Keys to The Gift: Yuri Leving’s Guide to Nabokov

Reviewed in this essay: Keys to The Gift: A Guide to Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel, by Yuri Leving. Academic Studies Press, 2011.

I was a student in Yuri Leving’s Survey of Russian Literature class at Dalhousie University in 2007. He got me hooked on Nabokov, so I was excited when Leving’s new book on a major Nabokov novel was released last year.

The Gift is Nabokov’s passionate and complex love song devoted to Russian literature. It is his ninth and final novel written originally in Russian, and is considered to be the high point of these novels, as well as one of his most complicated overall. Nabokov draws from his encyclopaedic knowledge of Russia’s historic and contemporary writers and literary critics to prove his love stems from a place of great depth. Leving’s guide Keys to The Gift is an invaluable and comprehensive companion that doesn’t only help the reader keep together plot lines, but reveals the secret to all the novel’s various enigmas—multilingual word play, hidden signs and symbols, and literary and historical references and allusions.

Nabokov’s brilliant novel requires an expertly researched book, but one that’s especially lucid, organized, and readable too. Leving doesn’t overreach. His book is deep and probing only where it’s warranted. Leving is succinct, never boring, and refreshingly avoids needlessly ostentatious academic jargon. The guide contains his own opinions and interpretations, but also sorts out and quotes at length other famous Nabokov scholars, and in this way it’s really a log and index documenting how Leving came to arrive at his insights. For the benefit of future Nabokov scholarship, Leving points out where more in-depth studies are required and graciously directs the reader towards the good work of his peers.

Leving solves Nabokov’s puzzles we’d otherwise likely never even notice. In one example, he puts forward a crucial understanding of the novel’s final day, 29 June, by pointing to the thirteen-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendar, and how deducting this difference brings us to 16 June, the date on which Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. “The last day of the novel marks the culmination of Fyodor’s learning how to say ‘Yes’ to the world and finding happiness in love with Zina Mertz, his ideal bride, reader, and muse.“ Though the main theme of the novel can be grasped without this hidden knowledge, Leving enlarges our understanding and appreciation by pointing to the thematic parallels of Joyce.

The guide also contains notes on the history of the novel’s composition and publication, the sources Nabokov read in preparation to writing, the historical context of his characters (who were in many instances based on real people, both historical and his contemporaries), and the history of its translation and critical reception around the world. There are dozens of black and white pictures, drawings, paintings, reprinted hand-written correspondence, various thirties advertisements referenced in the novel and other supplementary curiosities.

Leving’s aim is always to clarify Nabokov, so his writing is fundamentally digestible. This book will be treasured by scholars and serious Nabokov fans everywhere for its wide scope and in-depth analysis.

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