this kind of thing: an old dog — but still in his prime, fiery, thirsting for happiness — gets to know a widow, and she has a daughter, still quite a little girl — you know what I mean — when nothing is formed yet but already she has a way of walking that drives you out of your mind…and of course she doesn’t even look at the old goat. What to do? Well, not long thinking, he ups and marries the widow.” (179) When Fyodor’s poetic reverie in Chapter III is interrupted by the ring of the telephone, it is of course another hapless Russian emigrant annoying him. Even the student whom Fyodor tutors, “a lone and lonesome young woman, very attractive in spite of her freckles,” who “continually looked at Fyodor with pensive curiosity,” is “a worthless, cunning woman with a sluggish soul[.]” (159) One starts to wonder if The Gift might not have been planned, to some degree, as a roundabout defense of Nabokov’s decision to abandon the Russian community — since no reasonable reader could possibly expect Cherdyntsev to continue wasting his life and talent on such drudgery, it follows that Nabokov, too, should get a pass. If that was really part of the plan, I think he overdid it.
But Fyodor’s misanthropy is not limited to his former countrymen. In Chapter V, he goes on an outing to a nearby lake, only to be beset from all sides by hateful humanity:
for he’s a jolly good fellow (The Gift, 318-319)
One might think that he would then be more interested in non-vacant, non-satisfied people, but no — he knows that Koncheyev is the one person in his circle with the ability to understand him, but prefers to speak to him only in his own mind. There are two occasions when Nabokov gives long dialogues with Koncheyev that last several pages, but finally turn out to have been imagined. Ultimately Cherdyntsev concludes that “nothing better is needed…since a real conversation would be only disillusioning[.]” (325) All this suggests a different angle from which to look at his love for Zina. When he exhorts her, in the poem of his mind, to “be true to what we shall invent,” it means that she should remain similarly unreal. You have to wonder if he is up to such a task — how soon will the day come when the thought of her no longer brings artistic inspiration?
In this, strangely, Cherdyntsev becomes much closer to Chernyshevsky than he would have liked. Chernyshevsky had much less talent and education, but he was equally uninterested in the world, equally confident in his own genius, equally wrapped up in his own fantasies and inventions. The painful feeling of belonging to “a special, rare and as yet undescribed and unnamed variant of man” was shared by every last one of Chernyshevsky’s pitiful admirers. His extravagant politics appear to be the polar opposite of Cherdyntsev’s introverted indifference, but there Fyodor has the benefit of an extra fifty years of history and an especially rude awakening; had he been born a generation earlier, who knows, he might have turned out like Nabokov’s father, a nobleman playing at being a revolutionary without the least inkling that there might be real consequences. Finally, Cherdyntsev is hypothetically a much better writer, but that judgment has to be based in large part on the superiority of his inner life, and that is just too subjective — one cannot say for certain that Chernyshevsky did not experience comparable aesthetic satisfaction when working on his interminable, unendurable tomes. In fact, it is easy to imagine that he did, thus finding the longed-for escape from his unhappy reality.
Nabokov’s lifelong credo: “my kingdom, where everyone keeps to himself
and there is no equality and no authorities — but if you don’t want it,
I don’t insist and don’t care” (339)
But perhaps it does not really matter whose inspiration was more aesthetically perfect — either way, it does not last. Whether Cherdyntsev is a genius, destined to be “such a writer as has never been before, and Russia will simply pine for you — when she comes to her senses too late,” (345) or just one of the many failed prodigies who never lived up to their promise, it was in these transitory moments (and not in fame, wealth, or Montreux) that his life briefly attained its sense and clarity. Is it really necessary to ask for more?
(Conclusion: part 4.)