Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Don’t you remember, from children’s fairy tales? - Nabokov's Tragedy of Mr. Morn

Obviously, I read The Tragedy of Mr. Morn, the Vladimir Nabokov play that only appeared in English last year, for reasons of Nabokov completism.  It was written in 1923, before Nabokov had written any of his novels, but did not even appear in Russian until 1997.  Some pages at the end of Act IV have been lost.  The play is an imitation of, would you believe it, William Shakespeare.  What a ridiculous thing for a 23 year old author to attempt, whatever he might have created later in his life.

So The Tragedy of Mr. Morn is a minor work, obviously.  Nabokov’s later plays are also minor works.  They are quite good – funny, surprising, the usual Nabokovian stuff.  Mr. Morn is also good.  I was surprised.

The story is about the conflict between an revolutionary who has escaped his exile and the king, Mr. Morn, who is now sleeping with his wife.  The king always appears in a mask, so no one knows Morn is king.  Fairy tale business.  The men duel, somewhat abstractly, and Morn abdicates the throne, again secretly.  Another revolutionary, introduced as worn out and useless, uses this opportunity to overthrow the government and begin a reign of terror, itself overthrown in a counter-revolution, not that this solves Morn’s problem.  For a comedy, a lot of characters are murdered.  I know what the title says.  This is 1923; the rules have changed.  Calling your play a tragedy is the surest sign it is a comedy.

I do not think Nabokov was so openly political for another twenty years, when he wrote Bend Sinister (1947).  I mean concerned with the workings of politics; he often criticized the cruelties of the Soviet Union.  Not that the country in the play is exactly Russia (Dandilio is the representative of reason, more or less):

FOREIGNER [approaching]
                      I often heard your voice
in my childhood dreams…

DANDILIO:                               Really, I never
can remember who has dreamt me.  But
your smile I do remember.  I meant to ask you,
courteous traveler, where have you come from?

FOREIGNER:  I have come from the Twentieth Century, from
a northern country, called…

MIDIA:                                                  Which one is it?
I don’t know that one…

DANDILIO:                                How can you say that!
Don’t you remember, from children’s fairy tales?
Visions… bombs… churches… golden princes…
revolutionaries in raincoats… blizzards…

MIDIA:  But I thought it didn’t exist?

FOREIGNER:                                          Perhaps. I
entered a dream, but are you sure that I
have left the dream?... So be it.  I’ll believe
in your city.  Tomorrow I shall call it
a dream…  (Act I, Sc. 2, ll. 43-57)

This passage is more like Calderón de la Barca than Shakespeare.  Russia and St. Petersburg are the fairy tale in the fairy tale world of the play.  The ellipses are all Nabokov’s.  He goes absolutely bonkers with ellipses for some reason.

An experienced reader of Nabokov recognizes the “foreigner” as a strong candidate for identification with the author himself, visiting his dreamland, and the final scene reinforces this idea (“All this is a dream… the dream of a drunken poet…”).

Even stranger, though, to me, was the reference to a “northern country.”  In 1923, the word under [Whispers] is surely “Russia,” but how can a reader of Pale Fire (1962) not hear, softly, “Zembla, a distant northern land,” the last line of that novel?  Perhaps the Foreigner is not Nabokov but a Nabokov character from a book written forty years in the future.

I have no idea what a reader with slight knowledge of Nabokov would get out of this play.  Shouldn’t read it, I suppose.


  1. I've been curious for someone to write about this play since I heard of it last year. Thanks, Tom, it sounds loopy in a good way.

  2. "Loopy," that's good. There are many swerves and loops, a couple of them pretty clever. Already, at this tender age, Nabokov is bored by the straight-line story.

  3. I have owned a copy of this for at least a year, I think, and it's been in the middle of my too-large TBR stacks the whole time. I keep thinking I'll get to it and then I don't, and I was awfully sure I'd read it before you did. Maybe now I'll pull it to the top of the stack, because of course "an imitation of Shakespeare" appeals pretty strongly to me. I don't know how long it'll sit at the top of the stack; my reading is, I just this morning realized, pretty much driven by my writing. Though maybe a play written by a young emigrant about revolutionaries in raincoats might be helpful. Hmm.

  4. It would be easy enough to be more critical of Mr. Morn. But what is the point? The translators, who I forgot to mention - Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan - suggest that the play illuminates some of the later, better work. I doubt it, but the reverse is certainly true; thus the uncanny pleasure of finding scraps and hints and threads that would not be pulled taut for 40 years.

    The main Shakespeare referent is Othello, for what that's worth.