This semi-autobiographical early novel was written in the early 1930’s, but only translated into English in 1971, when Nabokov’s reputation as an author was secure. It did little to enhance it.
‘Glory’ follows the childhood and early life of Nabokov’s romantic protagonist, Martin Edelweiss, who escapes from the bloodshed of revolutionary Russia.to Switzerland and thence to England. In London he meets the Zilanov family, expatriate Russians like himself, and falls for their teenage daughter, Sonia. At Cambridge University he becomes friends with Darwin, a war hero and published author, now a fellow student. Cambridge is a period of restlessness for Martin – he finds it hard to settle on a field of academic study, or an occupation thereafter. His family is sufficiently wealthy for this to not be too much of a problem. A summer working as a farmhand in France does not quieten this restiveness. Slowly a plan forms in his mind – to return undercover to Soviet Russia. A search for glory will quieten his dissatisfaction with life. The precise purpose of this perilous journey is never articulated, and remains a mystery to Darwin even when Martin reveals his intended journey.
The novel closes on a consciously downbeat almost offhand tone – Martin leaves Darwin with some postcards for his mother to explain his absence, and sets off for Russia via Latvia. Darwin, although he argues with him, finds his plans ridiculous. Martin’s eventual fate is hinted at but never revealed, and the narrator even turns away from portraying the scene when Darwin explains what has happened to Martin’s mother.
‘Glory’ is an unsatisfying novel. If you come to this book having read the pyrotechnics of ‘Pale Fire’ or ‘Lolita’ you will be disappointed. As a stylist Nabokov is extraordinary, and in this respect ‘Glory’ can stand comparison with anything he wrote. He takes sentence construction and extended metaphor to the very limits of sustainability:
“Human thought, flying on the trapezes of the star-filled universe, with mathematics stretched beneath, was like an acrobat working with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net.”
Any further and this would read like parody. As it is the slight clumsiness at the end – “with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net” is the character’s, not the author’s awkwardness, and captures perfectly the gap between Martin’s perception of himself, as someone significant, and the reader’s understanding that he is something of a fantasist.
In his introduction to the English edition, written decades after the novel itself, Nabokov typically misleads and challenges the reader. He offers an interpretation of the novel in which:
“(the fun of Glory) is to be sought in the echoing and linking of minor events in back-and-forth switches, which produce an illusion of impetus”.
This invites us to read the novel looking for intricacies of construction which are undoubtedly present, but which nevertheless fail to add much to the novel. Just because an author introduces a motif at the opening of a novel – here for example a path leading through a wood – and returns to it in a subsequent scene at the close, that in itself does little to enhance our appreciation, particularly if we have already had the author point out the device. There are undoubted traces in ‘Glory’ of the elusive genius that was to emerge in ‘Pale Fire’ (for example) but for all its skill and technique the former suffers from comparison with the later work.
One last point – apologies for the book cover illustration. I suspect the publishers were trying to cash in on Nabokov’s reputation as the author of ‘racy’ novels.