Maria, Masha, Mary, Mashenka…

All the most powerful emotions come from chaos – fear, anger, love – especially love. Love is chaos itself. Kirsten Miller

The novel Mary was written in 1926 by the 27-year-old Nabokov (under the pseudonym Sirin) and published in Berlin.

I know people often think that this book is the story about ‘the first love,’ but it is more complicated than that. The book is about the final break up of the emigrant with his homeland and the loss of hope.
The primary problem – life in another country (lack of money, work, goals). The descriptions and characters are based on the contrasts: the exceptional – and the ordinary, real – and false. The protagonist of the story is Ganin – smart, bored, a hubby material, dreamer. His opposition (or antagonist) is Alferov – weak, drunk, annoying, dumb. At least this is how both of them appear in front of our eyes.

The title of the novel – Mary/or Mashenka – is the name of the ‘hidden’ protagonist: we never meet grown-up married Mary, we know her only as a young girl, mostly through sweet and hazy memories of Ganin.

There’re no lovable heroes in this book. Everybody is a mess, even Clara (who is in love with Ganin) and Podtyagin (an old and dying poet). Ganin is easily bored man, especially at the moment when the ‘next’ woman is about to jump in his bed or to tell him that she is in love… “Open your legs,” says our wonderful hero to her (cute and welcoming gesture from Mister Passionate Heart Breaker). And a poor girl does just that…

The plot: describes the life of Ganin throughout one week. On Sunday, Ganin meets Alferov in the elevator of a Russian guesthouse in Berlin. At dinner, he learns that Alferov’s wife, Mashenka (or Mary), arrives on Saturday. On Tuesday, Alferov shows the photo of his lovely wife to Ganin, who recognizes his first love, which he left in Russia many years ago.

From Tuesday to Friday – four days of suffering – the author shares with us the romantic experiences (or memories) of Ganin. Of course, he dreams of taking Mashenka away from her stupid, lazy husband. But… on Saturday night, Ganin changes his mind. The thing is, the affair with Mary ended a long time ago, and yes, those days were, perhaps, the happiest time of his life, but Ganin decides to leave love “in the house of the past, in the shadows, with the dying people.” He takes another train. Far away from Berlin, Lyudmila, Clara, and Mary. Bye-bye, bitches!

That’s what happens with love. It ends. By death or separation. Erika Robuck

As usual, Nabokov plays words and symbols. First of all, the names of the heroes – all of them – have literary sources. For example, in Anton Sergeyevich Podtyagin (a poet) – Chekhov’s first name is combined with Pushkin’s patronymic; a ridiculous surname hints at his plight and insignificant role in Russian literature. Alferov – ignorant person: he never found out about the role of Ganin in the life of his wife.

Nabokov gives Ganin the poetic ability to feel the word, which often causes readers to smile. For example, how he perceives the word prostitute when he is a 13-year-old – a mixture of a princess and a woman on the street. Vermicelli is worms, small pasta, and it grows on a tree.

The next important symbol is the image of the shadow. “Seven Russian lost shadows” are people who live in a bleak émigré house. For them, life is like a movie shooting, where they are a series of pictures in the cinema.

Nabokov is very attentive to details. For example, the scented letter of the hated Lyudmila (current love), turned by Ganin to shreds and thrown out of the window, is contrasted with the old notes from Mary carefully kept at the bottom of the suitcase along with his gun.

The book is short, well-written, reminds in style Dostoevsky (Nabokov would disagree tho😂). I read it in Russian. 

Not all loves are meant to last.
Some are meant to grace you briefly,
before fading,
somehow leaving the impression
that the world is just a little bit better
because you had been touched by
something so beautiful it was impossible
to grasp. Jacqueline Simon Gunn

  1. Sharing my latest review from Literary Titan –  click to read
  2. Kayla Ann is planning to write this summer 80k (or at least try), and I said I might try too. I’m so brave! 😂 I said I’d like to write 45k (I don’t want, but I have to… ). If anyone is up for a challenge, for example, to finish a novel or start new, here is her WordPress blog page – Kayla Ann Author
  3. And the last (for today), I created a page with book recommendations on my blog, because I’m planning to read at least 40 books this summer. The best reads I’ll highlight on my page. Check it out – here


Next post – A world without time


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49 Responses

  1. Eilene Lyon says:

    I’ve yet to read any Russian writers. I really must rectify the situation. Interesting review. Best wishes on the big writing goal!

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Thank you 🙂 I need at least 45k 😭

      Well, u can always pick any russian writer (late XIX century)- the most satisfying read 🙂 or maybe postmodern russian – good too 🧐

  2. Sorryless says:

    You bring the funk with your reviews, love it.

    And big time best wishes on your writing goal, RNB

  3. Best wishes for your writing goal, Victoria!
    With poetry, it is never number of words…thank god!!! 😎

  4. I enjoyed this review, VR. I didn’t plan to read the book but your review makes me want to read it anyway. Thank you for listing My GRL on your recommended reads. She looks so good over there. Best wishes on your 45K goal. In Russian you say? Goodness.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      It’s very short book 🙂 I got a copy in the local library 📚😂
      Nabokov is a master-virtuoso of modern prose 🙂 so, it’s nice to reread. But … I never read Lolita. The theme is way too “horrible”, in my eyes. Just like life, I guess 🧐👀

      Yes, MY GRL looks good everywhere 🕺🕺 it was a truly great read!

      I think Absurd 2 will be my last book for a while. I’ll write in russian, then I’ll see what I’ll do next (or later on). It’s difficult to write in English bcz I don’t speak on a daily basis, like ever… 🙂 So, I’ll take a break & think about it. 45k – just a plan tho… I hate plans & never follow them 😂✌️

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      I’ll announce it when I publish book 2. ✌️📚 i decided to take a break only recently

  5. Nabokov wrote Lolita which is a tale of inappropriate love and passion by a lecherous man who periodically molests and rapes his 12 year old stepdaughter. I know this from writing about the Police song ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ which is not about the lust of a man for a child.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Lol 😂 🙂
      Btw, I never read Lolita … but I know about the book, of course. And I could pick it up any time… but I don’t think it’s something for me.
      If I remember right it was forbidden when I was younger (student) & later, when I got older, I didn’t want to read it. But I heard the writing is stylish & “delicious” 🙂 I’ve seen some excerpts too 😅🧐

      Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of Nabokov 🙂 still, I see the beauty of his prose.

  6. Hyperion says:

    Hi Ray! I enjoyed this review as Nabokov is one of my favorite writers. Even Lolita is filled with symbology and satire that is subtle and easily missed in the gripping text. But, as you said, the theme is so wrong for us. I saw it in a true context, how the kind of person who would do such a thing feels it to be normal and the diseased mind explains the distorted view of Lolita. Nabokov certainly chose a dreaded subject to bring into the open. It exists and we must face it and defeat it. I imagine I cannot get to the detail of understanding that a native Russian could but Russian writers are masters at social commentary during a difficult time in Russian history. I will definitely be seeking out this story in my library. Thank you!

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Nabokov is a virtuoso of modern prose, i can’t say anything bad about his writing style, only good. I guess his purpose (in Lolita) was probably just as you said – to face & defeat it, but it seems some people bend it the way they want & proclaim that’s the only truth

      Nabokov could write in 3 languages equally beautiful (btw only one from all russian writers). Some russian critics says his russian wasn’t the perfect tho, because he left russia very young, and the laguage is a moving thing – it changes, evolves. Anyway, I read his books written in russian and they are perfect.

      • Hyperion says:

        I totally agree. His publishers took huge risks in printing Lolita but he warned them ahead of time about his intent. I also write about things that are uncomfortable as you have seen and read before. Are we true to the literary art form as authors to shy away from the unpleasant to address only the sweet dreams. Sweet dreams are also a diverse subject. We settle to hit a genre that is welcoming, knowing we alienate others. Nabokov knew precisely what he was doing. He took us to a dreaded social illness that has existed since humans became aware of themselves and their animalistic tendencies and he said look here at the mind of a demented man and see he is among us in great numbers and we choose to look away. Knowing how Nabokov addressed social satire in his writing, we see the genius of his daring literary effort. If he had written of the horrors of war, would we have condemned his writing? I think not considering the mass of literature in the 20th century on that subject. So, I don’t push anyone to read Lolita if it is a subject too hard to examine. As you said, the genius of his writing is evident in his other works equally as well. He gave us alternatives and left the choice to us. I appreciate that about him as well.

        • Victoria Ray NB says:

          his publishers took risks only because he was already “Nabokov” 🙂 and i’m sure its beautifully written – language/prose… still I’m not a fan of Nabokov, BUT I see (understand) his innovation and the excellence of word-craft (through other books).
          No, we shouldn’t shy away, the word is a powerful tool… i don’t think i’ll ever read it tho, simply because i believe i don’t need to read anything after “Misery” by Chekhov, because there’s nothing more to add/or say. HE SAID IT ALL ABOUT OUR SOCIETY (HUMANITY) in 2 pages. 😉

          • Hyperion says:

            Wow Ray, I get my best book recommendations from you. I need to find Misery by Chekhov and get my Dark Gothic Vampire fix. Thank you Ray!

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            No problems 👋 but Misery isn’t dark 🙂 Chekhov isn’t dark/or gothic. Sorry if you got this impression from me. He’s just real* – > symbolic realism, nostalgic lyricism.

          • Hyperion says:

            Sorry Ray, I was being silly with my Dark Gothic Vampire personality. I actually want to read the story from your description. No gothic or vampires required.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            No problems:) its def “dark” story 🙂 real darkness… the one we don’t see.

            The story is about a cabman. His son died, but he has to go out & work (same day)… He desperately tried to talk with the people he met, but ended up talking to his horse…

          • Hyperion says:

            I think I relate to this poor cabman. Somethings are better left unsaid and animals are great listeners.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:


        • Victoria Ray NB says:

          Just wanted to add, Misery is the best short story or story in general I ever read – the symbolism in it and the truth. Especially, the truth. I believe, that our Earth (unfortunately, and only because of humans) got a last name – Misery. And by misery Chekhov means -> despair, grief, anxiety, ache, sadness, gloom, hurt, suffering, indifference… Maybe that’s why the Earth looks blue on the pictures

          • Hyperion says:

            I think you and Chekhov are right. Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do……. but wait for the dark side to swing around and get my Vampire groove on.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            Haha 😂 yep! It’s good tho that vampires exists only in the books… i think people do not deserve immortality 🌙💫

          • Hyperion says:

            I agree Ray. We have a lot of growing up to do before we are ready to live forever.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            True 💚💚👋

          • Hyperion says:


          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            Btw Nabokov had a nick name among Russian writers (back then) – Monster!
            They recognized his genius in writing (without doubt)… I think Ivan Bunin was first who came up with this monster-suggestion 🙂 he mentioned it in the letter to another author

          • Hyperion says:

            I wonder what Nabokov thought of his nickname? I suppose he did eat a lot of his competition for breakfast and then wrote another best seller by dinner.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            He knew it. I think Ivan Bunin wrote it to him (in a letter), or said to him. Don’t remember. Nabokov despised almost every russian writer (I think he respected only Chekhov & Tolstoy) …

            He was upper class (elite) boy & most russian writers were peasants… well, he studied them anyway 😉 & he took the best from all the names/styles 🙂 btw, Nabokov once said, that on some days, he could produce only 150 words in 7 hrs.

            it’s not like us – book in 6 month 😂

            He usually worked on the book 2 years/

          • Hyperion says:

            I really admire a lot of the Russian writers. The Russian people have a way of writing about poignant subjects with an understated emotion that is often compelling. It’s a kind of quiet suffering from a brilliant mind. It’s hard to describe, but it allows me to use my own emotion to fill in the complexity of a scene. I read an account of a Russian soldier serving in Chechnya. At the time he was very young and low ranking so not only did he have to endure the brutality of his leaders, but also the brutality of the Chechnya fighters. His description of his experiences and memories were epic and I thought he deserved significant acknowledgement for exposing how such experiences forever change a person.

          • Victoria Ray NB says:

            Agreed 🙂

            that’s why every literature (and russian/American/British as well) so different…

            Btw here’s the excerpt from Nabokov, about Britain & British/Russians … from the time when he first arrived in England. It’s a long one, but interesting piece:

            “Sometimes I sit in a corner and look out on all of these smooth, no doubt very pleasant faces, but somehow always reminding me of a shaving soap advertisement, and then I suddenly become so bored, so weary, that I almost want to howl to break the windows. . . .

            There’s a kind of glass wall between them and us Russians. They have their own round and solid world, like a scrupulously colored-in globe. Their souls lack that inspired whirlwind, that throb, that radiance, that dancing frenzy, that anger and tenderness, which carries us, God knows, to what heavens and what abysses. We have moments when the clouds are on our shoulders, the sea knee-high—and our souls roam free! To an Englishman this is incomprehensible, novel, perhaps even alluring. If he does get drunk and riotous, his riotousness is banal and hearty, so that even the observers of order look at him and simply smile, knowing he will never cross a certain line. And on the other hand, not even the headiest drunkenness will make him flow with feeling, bare his chest, throw his hat on the ground. . . . At any time signs of frankness jar him. You might be speaking to a friend about this or that, about strikes and steeplechases, when you ingenuously blurt out that you feel you’d give every drop of blood to see again some bog near Petersburg—but to utter such thoughts is indecent; he’ll look at you as if you’d whistled in church.”

          • Hyperion says:

            Touché! I don’t think it possible to express myself so well as Nabokov has here. I served with Russian soldiers in the Balkans during the conflicts there and they were allowed to drink vodka and wanted me to join them in their rowdy evenings far from home. But Americans were forbidden to drink alcohol and were expected to behave as Nabokov described. This was viewed as a grave mistake by my Russian friends and an injustice to the spirit of living an authentic life. I enjoyed their companionship a great deal.

  7. I do enjoy reading book reviews on WordPress even though it’s (may be) unlikely I’ll ever get to reading the novel.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      maybe you don’t need to read it after my review 🙂 😉😂

      in any case if you read anything at all – its already good enough 🙂 some people never read…

  8. kinkyacres says:

    Thank you for your tremendous efforts RNB!!!!

  9. Messy. My kinda book.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      ✌️ it’s a bit different from my first. The first – my blog posts only, written for fun; the second – political satire, mystery & comic strips, situations + Santa Claus tales 😂, written for sale 📚

      Thank you! 🎈🕺

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Lol missed the comment … I mean the position 😂 so me 🤸‍♂️

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      It’s a good story. 💫💫💫💫💫 very simple but meaningful… without conclusion tho