The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

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Popular Library paperback edition May 1963

Why is it that out of Nabokov’s extensive bibliography Lolita is the only one that most people know? What are the behavioral economics of it that we’re attracted to the lurid and sensational? After all, Lolita is one of his shorter books, you get more Nabokov for your money if you read one of his longer books instead. I’d like to see the sales numbers for all of Nabokov’s books. At thrift stores I’ve seen five copies of Lolita for every other time I’ve seen a different one of his books, which altogether I’d say are uncommon to find.

Really The Gift is five novellas connected together. They were published serially at different times in a Russian literary journal. There is a tremendous depth to this book and Nabokov’s prose is highly polished, his books contain many easter eggs and he creatively employs and blends various literary devices to their full extent as only a master of the medium can.

I don’t really want this blog to be a typical “book review” blog I suppose. I dislike reading reviews myself, and with The Gift there is too much that could be said. Probably this is one of those classic novels that has a whole sub-genre of literary analysis surrounding it, like essays, college courses, maybe there’s even a whole book published about this book.

One of my primary questions concerns novella four, which is a harsh lambasting of Nikolay Chernyshevsky in biographical form. The literary journal refused to publish this controversial part, and although both Nabokov and the protagonist Fyodor Godonuv-Cherdyntsev seem aware that this controversy will help the author gain fame, the animosity seems real. What’s the reason for Nabokov’s disdain for Chernyshevsky? Usually, when people have an emotional reaction to someone that they desire to write a mean-spirited biography turning them into a caricature it’s because they feel threatened by that person or something they stand for. Perhaps it’s a conflict between economics and art. Nabokov is a genius, a literary artist, but it could be argued his passions such as lepidopterology and composing chess problems, while aesthetically pleasing, are in fact anti-economical from a utilitarian perspective of opportunity cost. I am someone who spent three years of my life studying and playing chess, and when I read Nabokov write about chess, it is clear this is a man who values art far more than utility.

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