Olga, of whom we are about to speak, was born in the year 1900, in a wealthy, carefree family of nobles. (1)
From the very first line, Nabokov gives us the total set up. Olga is born into a noble family in tsarist Russia, which means that she's so rich that she has never had to worry about anything. Lucky her.
She spoke French fluently, pronouncing les gens (the servants) as if rhyming with agence and splitting août (August) in two syllables (a-ou). She naively translated the Russian grabezhi (robberies) as les grabuges (quarrels) and used some archaic French locutions that had somehow survived in old Russian families, but she rolled her r's most convincingly even though she had never been to France. (5)
It was the trend amongst the Russian nobility at the time to speak French. In some circles these nobles knew French better than they knew Russian. Olga clearly isn't one of these super fluent folks, but she's definitely on trend.
She wrote verse with that terrifying facility typical of young Russian girls of her generation: patriotic verse, humorous verse, any kind of verse at all. (5)
The narrator writes that Olga has a "terrifying facility" for writing poetry. What do you think is terrifying about it? Is this just a knock against teenage poetry?
In Berlin, Olga gradually acquired a large group of friends, all of them young Russians. A certain jaunty tone was established. "Let's go to the cinemonkey," or "That was a heely deely German Diele, dance hall." All sorts of popular sayings, cant phrases, imitations of imitations were much in demand. "These cutlets are grim." "I wonder who's kissing her now?" Or, in a hoarse, choking voice: "Messieurs les officiers …" (7)
These guys are just showing off how international they are by throwing in slang, German, and French along with their Russian. We get it; you're smarter than everyone else.
But presently her life darkened. Something was finished, people were already getting up to leave. How quickly! Her father died, she moved to another street. She stopped seeing her friends, knitted the little bonnets in fashion, and gave cheap French lessons at some ladies' club or other. In this way her life dragged on to the age of thirty. (9)
Notice how Olga's life changes completely after her father dies. This tells us a lot about the status women held at the time.
"No, my dear, I'm no longer that age," answered Olga, "and besides…" She added a little detail and Vera burst out laughing, letting her parcels sink almost to the ground. "No, seriously," said Olga, with a smile. (12)
Super awkward. Why do you think Vera laughs at Olga? Do you think that she can understand her situation? What do you think is her social status?
Olga, starting all at once to speak through her nose, borrowed some money from her. (12)
In case you were confused about why Olga is speaking through her nose, it's because she wants to appear more high-class even though she's borrowing money from her friend.
She swore languidly, but yielded, and how festively the floorboards creaked in the merry little villa! How the little mirrors, suspended in the green orchard to frighten off birds, flashed and sparkled! (13)
Compare this scene with the paragraph describing Olga's poverty. What are the differences? Are there any similarities?