Mary begins with Ganin and Alfyrorov stuck in an elevator, a brief scene that dramatizes the workings of the rest of the novel. Ganin and his housemate are stuck in an elevator in an isolated boarding house full of Russians stuck in Germany. Even Alfyorov notices this: "Don't you think there's something symbolic in our meeting like this?" he asks Ganin(3). Ganin claims not to understand, even though he is perhaps the most stuck character in the novel. Mary is Nabokov's first novel, and it's a bit reassuring (given his later works of freakish genius) to find that his book, a house of often exquisite details that don't quite go anywhere, is itself a bit stuck.
Nabokov is fond of giving us litanies of sensory impressions: "Close to him, in a corner to the right, stood the iron case: swarthy-faced images behind glass, wax candles, a coral crucifix. Of the two windows, the more distant one shone straight ahead, and the head of the bed seemed to be pushing itself from the wall"(31). These delicate lists freeze and focus Ganin's impressions of the world, and almost always, his memories--the passage I just cited is a memory of his recovery from typhus, for example. Nabokov is intensely interested in the workings of memory in this novel, and he most successfully mobilizes remembered detail when describing Ganin's lush memories of his affair with Mary--memories that run "like a regular pattern through his everyday life"(55). A whiff of carbide sets off his mind: "it brought back everything at once: the wet grass whipping against his moving leg and wheel spokes; the disk of milky light that imbibed and dissolved the obscurity; the different objects that emerged from it--now a wrinkled puddle, or a glistening pebble"(67).
All this, of course, is an impression of the past--Nabokov tells us that Ganin's memories had reached a "perfect form," that is, a powerful precision that mimics the workings of fiction. The precision of the details is, paradoxically, a sign of how irretrievable they really are. Ganin needs to leave Berlin, to get in motion, if he is too free himself from the memories that arrest him.