The last of Nabokov's "Russian novels", THE GIFT charts the artistic development of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, a Russian emigre to Germany, and his growing, complicated relationship with the history of Russian literature. When we first meet him, Fyodor is a young writer and poet who has just had his first volume of poems published. Fyodor possesses a genuine talent, but his first book does not receive the attention and respect he both expects and deserves. His relationship to the emigre literary community, and from there the wider artistic circles of Europe, is complicated and the weight of all the past masters, from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Pushkin and Gogol, weigh heavily on him, and are as active participants of both the plot and Fyodor's internal life as any living person he physically comes into contact with.
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Fyodor, and by circuitous extension Nabokov himself, believe that Russian literature and thought have deviated from the "correct path". He feels that Tolstoy in particular occupies an outsized position in the literary pantheon, and Fyodor has no choice but to conclude that his own lack of enshrinement into that same pantheon has more to do with the false gods currently there than with any genuine failure of his own artistic output.
The rest of the novel is occupied with two sprawling elements: Fyodor's internal grappling with the great novel he aims to write on his father, an explorer and scientist who disappeared while journeying through Russia's grand hinterland; and a mocking criticism -- an extended book-within-a-book -- of the life and works of Chernyshevsky, a writer and social critic from the previous century (who was well-loved by the Leninists).
The criticism is a long, discursive section that only reinforces the metafictional nature of THE GIFT itself. In attacking what he sees as Chernyshevsky's failings, Fyodor is whittling his own artistic vision down into a well-honed weapon, ready to do battle and carve out its own place in the literary world. The novel ends with Fyodor and Zina, his love interest and helper muse (an obvious analogue to Nabokov's wife Vera), still penniless and seemingly adrift, but ready and eager to embark on the next step of his career: the full application of his now mature artistic talents.
Best part of story, including ending:
Having studied Russian literature in college, it was fascinating watching a modern Russian writer grapple explicitly with the looming heavyweights of the previous century, especially knowing what followed THE GIFT in Nabokov's ouvre. Though, to be fair, for someone unversed in Russian history, or the complicated anxieties and rebellions that plague any artistic generation that succeeds one as rich as 19th-century Russia's, the novel can seem a bit . . . unnecessary.
Best scene in story:
There are not all that many powerful scenes, in a conventional sense, but there were numerous nuggets strewn about where someone familiar with Nabokov's later career can spot the many seedlings of his later masterpieces.
Opinion about the main character:
Even though Fyodor is not an explicit stand-in for Nabokov himself, it was especially gratifying to see a writer similar to him developing in the exact same German emigre community Nabokov developed in.