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An unpublished play by Vladimir Nabokov finally sees the light of day

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Chuck Twardy

The Details

The Tragedy of Mister Morn
Three and a half stars
By Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy, $26

The literary afterlife has been busy in recent years, issuing volumes forgotten or unfinished, including both fiction and nonfiction from Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace. Three years ago I reviewed The Origin of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s fragmentary final novel, which his son, Dmitri, published against the author’s stated wish. I forgave him for loosing into the world some of that lissome prose again.

Nabokov achieved such splendid success in his second language that it’s easy to forget that he was first, and in some ways remained, a Russian writer. Fresh evidence comes in the form of an unpublished early play, translated from the Russian by Thomas Karshan, editor of Nabokov’s Selected Poems, and Anastasia Tolstoy, the great-great-great granddaughter of Leo, due from Knopf this month.

Nabokov wrote The Tragedy of Mister Morn when he was 24, seven years after the Russian Revolution drove away his family. His father served in the short-lived Kerensky government between the Czar and the Bolsheviks. Morn is an early source of obsessions that flowed through his life’s work, including desire, sex and death and contempt for repression.

The play is in blank verse and is consciously Shakespearean, complete with a character in theatrical disguise—as Othello. In his introduction, Karshan points to Nabokov’s twist of “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” from Henry IV, Part 2. “…[L]et it squeeze/my head with its diamond pain,” cries Morn the king.

But Morn, who had come to power after a revolution, surrenders rather than endures the crown. No one knows that Morn is king; he wears a mask publicly and turns up at parties as a cheerful wag. One of the rebels Morn has exiled, Ganus, escapes and confronts Morn, who has since taken up with Ganus’ wife, Midia. He abandons the throne to flee with Midia, who in turn betrays him.

This upends four years of peaceful prosperity and opens the gates for Tremens, a former rebel who had been left untouched, the better to monitor the others. Reflecting Nabokov’s hatred of the Soviets, Tremens is purely nihilist: “Everything … is destruction. And/the faster it is, the sweeter, the sweeter …”

So we get poetry, not prose, this time—some of it elegant, some of it wrenching. Karshan says the translators’ goal was the play Nabokov would have written in English. It seems fittingly Nabokovian that they came close.

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