Nabokov’s early ‘Tragedy’

THE TRAGEDY OF MR. MORN. By Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf. 147 pages. $26.

In October 1917, Vladimir Nabokov might have thought he could sidestep history. While the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, Nabokov famously sat home, only blocks away, writing poetry.

He was a new heir, the fresh owner of a 2,000-acre estate and the equivalent of a multimillion-dollar fortune.

Fast forward one month, and the entire Nabokov family had fled, first to the Crimea and then to England, where Vladimir had won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

By 1923, the year he wrote his first major work, “The Tragedy of Mr. Morn,” Nabokov had learned well the lessons of instability and exclusion that a life in exile had to teach. In Berlin in 1922, his father was assassinated by a Russian monarchist whose target was another man.

As a mature writer, Nabokov shied away from what he called “the fatal error of looking for so-called real life in novels.”

As a broken-hearted 24-year-old genius, he wasn’t so strict. “The Tragedy of Mr. Morn” is his most intimate look at revolutionary ideology.

In 2009, Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, decided to publish, with great hoopla and against his father’s expressed wish that it be incinerated, “The Original of Laura.” That novel existed only on 138 index cards and was tantalizingly incomplete.

“The Tragedy of Mr. Morn” is something else entirely: a fully formed verse play, written in pentameter lines and just now translated into English for the first time by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy (Leo’s great-great-great- granddaughter). But is it any good? Unequivocally, yes.

“Mr. Morn” is frothy and young, a spritz of a play that nods to Shakespeare. Its most obvious debts are to the history plays, with their sense of time as a pageant and, explicitly, to “Othello.”

Calamity, mistaken identity, loss of status, before the play takes a tragic turn, its discombobulation might be mistaken for the temporary insanity of comedy. Nabokov introduces an atmosphere of moonlight mayhem that doesn’t, in the end, resolve itself into a better order.

“Mr. Morn” takes place in an unnamed country that has suffered and seemingly recovered from a revolution. The action opens in the study of Tremens, a revolutionary nihilist who was bypassed when his co-conspirators were being rounded up. He is a self-described “twisted and scarlet leader,” devoted to death (“the velvety abyss”) and ruination. He will say late in the play, “I don’t need the slavery of happiness.”

The play’s status quo is disturbed when Ganus, another of the revolutionaries, escapes a life of hard labor and loneliness to show up at Tremens’ door. He wants to forget “the smoke of revolutionary/conversation, the back streets in the night.”

Ganus’ desire for an ordinary life with his wife, Midia, is complicated by the fact that she’s moved on to another love, Mr. Morn.

Against Tremens’ harsh version of “reality” (a word that Nabokov says should always be enclosed in quotation marks), Nabokov sets the transcendent world of fairy tale, legend and romance. Its spokesman is the title character, Mr. Morn.

In the four years since the failed revolution, Mr. Morn has played two roles: By day, he’s a bon vivant; by night, he’s the masked king who has restored happiness to the land. Morn describes his secret reign this way: “Playfully, lightly I ruled;/I appeared in a black mask in the ringing hall/... and left again laughing/laughing.”

All the mirth ends when Mr. Morn abdicates for love. Without his world of illusion, Mr. Morn is an enchanter who can no longer enchant, “... an empty space, an unstressed/syllable in a poem without rhyme.”

Dreams tied Mr. Morn to a timeless realm in the clouds; reality plants him back in the dirt. That is his tragedy.

Nabokov says that “great writers invent a world, minor ones ornament the one we have.”

Dandilio, a minor character in “Mr. Morn,” makes a major observation about the kind of gusto it takes to invent a world.

He describes a deep-sea diver who “blindly, hungrily” grabs handfuls of shells under water until the moment when his heart is bursting and he empties his catch on the “sunlit shore”: “So let the broken shells be empty/for the whole sea hums with mother of pearl./And he who seeks only pearls, setting aside/shell after shell, that man shall come to/the Creator, to the Master, with empty hands —/and he will find that he is deaf and dumb/in heaven.”

Great writers like Nabokov grab what’s there and — with the tools of memory, imagination and the dictionary (the essentials, according to Nabokov) — invent a fresh world for us.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.