Vladimir Nabokov’s Glory is a somewhat enigmatic piece and readers will take different things from it. Wikipedia tells me that the original Russian title, Podvig, means ‘feat’ or ‘exploit’, and this, in a literal way, matches the novel better that the English title, although Nabokov must have chosen ‘Glory’ when he translated the novel with the help of his son Dimitri in 1971. Glory’s story has much in common with the author’s, although unlike Nabokov’s other autobiographical Russian novel, The Gift, significantly, the hero here, Martin, has no outstanding talents or even any specific drive, and that is partly what the book is about. The central symbol, repeated in a number of guises, is a winding path disappearing into a deep forest.
Martin grows up in St. Petersburg, but flees the Revolution with his mother, firstly to the Crimea, then to Greece, where he is sexually initiated, on to Switzerland, where his mother remarries and settles, and then finally to study at Cambridge where the novel pauses. After Cambridge, south of France working with the peasants, onto Berlin etc. Gradually, through all this, Martin becomes obsessed by a desire or challenge to slip illegally over the Soviet border, although not himself politically engaged in any way.
Nabokov has significant range as a writer; his prismatic personality, his roving intellect, and the incredible trials life imposed upon him. But even in the early Russian novels we have the Kafkaesque Invitation to a Beheading, the cold amoral King Queen Knave, and this work, naturalistic and engaged. Quite a few of Nabokov’s leading characters we do not like, but we like Martin, and it is important for the impact of this work that we do, that we feel with Martin’s friends and relatives at his fate. Nabokov’s prose is at its descriptive burnished best in Glory, although I always find with his virtuosity the occasionally misplaced word, particularly slang or dialect, that like Joseph Conrad, mark him out as not entirely at ease with the language. Martin experiences the physical world with a ravishing intensity; raw, unmediated adolescence, we’re right back there. And despite everything being seen through Martin’s eyes, all of the secondary characters are rendered in considerable subtlety and depth. The effect of time and place on various developing personalities is particularly well realised.
The original working title for Glory, Romantichevsky vek, ‘Romantic Times’, gave me a cue for my take on this work. What I think Nabokov is doing in Glory is holding up to the light a particular type of Romantic figure. At first I was reminded of Werther, and indeed Goethe’s hapless hero, rock-star popular in the early 19th century, would be a good example for Martin, but probably a better would be one of Werther’s literary descendants, Pechorin, from A Hero of our Times. My old Anchor paperback edition of this Russian classic is translated by Nabokov who, in his introduction, criticises the work as novelettish but admits a long fascination with it. All these men possess a rootlessness and restlessness alongside their personal charisma and intelligence. None of them can find a fit in the world. Who hasn’t known this at that age? Reading Glory, I immediately felt a strong backward identification with Martin. Nabokov is signalling here the powerful attraction of this type, but also that as a role model it is necessarily a dead end. We all must leave the Martin in us behind, let him fade, regretfully perhaps, if we are to move forward constructively with our lives.
Novels, generally, thrive on variety and contrast; but there are some, like poetry or short stories, where all elements are employed towards a single powerful effect. This latter is the case with Glory, although it is not apparent until the very end. Open ended, in fact, and as I say above, there is a wider stretch of valid interpretive response here than usual. The effect of that is to throw the reader back upon the character of Martin, to focus on his magnetism and desires, which together serve to illustrate for us a significant life lesson.