Brian Brown

Nabokov and Cultural Synthesis


Imagining A Writer

Five times in The Gift, characters number a series of thoughts, object or people from one to five. Nabokov forces the reader to notice this by having the first two such groupings occur on the same page. The cast of words which correspond to each number act to help interpret the themes of each chapter. And by understanding the chapters better, we can see more clearly the overarching theme of the book, namely, Fyodorís development as an artist.

The attached chart becomes the easiest way to show this development of themes as expressed by the motif of counting-to-five. The columns in it represent the order in which the series appears in the text, the rows are the groupings of corresponding numbers. A quick note about the plot points when the columns occur: before visiting the Chernyshevsks, Fyodor buys his dinner at a piroshki stand; while eating, he imagines which critic could have so favorably reviewed his poems; at a later literary society meeting, the ìnovelistî Busch reads a scene about prostitutes from his new play; in chapter three, Zina gives her reasons for not talking to Fyodor in the house; finally, in an imaginary conversation, Koncheyev lists what he sees as flaws in Fyodor's Chernyshevski biography. Let us then see how the rows correspond to the chapters.

When the novel begins Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdynntsev has just published a book of poems about, perhaps appropriately, his childhood. His poems may have ìmeatî (p. 30), but they also seem to be somewhat boring and predictable, like the possible critic who is ìscrupulous but untalentedî. Furthermore, Zinaís reason for not talking at home, that she is "not a German girl" (p. 184) seems another two part response to his book: physically, they are in Russian, not German, and they are very careful. Fyodor's poems are full of ìall sorts of contrivances (p. 339) in order to ìsmuggle in his thoughtsî (p. 339)- as a Russian emigre, speaking of childhood is, in some ways, equivalent to him talking about Russia, and thus he hides his feelings about the revolution and loss of a fatherland underneath poems about his early years. Finally, Fyodor rushes and flows like water from place to place- we first encounter him moving into a new home, which he immediately leaves to shop and visit friends, and the chapter ends with he and Koncheyev walking home. Fyodor has entered the world of writing carefully, perhaps too carefully: his poems are complete, but as recreations of memories, they lack imagination.

According to Nabokov, ìChapter Two is a surge toward Pushkin in Fyodorís literary progress and contains his attempt to describe his fatherís zoological explorationsî (Foreword). After realizing the failure of his poems and after learning from Pushkin that writing must come from feeling, he attempts to recreate the life and works of his father in a biography. But as an imaginary Koncheyev points out at the end, there exists a certain ìawkwardness in sourcesî (p. 339)- Fyodor cannot untangle his emotions from other peopleís lives; for example, as he writes the biography, he slowly changes into his father, as witnessed by the shift of pronouns. At the beginning of the history, the pronoun is ìFyodorî, then miraculously, he accompanies his father on trips, and it becomes ìweî, and then finally it transforms with Fyodor into ìIî. This, like the critic, shows some ìgiftî, but is ìdishonest.î (p.30) Similarly, that Zina ìonly broke up with [her] fiancÈe last Wednesday,î (p. 184) demonstrates some understood level of lying: to be kissing Fyodor such a short time after losing the person she was to marry betrays a certain conflict of interest. So just when Fyodor seems to be latching onto something solid, he realizes that he is only playing with emptiness:

All this lingered bewitchingly, full of color and air, with lively movement in the foreground and a convincing backdrop; then, like smoke from a breeze, it shifted and dispersed- and Fyodor saw again the dead and impossible tulips of his wallpaper, the crumbling mound of cigarette butts in the ashtray, and the lampís reflection in the black windowpane. (p. 125)

Everything becomes air, unreal, and Fyodorís biography of his father never materializes.

Chapter Three parodies best the life of a tortured artist: having failed twice, Fyodor now spends months at a time doing nothing artistically important, but instead smoking, reading and jotting down a few poems here and there. Koncheyevís assessment of Fyodorís flaw, that he ìsometimes brings up parody to such a degree of naturalness that it actually becomes a genuine serious thoughtî (p.339) is particularly apt, for the reader becomes embroiled in his life and misses the larger comedy. But Nabokov also aims his humor directly at the interpreter of the counting-to-five motif, for that person is ìwriting about proseî (p.30) by basing their analysis on ìnumber[s]î (p. 67), which is ìpointlessî (p. 184). Since we can do nothing but smile at the dead manís genius and humor, let us move on.

Chapter Four consists solely of Fyodorís biography of Chernyshevski, but the theme comes to rest on the conflict between friends and self-interest. Fyodor is writing ìabout friendsî (p. 30), or more specifically, their namesake and ancestor, but he actually ridicules this man and his work. ìAll is fireî (p. 67), all is insults: Zina explains that they cannot talk at home because ì[Fyodor] doesnít know me at all,î (p. 184) which seems to belittle his understanding. The imaginary Koncheyev explains that the biographiesí ìtransitions are mechanical, if not automatic, which suggests you are pursuing your own advantage,î which is true: Fyodor was forced to leave Russia because of the Communist Revolution, and therefore cannot be too happy with someone whom many consider to be one of the forerunners of such an event. To insult him, therefore, is ìpursuing his own advantageî in that it satisfies some desire for revenge. Fyodor, in writing the book, makes a conscious choice, not only between friends and interests, but also between the warmth of an accepting society and the burn of conflict. By choosing the latter, he transforms himself from an easily extinguishable candle into a raging bonfire, from someone who will be quickly forgotten into a real writer.

There is something different in the nature of all things which correspond in the motif of counting-to-five to Chapter Five. All of the entries are based in imagination: although he mentions a fifth piroshki, it does not exist because he ìcouldnít afford a fifth...î (p. 30) Then he dreams up the critic he would like to review positively his book, a description of someone who seems to be Koncheyev, with whom Fyodor has only had imaginary encounters. The oxymoron of ìlone companionî (p. 67) again requires that he and the reader envision a colleague. When Fyodor kisses Zina, and her fifth reason for them not talking at home becomes ìThatís why,î (p. 184) it is again left open and therefore up to us to fill in the reason. The fifth column also corresponds to the theme of imagination in the fifth row: none of Koncheyevís remarks exist except in Fyodorís mind.

Indeed, by correlating the themes of each chapter with the development of Fyodor as an artist, we can understand The Gift both as a parody and as a necessary route. One begins the writerís life in earnest, honest and boring, until the lack of success leads to an equally unprofitable path, more interesting yet deceitful. As a consequence of this conflict, another conflagration arises between the individual artist and the seemingly homogenous society in which the person lives. The writer seethes and bums around until they can produce the hateful novel, the book that tears down what has gone before it. When they have let off this steam, the most important realization comes: truly new ideas are not simply a reaction to old ones, rather, they slink forth from the primordial ooze of imagination. The motif of counting-to-five helps us to grasp Vladimir Nabokovís sense of the developing artist, and furthermore to focus on imagination as the key element in any writer.