The Gift is the final and most important Russian novel (English translation, 1963) by Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977). The semi-autobiographical story of a young Russian émigré writer living in Berlin in the 1920s, The Gift was first serialized in the Paris journal Sovremennye zapiski (Notes from the Fatherland) between 1937 and 1938. Nabokov conceived the novel in 1932 but let it germinate during the early to mid-1930s as he wrote and published the novels Laughter in the Dark (1933) and Despair (1936). He wrote chapter 4 out of sequence and stopped production altogether to write and publish his surreal political novel Invitation to a Beheading in 1938. The editor of Sovremennye zapiski refused to publish the novel’s fourth chapter because of its irreverent and unconventional parody of the life of the 19th-century Russian novelist and political writer Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, whom Nabokov saw as a bad writer and dangerous precursor to bolshevism. The Gift finally appeared in its entirety in book form in 1952.
Because it tells the story of a young man’s development as a writer, The Gift immediately recalls the work of two writers whom Nabokov greatly admired: James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and In Search of Lost Time, the novel shows the development of artistic consciousness. However, Nabokov’s Fyodor Godunov-Cherndyntsev differs from Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and Proust’s narrator in the number of texts he produces in the course of the novel. The novel includes many samples of Fyodor’s writing, from the poems that he writes as a child to his controversial biography of Chernyshevsky. Nabokov also incorporates supposed reviews of Fyodor’s work.
The structure of The Gift is strikingly similar to that of the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, in which Joyce writes passages that illustrate the development of English prose from Anglo-Saxon to modern times. Nabokov uses Joyce’s method throughout The Gift to trace the development of Russian literary history and Fyodor’s own progression as a writer. The first chapter, which contains Fyodor’s childhood poems, imagines the first, innocent stages of Russian literature. The second chapter then narrates the grand adventures of Fyodor’s naturalist father in a romantic style that recalls Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin. In its satiric style and antic comedy, the third chapter imitates the work of Nikolay Gogol, another of Nabokov’s heroes. Chapter 4 presents Fyodor’s biography of Chernyshevsky and defends Nabokov’s idea that Russian literature declined when it became politicized and didactic in the late 19th century. The fifth and final chapter is written in a new style, one that, as the work of the mature Nabokov, may be seen as signifying the rebirth of Russian literature. The Gift concludes with a Proustian intimation that Fyodor will go on to write the very novel the reader just read.
The Gift is also notable for its semiautobiographical elements, specifically Nabokov’s touching portrayal of Fyodor’s loving relationship with his father and wife. As chapter 2 relates, Fyodor’s father disappeared on an exploratory trip to Tibet. This disappearance is a romanticized version of the fate of Nabokov’s own father, an important liberal Russian politician who was assassinated by a right-wing radical in 1922. Like Nabokov, Fyodor has learned his passion for butterflies from his father, as well as the detailed precision with which he views the world. Fyodor’s notion that, in his writing, he can accompany his father on his final voyage and his acknowledgment of the possibility that his father may one day return suggest a particularly Nabokovian intimation of immortality. In addition, The Gift indicates its author’s love and appreciation for his wife, Véra. At the end of the novel, Fyodor overcomes the passage of time and his own loneliness through his love for Zina, feeling that with her support and encouragement, he can create brilliant works of literature such as The Gift. Nabokov, too, recognized Véra’s love for him as the ultimate gift that made all his books possible.
Despite its Proustian and Joycean complexities and reputation as one of the finest Russian novels of the 20th century, The Gift has received scant critical attention. Brian Boyd’s commentary in his two-volume biography of Nabokov is the only lengthy English-language study of the novel. Moreover, The Gift has not found a significant readership in America, with most readers preferring Nabokov’s “American Trilogy”— Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962)—to this, his greatest Russian masterpiece.
Blackwell, Stephen H. Zina’s Paradox: The Figured Reader in Nabokov’s “Gift.” New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Dolinin, Alexander. “The Gift.” In The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Vladimir E. Alexandrov, 135–169. New York: Garland, 1995.
Livak, Leonid. “The Novel as Target Practice: Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift and the ‘New Malady of the Century.’ ” Studies in the Novel 34 (2002): 198–220.
Píchová, Hana. The Art of Memory and Exile: Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
Weir, Justin. The Author as Hero: Self and Tradition in Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Nabokov. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002.