An early, recently unearthed play by the 20th-century master, heavily critical of politics and hinting at the brilliance to come.
Nabokov (1899-1977) was living in Prague in 1923 when he wrote this play, rediscovered in 1997 and published in book form in Russia in 2008. But the communist revolution in his homeland is its key inspiration. Set in an unnamed country, the story tracks a tug of war for power: Tremens is the leader of a failed coup who wants the land reduced to ashes, and Mister Morn is the gentle but successful poet/leader who obscures his status as king. Shakespeare is Nabokov’s model in a variety of ways. Most obviously, the play was written in iambic pentameter (attentively but not rigorously preserved by the translators). And its references to Othello, along with its themes of madness, leadership, family lines and how women support powerful men, show Nabokov took plenty of cues from the Bard of Avon. Admirers of Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin have to work hard to detect glimpses of Nabokov’s best-known work here, but it’s not impossible: In his introduction, co-translator and Nabokov scholar Karshan explores how the play’s references to masks and sex would re-emerge in Nabokov’s mature novels. The dynamism of the play’s romantic relationships makes it a firmly modernist work. Through Midia, the wife of an imprisoned revolutionary who’s in love with Morn, he explores infidelity without high moral judgment. And in Ella, Tremens’ daughter, he’s imagined a vibrant, nervy woman quick to question her father’s “equivocating little words.” Morn’s vagueness dulls the play’s climax somewhat, but he’s also the story’s chief asset: “All my power lay in my mysteriousness,” he proclaims in a final soliloquy, an apt line for a tale about the mysteriousness of power.
A minor work in the overall Nabokov canon, but an intriguing riff on Elizabethan drama nonetheless.