Knopf Poem-a-Day: April 21, Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Tragedy of Mister Morn”


Vladimir Nabokov wrote “The Tragedy of Mr. Morn,” a five-act Shakespearean-style tragedy, in the winter of 1923-24, when he was only twenty-four; it was never performed in his lifetime. Unlike most of his Russian works, Nabokov never translated his early plays into English, and it was many decades before the typescript of “Morn” was discovered in his archive in Montreux, Switzerland. At last published in Russian in 1997, the play is now available for the first time in English, translated by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan. As Karshan tells us in his introduction to the work, it was “the laboratory in which [Nabokov] discovered and tested many of the themes he would subsequently develop. . . the elusiveness of happiness; the creative and destructive playfulness of the imagination. . . the sovereignty of desire and illicit passion; and what one character calls ‘that likeness which exists / between truth and high fantasy.'” It was also his most direct and critical response on the page to the period of revolution he lived through, depicting “a poetics and politics of nihilism” in several of the play’s central characters.

In the excerpt below, from Act I, Scene I, Ganus, a banished revolutionary, has escaped his long imprisonment and snuck back home to knock at the door of his friend and former revolutionary leader, Tremens. Unlike Ganus, Tremens was never punished for his crimes and is living freely in a land that has since become peaceful and harmonious under the rule of a masked King. Here, Tremens’s daughter Ella applies make-up to Ganus to costume him as an Othello, so that he can attend, incognito, a soiree at the home of his estranged wife Midia that evening. Midia is no longer faithful to her long-lost husband—a situation on which the tragedy of the play hinges—and this way he will be able to watch her without her knowing him; in any case, he must travel unrecognized, as he is now an outlaw in the land. While Ella works on him, Ganus and Tremens discuss whether their old ideology is still relevant in a happy country.

                          Tell me, Tremens,
I don’t understand: what do you want?
While wandering through the country I have
noticed that in four years of radiant peace—
after wars and revolutions—the country
has grown wonderfully strong. And the King
alone achieved all this. What then do you want?
New upheavals? But why? The power of the King
is living and harmonious, it moves me now
like music . . . I too find it strange, but I
have understood that to rebel is criminal.

Tremens [rising slowly]:
What did you say? Did I mishear? Ganus,
you . . . repent, regret, and practically
give thanks for your punishment!

For the sorrows of my heart, for the tears
of my Midia, I will never forgive the King.
But, consider: while we were declaiming
grand words—on the oppressed, on poverty
and the suffering of the people—the King
himself was already acting in our stead . . .

Tremens [walks heavily around the room, drumming his finger on the furniture as he passes]:
Hang on, hang on! Did you really think
that I worked with such determination
for the good of an imaginary ‘people’?
So that every manure-filled soul, some
drunken goldsmith or another, some gnarled
stable-boy could polish his dainty nails
up to a mirror sheen, and bend his little
finger back in affectation, when shaking
off his snot? No, you were mistaken! . . .

Move your head to the right a little . . . I’ll pull
the astrakhan fur on for you . . .
sit down, I beg you . . . You are dizzying me
with your movements.

                              You were mistaken!
Revolts there may have been, Ganus . . . Time and again,
in city squares across the ages, have gathered
low-browed criminality, mediocrity,
and baseness . . . Their words I was repeating,
but I meant something more—and I had thought
that through those blunt words you felt my true fire,
and that your fire answered mine. But now,
your flame has tapered, it has turned to passion
for a woman . . . I feel great pity for you.

But what is it you want? Ella, don’t get
in the way while I’m talking . . .

                                       Did you see,
one windy night, by moonlight, the shadows
of ruins? That is the ultimate beauty—
and towards it I lead the world.

                                       Don’t protest . . .
Sit still! . . . Press your lips together. A little
touch of arrogance . . . There. Some carmine
inside the nostrils—no, don’t sneeze! Passion—
in the nostrils. Now yours are like those
of Arabian horses. There we go.
Please be quiet. After all, my father
is absolutely right.

                       You say:
the King is a great sorcerer. Agreed.
The sun has swollen the taut granaries,
the wonders of science are accessible to all,
labour is lightened by the play of hidden forces,
and the air is clean in the warbling workshops—
with all this I agree. But why do we
always want to grow, to climb uphill
from one to a thousand, when the downward path—
from one to zero—is faster and sweeter? Life
itself is the example—it rushes headlong
into ash, it destroys everything in its way:
first it gnaws through the umbilical cord,
then tears up plants and birds into shreds,
and our heart beats inside us like a greedy hoof,
till it smashes through our chest . . . And the poet,
who breaks up his thoughts into sounds? Or
the maiden, who prays for the blow of a man’s love?
Everything, Ganus, is destruction. And
the faster it is, the sweeter, the sweeter . . .

for the frock-coat, the gloves—and you’re ready!

Learn more about The Tragedy of Mister Morn and browse other titles by Vladimir Nabokov.

Excerpt from THE TRAGEDY OF MR. MORN. Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Karshan, translation copyright © 2012 by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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