BOOKS MARCH 21, 2013
Reading a play by a great novelist is sort of like listening to Marilyn Manson plow through the Great American Songbook: You thrill at the prospect of colossal failure while also secretly hoping to be surprised. But while the latter feat has not been attempted, probably for the best, the former has been tried over and over again: Henry James (Guy Domville, whose disastrous opening night was nicely captured in Colm Toibin’s The Master), James Joyce (Exiles), Ernest Hemingway (The Fifth Column), and William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun) all took a turn writing for the stage. Even Don DeLillo has four plays to his name, though I bet you can’t name a single one. Personally, I’m waiting for a full five acts from Thomas Pynchon. For now, at least, we have The Tragedy of Mister Morn by Vladimir Nabokov, a play that has just been translated for the first time into English by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy (yes, of that pedigree: Leo was her great-great-great grandfather).
But while many novelists’ efforts have the feel of a fling, of dabbling with a seemingly less demanding form, the same cannot be said for Nabokov, who was not so much a novelist as a polymath whose outlet was often fiction—though it was also, just as often, essays, poetry, and letters, not to mention all those desiccated butterflies.
Early on, Nabokov’s boundless creativity found an outlet in drama. His most ambitious play, The Tragedy of Mister Morn was written in 1923–1924 when he was in Prague, a White Russian exiled from his native St. Petersburg—which had become Petrograd and was soon to be “rebranded,” if you will, as Leningrad, Russia’s once-resplendent jewel growing ever more dull with each new name, until it had turned into a faded Soviet backwater that the august Nabokov clan would have never recognized. Morn was neither published nor performed during Nabokov’s lifetime; it finally saw the light of day when it was printed by the Russian magazine Zvezda (Star) in 1997, six years after a much-diminished Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.
I think I would be remiss if I did not tell you right away the thing you almost certainly want to know: No, Mister Morn is not as good as Lolita or Pale Fire or Pnin—or whatever you happen to think Nabokov’s finest was. Nor is it as unusual as the posthumous The Original of Laura, published in 2009 as a book with detachable notecards and worth reading just for son Dmitri’s horrifically arrogant introduction. Mister Morn is a whimsical, largely allegorical tragicomedy in which an exiled revolutionary named Ganus returns to his city to find that his wife, Midia, has shacked up with the impresario Mr. Morn.1 Ganus is only interested in regaining love, while his former accomplice, Tremens, continues to nurse revolutionary convictions. As in much of Nabokov, love is both necessary and impossible, a delicious and inescapable torture.
Mister Morn is not itself genius, whatever that word means, but it is the juvenilia of genius coalescing, and that may be enough for some. The spring shoots of greatness are there in phrases like “that scarlet comma of contamination,” which made me think of “the 8 of vaccination” on Lolita’s arm spotted by Humbert Humbert during a tennis match with his nymphet. There, too, in the “stuccoed heavens” and “the straight brows of angels.” Maybe it is crass to pick out lovely phrases—yet no one did with language quite what Nabokov did, so it is not ultimately unfair to read his prose for the prose alone. And though Morn was written in Russian, the translators have with obvious diligence compared it to the English that Nabokov would later master, doing their best to remain faithful to the Russian of Morn while alluding to the Anglophone grace of Pale Fire and Lolita.2
There is another reason to take note of Mister Morn: As the translators note in their introduction, in this play “Nabokov explores more fully and explicitly than he ever would again what he saw as the origins of the revolutionary impulse in a death-instinct and passion for destruction.” That Nabokov finds revolutionaries savage is blatantly apparent in Mister Morn, as is his wonder and dread at death.3 Given his family’s standing and his own upbringing, nobody could rightly suspect Nabokov of leftist sympathies, even if he was not quite the conservative detractors depict. But here, he rather audaciously aligns social upheaval with psychological nihilism, the destruction of palaces with the destruction of the inward self. For all the derision Nabokov heaped upon the “elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella,” he was exploring, in this early work, both the psychology of crowds—their tendency to mass madness—and the psychology of individuals who are forlorn or, maybe, much worse.
As in much of Nabokov, love is both necessary and impossible, a delicious and inescapable torture.
That’s not entirely surprising, considering that Nabokov’s father had been assassinated in Berlin by Russian reactionaries the year before he wrote the play (the fatal bullets were actually intended for another Russian progressive, but the noble Nabokov got in their way). Grieving for his father, for his native city, for a more genteel way of life than what the first two decades of the twentieth century portended, Nabokov wrote Mister Morn as a political fantasy, though one divorced from actual political concerns. In the end, it is a play of egos both frustrated and satisfied, lovers who drift, passions that wane, convictions that prove slight and aspirations that prove selfish, aimed not at changing the world but rectifying some lack with a single human heart. All politics, as they say, really is local.
Mister Morn is an intriguing complement to a new biography of Nabokov by journalist Andrea Pitzer, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, which argues that Nabokov was more aware of current events than we give him credit for—and that politics plays a subtly crucial part in his writings.
Nabokov has long been seen as a writer who outran history, nimbly evading the Russian Revolution by leaving Petersburg and avoiding World War II and the Holocaust by leaving Berlin. Once established on the American scene, Nabokov appeared to most of his peers to be offensively apolitical. As Pitzer relates in her well-told chronicle, he was frequently lambasted for not engaging with the issues of the day. His friend Edmund Wilson, for example, wrote, “I have never been able to understand how you pretend that it is possible to write about human beings and leave out all account of society and environment.”
But as Mister Morn and, more explicitly, Pitzer show, history—if not politics—was never far from Nabokov’s considerations. Nabokov was, for example, an ardent enemy of anti-Semitism and a supporter of civil rights in the American South. (“Admirable work you are accomplishing,” he once telegrammed to LBJ, who had largely staked his reputation on the Civil Rights Act.) Pitzer does not really discuss Nabokov’s plays and their political content, but she capably reconstructs the young Nabokov’s mindset at the time he wrote Morn. The elder Nabokov was being hailed as “a bright paladin of freedom” in obituaries. And yet the pull of filial duty only extended so far. “He admired his father’s ideals,” Pitzer writes, “but unlike V.D. Nabokov, he stood apart from the fray.” Morn shows that he was not immune to the forces that had so dramatically acted upon his father, though his own political convictions would thrive within the rococo folds of his language.
"Admirable work you are accomplishing," Nabokov once telegrammed to LBJ.
Morn not only provides a rebuke to the charge that Nabokov was entirely apolitical, but it also suggests that Pitzer is right in her estimation of Nabokov’s later, more important works. “There is hardly a novel in Nabokov’s mature repertoire,” Pitzer writes, “that does not have a major character shattered by his own imprisonment or haunted by memories of those who perished in the camps.” Nabokov was aware of the razor-wired plight awaiting both Jews and anti-revolutionary Russians, and that awareness was only made more poignant, and personal, after his brother Sergei, a homosexual, perished in the Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944.
So instead of treating Nabokov as a coddled aesthete removed from the concerns of the twentieth century, Pitzer depicts him as fully engaged with the concerns of the world—though he was far too courtly, too genteel, to shout his convictions from the rooftops. Given how much scholarship concerns Nabokov’s oeuvre, it is bold to contend, as Pitzer does in her introduction, that “a whole layer of meaning in his work has vanished.” That statement had me sharpening my critical daggers. But by the end, Pitzer managed to pretty much make her case, mostly by not belaboring the point, though also never deviating from it. Sure, you can read Pale Fire without knowing that Kinbote’s Nova Zembla—the possibly made-up magical kingdom that forms the novel’s parallel universe—is modeled after Novaya Zemlya, where the USSR was testing nuclear weapons. But no reading ever suffered from a fullness of context.
Morn does not belong in Nabokov’s mature repertoire, but it is a faint echo of the concerns that would later be so skillfully amplified. As his wife Vera would write, “every book by VN is a blow against tyranny.” That tyranny, as Nabokov’s greatest and most tormented protagonists attest, could thrive both within and without.