Between Truth and High Fantasy

Vladimir Nabokov, The Tragedy of Mister Morn

Penguin, 176pp, £12.00, ISBN 9780141196329

reviewed by Douglas Battersby

In recent years, fans of Vladimir Nabokov have been treated to a steady supply of treasures dug out from the fabled Montreux vault. The unfinished and lavishly produced The Original of Laura (Penguin, 2009), complete with perforated facsimile index cards for the Nabophile to rearrange at will, was greeted with much fanfare from the popular press and ivory tower alike. However, despite the critics’ ardent wrestling with its relative literary value, few could claim Laura to be a masterpiece in its own right. Nonetheless, the text did offer the well-versed a further glimpse into Nabokov’s wonderland; the door inching open a touch wider. Overshadowed by the mystique of Laura, little attention was paid to the simultaneous Penguin Classics translation of The Enchanter, a Russian novella of 1939 and something of a prototype to Lolita. Again, The Enchanter is a disappointment to those anticipating the buckling representations of reality as in the early Russian works, or the lyricism of Pale Fire (GP Putnam’s Sons, 1962). Nevertheless, for the well-read Nabokovian, The Enchanter bridges the dominant concerns of the Russian and American novels out in illuminating ways. So comes the latest (and one suspects the last) offering from Montreux: Nabokov’s only play and earliest complete work, The Tragedy of Mister Morn. Unlike Laura and The Enchanter, Morn is not only of great interest to the author’s devotees, but is an interesting and affecting read for the Nabokovian neophyte alike.

Nabokov wrote Morn in 1923-3, prior to any of his Russian prose and some four decades before the magnum opus that is Pale Fire. Despite the obvious youthfulness of the work, it displays a pleasing maturity and consonance with Nabokov’s entire oeuvre. Undoubtedly its greatest flaw, however, is the never-to-be repeated engagement with the political events which marred the young author’s early life. The play is set in a post-Revolutionary Russia about to undergo a second apocalyptic revolution – overtones which require no elaboration. To paraphrase Lacan, politics is an element in which Nabokov did not bathe without mishap, and the clumsy parallels to recent events in Russia do little to reverse this verdict. One thinks of Coetzee’s comment that Nabokov ‘balked at facing the nature of his loss in its historical fullness.’ It is on loss, however, that this aspect of Morn is most poignant, haunted by the ghost of Nabokov Senior, mistakenly gunned down by political extremists less than two years before the play was written. The wrong-man-murdered motif echoes from Morn all the way to Pale Fire, inextricably intertwined with Nabokov’s obsession with illusion and artifice.

The somewhat tiresome revolutionary theme of the play is counterpointed by the wonderful figure of Mister Morn himself – a garrulous socialite by day, a masked king by night. The dual identity of Morn is the catalyst for most of the plot, from a double elopement to a mistaken assassination. In plot device as in style, Nabokov’s indebtedness to Shakespeare is written across the pages of Morn, and it is here that the play’s value for Nabokov scholars lies. Indeed, the play might be read as a self-conscious exorcism of Shakespeare, suggested by a scene in which an estranged husband returns to his adulterous wife dressed as Othello (making for uncomfortable reading in the 21st century). The scene likewise displays Nabokov’s customary draw to humiliation and cruelty, handled with a power evocative of his later works. From Tremens’ opening soliloquy, the formative influence of Shakespeare on Nabokov’s handling of the illusion theme is unmistakable:

Tremens: Dream, fever, dream; the soundless changing
of two sentinels standing at the gates
of my powerless life . . .

The language, from the brutal misanthropic Sadism of Tremens to the light-touched stoicism of Dondilio, is reassuringly rich, and gives the play a unity which redeems the rather patchy treatment of politics and metaphysics. Nonetheless, the novelists’ acumen and passion for the mad monologue becomes apparent in the rather strained dialogue of the play. What the piece most palpably lacks, as a written work, is the narratorial voice, leaving one thankful that Nabokov turned to novel writing.

The feeling that Nabokov was simply writing in the wrong literary form is exacerbated when one thinks of staging Morn; where problems manifest in the ethereal figure of the ‘Foreigner’. Somewhere between ghostly author figure and framing device, the Foreigner treats the world of Morn as a dream-world which he (literally) appears and disappears from as he drifts in and out of sleep:

Foreigner: I entered a dream, but are you sure that I
have left that dream? . . . So be it, I’ll believe
in your city. Tomorrow I shall call it
a dream . . .
Midia: Our city is beautiful . . .
Foreigner: I find in it a ghostly resemblance to the distant
city of my birth – that likeness which exists
between truth and high fantasy . . .

The Foreigner is pivotal to the treatment of the explorations in the likeness of truth and fantasy, appearance and reality, which dominate the text of the play. It is unfortunate that the protagonist’s origin in a ‘northern country’ in ‘the Twentieth Century’ drags the tedious historical parallels back to the centre-stage. As a literary device, the flitting of the Foreigner between dimensions of dream and reality is reminiscent of Pale Fire or Transparent Things (McGraw-Hill, 1972) at their best. As a dramatic device, the effect is substantially less satisfying. Regardless, as a published text, The Tragedy of Mister Morn has much to offer the reader: the Nabokovian will find the origins and operations of their author’s central theme illuminated; those with a fleeting familiarity will find a pleasing concentration of the ideas which are scattered throughout the half-century of Nabokov’s writing; the uninitiated will find in Nabokov’s first major work a delightful fantasy and the first blossoming of literary genius.