Early Nabokov: new in bookstores

Nabokov grave, Switzerland

Nabokov grave, Switzerland

Plays are supposed to be performed, not read — that’s the rule, right?

An acquaintance of mine once arched his eyebrows when I told him I was rereading Hamlet. “You’re not supposed to read Shakespeare,” he said, rolling his eyes. (Ok, sure, but can you point me in the direction of a good, local production of Hamlet?)

In Vladimir Nabokov’s case, the opposite is probably true.

This month Alfred A. Knopf has published one of his earliest major works, “The Tragedy of Mister Morn,” and it’s a pleasurable experience to read this play (one of few by the sublime writer/butterfly-chaser).  There’s the familiar wordplay that’s in his novels, and the jarring metaphors — all kindly rendered in English by translators Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy (yes, that Tolstoy).

But I could never imagine it performed–it wasn’t–and I could never imagine an actor handling some of these lines.

 Too many mouthfuls. Like the character Tremens, a revolutionary, who offers this meditation:

What is the ecstasy of death? It is a pain,
Like lightning. The soul is like a tooth, God
Wrenches out the soul — crunch!–and it is over…
What comes next? Unthinkable nausea and then–
The void, spirals of madness—and the feeling of being
A swirling spermatozoid—and then darkness,
Darkness—the velvety abyss of the grave,
And in that abyss….

Edmin: Enough! This is worse
Than talking about a bad painting.

The language is rich and strange — have you ever thought of God as a dentist before? — but it just seems like it would be difficult for an actor to pull off. (At least Tremens gets interrupted by Edmin.)

Be quiet, I beg you! It’s quarter to…
This is unbearable! The clock-hands move
Like hunchbacks; like a widow and an orphan
Behind a catafalque….

Still, the publisher calls it a major work, and that feels right. This book is a necessity for your Nabokov collection. Here’s the young writer, homeless and fatherless (after the Bolshevik revolution, after his father’s assassination), speaking out  in beguiling fashion at the age of 24 — just 24! — against tyrants and revolutionaries before he firmly wrapped the greatcoat of fiction around his shoulders.

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