Nabokov's fifth novel/novella features (no possible surprise by this point) White Russian emigres in Europe. Its main character, Martin, marks a return to, but even more so a surpassing of, the Romanticism of Nabokov's protagonist Ganin in his very first novel, Mary. Whereas Ganin, at the critical moment, abandons his fancy and sets himself on the course of pragmatism, Martin plunges ahead into an uncertain, though much feared by those left behind, fate.
Nabokov lays out the novel's purpose in his forward to the English translation, giving the Russian title Podvig a literal translation of "gallant feat" or "high deed", and mentioning that the working title of the novel was Romanticheskiy vek, or "Romantic times". Nabokov writes that he made Martin "much more naive than I ever was", an indication that he approves of the ultimate course of his first literary creation considerably more than he does of his full-blown, no-regrets Romantic creation.
Martin, after graduating Cambridge, scorns the offer of his wealthy Swiss uncle Henry to set him up in business. Instead, while on a train traveling the south of France, he impulsively disembarks at night after seeing the twinkling lights of a small village in the distance, which appeals to his Romantic impulse and hearkens back to a similar feeling of wonder and delight he experienced on seeing the same sort of vision as a child. He finds work as a farm laborer in the village and remains there for a season, working the earth under a drenching sun.
Returning thereafter to Switzerland, he again rebuffs the pleas of his uncle and mother to take the pragmatic course, and prepares to put into action his secret podvig: sneaking across the border into the Soviet Union. There is nothing political in this intention; Martin may come from the Russian exile milieu, but he has never taken any interest in politics. He rejects the idea of simply applying for a visa to enter Russia: what could be more prosaic. He confides in one friend that he intends to slip across, remain for 24 hours, and return to the other side. The only purpose of it is to do it. To adventure, to risk, to live. To perhaps die in the attempting, being taken for a spy. His friend is incredulous:
"This is absurd," reflected Darwin, "absurd and rather peculiar. Stayed quietly in Cambridge while they had their civil war, and now craves a bullet in the head for spying. Is he trying to mystify me? What an idiotic conversation."
The misunderstood Martin gets up and leaves, and...
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