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Examining Nabokov's The Gift
Vladimir Nabokov's last Russian language novel is a complex look into Russian Literature itself.
Alexander Pushkin is commonly regarded as the father of Russian literature. Prince Dmitry Mirsky comments on this fact in his book A History of Russian Literature: From its Beginnings to 1900. "Men, like Turgenev on the one hand", notes Mirsky, "and Grigoriev and Dostoevsky on the other, laid the foundation of that uncompromising Pushkin cult which is now the inheritance of every educated Russian...Grigoriev and Dostoevsky were men of an entirely alien spirit, and their cult of Pushkin was precisely due to their awareness of the presence in him of supreme values that were inaccessible to them Their cult of Pushkin was the religion of a paradise lost." It is to this school that our hero Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev belongs to. For him, Pushkin represents two things. First as an author, Fyodor sees himself as fitting into the great genealogy of Russian literature. While Gogol and Chernyshevsky are clearly given their dues, it is Pushkin who takes center stage. As an "educated Russian" Fyodor had "inhaled Pushkin." As Pushkin is considered the patriarch of Russian literature, this makes Fyodor a direct a descendant of his.
At the same time the notion of being a descendant of Pushkin's is blurred with Fyodor's more tangible genealogy. Moreover, so is the idea of paradise lost. This is especially true with regard to Fyodor's father. It is clear that Fyodor was in awe of his father. His father, through all of his travels gains something of a mythical quality about him and indeed there are multiple remarks to this end within the second chapter of The Gift. For example towards the beginning of the chapter Nabokov writes, "He walked along his favorite one toward the still invisible house, past the bench on which according to established tradition his parents used to sit on the eve of his father's regular departures on his travels; Father, knees apart, twirling his spectacles or a carnation in his hands, had his head lowered, with a boater tipped onto the back of it and with a taciturn almost mocking smile around his puckered eyes and in the soft corners of his mouth." Fyodor's father is a naturalist who is away for much of his childhood. He subsequently perishes during the chaotic fighting which took place during the Civil War, a fact that Fyodor learns about well after the fact. As an adult however, Fyodor still looks back at his past relationship with extreme admiration. Fyodor muses, "How to describe the bliss of our walks with Father through the woods, the fields and the peat bogs, or the constant summer thought of him if he was away, the eternal dream of making discovery and meeting him with this discovery - How to describe the feeling I experienced when he showed me all the spots where in his own childhood he had caught this and that." Fyodor's father is a mentor to him. He imparts on his son all the knowledge that he can in the short interactions that he has with him. Although he is a mentor, he is distant one, one that is not easily accessible and, to Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, one who is more myth than man. Fyodor recalls, "I now imagine the outfitting of my father's caravan in Przhevalsk, where he used to go with post-horses from Tashkent ...After that I see the caravan, before it gets drawn into the mountains, winding among hills of a paradisean green shade, depending both on their grassy raiment and on the apple-bright epidotic rock, on which they are composed...Further I see the mountains: the Tyan-Shan range." As a result of this distance, Fyodor's sense of paternal sentiments is somewhat skewed. Although he clearly has a relatively healthy relationship with is father, there is definetly a desire present in Fyodor's recollections to find an academic niche within the umbrella of his father's work. When he loses this oppurtunity after his father's death, he looks for a place in within the family of Russian literature.
Fyodor's quest to find a spot within Russian literature is in part a quest to find a place for himself as a person. Part of this to look back, which ties into the greater motiff of the Pushkin cult being a religion of a paradise lost. This notion can be inferred from Fyodor's memories of reading Pushkin in his youth. Nabokov writes, "Pushkin entered his blood. With Pushkin's voice merged the voice of his father. He kissed Pushkin's hot little hand, taking it for another, large hand smelling of the breakfast kalach. He remembered that his and Tanya's nurse hailed from the same place that Pushkin's Arina came from - namely Suyuda, just beyond Gatchina: this had been within an hour's ride of their area - and she had also spoken 'singsong like.'" First of all, it presents a general picture of a world that is lost to Fyodor forever. Much like Nabokov himself, our protagonist is nostalgic for a world he knows he will never see again. The second loss that is presented is Fyodor's loss of his father. When he merges Pushkin's voice with the voice of his father, he is trying to fit into two different paradigms. He is looking for legitimacy within two different traditions. First within his own family, secondly within the pantheon of Russian literature. This urge to belong to Russian literature can also be seen by Fyodor's likening his nanny to that of Pushkin. The idea that he is receiving the same kind of upbrining as Alexander Pushkin, reenforces Fyodor's sense of following in the great writer's footsteps, much like seeing the spots where his father had started his scientific career serves the same purpose. Simarly, there are other examples of this theme within the chapter. Nabokov comments, "Indefatigably, in ecstasy, he was really preparing his work now (in Berlin with an adjustment of thirteen days it was also the first days in June), collected material, read until dawn, studied maps, wrote letters and met with the necessary people. From Pushkin's prose he had passed to his life, so that in the beginning the rhythm of Pushkin's era commingles with the rhythm of his father's life." Once again, Fyodor is trying to merge the image of Alexander Pushkin with that of his own father. The resulting effect gives Fyodor a sense of purpose and belonging in his life. That he is indeed a legitimate heir to two destinies, although he is trying to turn them into one.
Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Gift is a book about many things, but ultimately it is about Russian literature and one man's attempts to find himself a place within it. He spend much of his time focusing on Pushkin. As a Russian writer, he is a descendant of Pushkin and the literary tradition that he established. At the same time, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is the descendant of a famous naturalist. Both of these men, even his own father, are mythical to Fyodor. Pushkin because of his status as literary genious; his father because of his near constant travels and absence from the home. In an attempt to find himself a place within both traditions, Fyodor creates a stylized image of his forebearer which merges his father with Pushkin, this allowing Fyodor to be a proper descendant of both.
Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900. Evanston: Northwestern UniversityPress, 1999.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Gift. New York: Vintage International Books, 1991.