Glory is one of the novels that Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Russian and then later translated into English with his son Dmitri. It’s the deceptively straightforward story of a young man named Martin Edelweiss who shares a number of biographical details with the author: born in Russia, went to the Crimea because of the Revolution, exiled to Switzerland, educated at Cambridge. (Nabokov makes clear in the preface that he was never, however, as naive as our protagonist.)
Looking more closely, however, this novel is not a roman à clef or a fictional working-out of Speak, Memory. Rather, it is a metafiction, begun in the first chapter with the idea of fairy tales. Martin’s mother is an Anglophile, and tells him English and French fairy tales rather than Russian ones — and the rest of the book is laced and interlaced with fairy-tale motifs and references. We know from the first moment that this novel will be about stories. Then, in the second chapter, comes this vital passage:
On the bright wall above the narrow crib, with its lateral meshes of white cord and the small icon at its head (lacquered saint’s brown face framed in foil, crimson underside plush somewhat eaten by moths or by Martin himself) hung a watercolor depicting a dense forest with a winding path disappearing into its depths. Now in one of the English books that his mother used to read to him (how slowly and mysteriously she would pronounce the words and how wide she would open her eyes when she reached the end of a page, covering it with her small, lightly freckled hand as she asked, “And what do you think happened next?”) there was a story about just such a picture with a path in the woods, right above the bed of a little boy, who, one fine night, just as he was, nightshirt and all, went from his bed into the picture, onto the path that disappeared into the woods. […] When, as a youth, he recalled the past, he would wonder if one night he had not actually hopped from bed to picture, and if this had not been the beginning of the journey, full of joy and anguish, into which his whole life had turned.
Martin’s life is a romantic watercolor (the working title of the novel was Romantic Times) and we get regular reminders of it. He risks his life on a mountain ledge for the thrill of it, takes time out of his life to work as a farm laborer in a town he glimpses from the train at night, nearly falls for a shop-girl who says she’s pregnant with his child. All this is by turns pitiful and annoying to the people around him who are not running on Romantic Time.
Still, there are moments when he can make people see what he sees. Sonia, the jaded younger daughter of the Kirilovs, has never wanted to join Martin in the deep path in the watercolor woods. But for a while, the two of them create an imaginary world: Zoorland. In Zoorland, “pure arts, pure science were outlawed, lest the honest dunces be hurt to see the scholar’s brooding brow and offensively thick books.” And “Savior-and-Mauler (the sobriquet of one of the chieftains) has ordered physicians to stop casting around and to treat all illnesses in exactly the same way.” (Ahem.) But eventually, Sonia tires of the game. For Martin, it doesn’t become real, it always was real, and he develops a plan to steal illicitly across its border — the final glorious, romantic act of his life; the final clearing at the end of his watercolor path.
At the end, Martin’s friend Darwin (who is a writer, unlike Martin. Wait, let me digress a moment. His short stories are about “corkscrews, parrots, playing cards, infernal machines, reflections in water.” Does this sound like the works of anyone you know?) follows Martin onto that path into the woods, and thus becomes a work of fiction, leaving nothing behind but a little bird on a fence. It is a marvelous and peculiar book.
It is also, like everything else I’ve read by Nabokov, exquisitely written. There are passages in this novel that are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful prose — there’s a part where Martin as a young boy is riding in a train at night, and he’s pulled up the shade to look out, and I could feel the train sway. It’s echoed later by a similar scene when he’s enticed by the village lights he sees from a night train in France. These echoes and re-echoes (the path crossing itself? the story deliberately telling itself as story?) are sometimes subtle and sometimes beautifully lush. I was pulled along by the writing as much as by the events.
I had an interesting experience about this. I mentioned online that Nabokov makes the very best sentences. Most people didn’t respond at all, but of those who did, two people responded along the lines of a suggestion that good sentences are the opposite of good novels — that good prose is kind of “up itself” and too fancy, and that a good stylist has probably forgotten the main job of moving the plot along. Obviously I don’t agree with this. But do you? Do you think good writing interferes with a good novel? And if so, what makes a good novel for you?