The event that doesn’t occur

Michael Wood

  • The Man from the USSR, and Other Plays by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov
    Weidenfeld, 342 pp, £20.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 297 78596 6

Since his death in 1977, Nabokov has made three literary appearances: rather plodding affairs for such a gifted ghost, even allowing for their modest academic occasions and for the fact that the published texts (Lectures on Literature, Lectures on Russian Literature, Lectures on Don Quixote) represent scripts and drafts rather than the things themselves. Nabokov’s lectures, like his cramped and prickly prefaces, mainly serve to highlight the marvels of his fiction, where the pedestrian takes to the air, and his often domineering intelligence joins forces with his kindlier imagination. At first glance the present volume – containing four early and previously untranslated Russian plays and a couple of lectures on drama given at Stanford in 1941 – looks like just another dip into the dwindling family barrel. Dmitri Nabokov speaks in his introduction of ‘the elegant, appetising, carefully selected baggage that survives Father in Montreux’, and for a flickering instant I thought perhaps he was planning to publish that. The first glance, though, gets only part of the picture.

Two of the plays – The Pole and The Grand-Dad – are certainly very minor indeed. They were written in 1923 in the South of France. Apart from brief spells away, Nabokov was then living in Berlin, where his father had been killed, and where he himself stayed until 1937. His family had left Russia in 1919, and he had been at Cambridge until earlier in 1923. He was writing poems and dramatic sketches, had not yet found his way towards a novel. Both plays are in verse of an uncomplicated kind apparently, and Dmitri Nabokov notes that he has tried to preserve the pentameter in his translation. He has done this very discreetly. The Pole is about Scott dying in the Antarctic, with fictional companions (Fleming, Kingsley, Johnson) taking the place of Oates and the others. The play is very short and simply underlines the isolation of such an end, and a gentle irony in Scott. He sees that he and his companions are the stuff of legend – ‘People are fond of fables, aren’t they?/Thus, you and I, alone, amid the snow,/so far away ... I think that England ... ’ – and wryly compares himself to Columbus:

                                          True,
he suffered, but in recompense discovered
such splendid lands, while we have suffered to
discover only ruinous white deserts –
and still, you know, it had to be ...

The Grand-Dad is slightly longer and quite a bit trickier. The year is 1816. A French aristocrat who miraculously escaped the guillotine in 1792 returns to visit his family home and shelters with some well-to-do peasants when a rainstorm catches him. They have some time ago taken in a lovable old man, unrelated to them, whom they affectionately call Grand-Dad, and who coos and blinks and talks to the flowers. Suddenly a memory stirs and Grand-Dad fetches an axe and takes a swing at the aristocrat. Grand-Dad is the executioner robbed of his prey all those years ago, determined, even in his dotage, to finish off the job. He doesn’t, the aristocrat escapes again, but not before we have seen how history repeats itself, how lives run into patterns, and how the idyll is broken. There is a certain eloquence in the aristocrat’s account of his brush with death – ‘It grew impossible for me to swallow,/my nape was racked by a presentient pain’ – but the play seems fussy and too pleased with its own plotting. Even the guillotine is elegant rather than frightening, a faint pastel copy of the object of Prince Myshkin’s intense interest. We may note, as Dmitri Nabokov does, that the lovable executioner foreshadows the jolly M’sieur Pierre of Invitation to a Beheading, and it is true that executions of various kinds loom large in Nabokov’s later work. It is their blandness and their bungling that draws his attention, their horrible ordinariness, and in this sense he is consciously rewriting Dostoevsky. A girl that Pnin once knew died in a concentration camp, and he cannot live with the thought that anyone should want to kill her, or that the task should be so ridiculously easy: ‘One had to forget ... that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart.’ Killing is simple and hard in Nabokov: child’s play and yet often fluffed, so that living or dying becomes more than usually a matter of chance. Still, one needs compulsive hindsight to see any of this in The Grand-Dad.

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