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:

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.

We don’t have to work quite so hard at the lectures. ‘Nothing ever fizzles out in a tragedy,’ Nabokov says in the first, ‘though perhaps one of the tragedies of life is that even the most tragic situations just fizzle out.’ This is close to George Eliot’s thoughts about the tragedy that lies in ‘the fact of frequency’, and it is what happens in The Grand-Dad. The executioner is robbed of his victim, the aristocrat is robbed of a stagey death, and the audience is robbed of the sort of finality it likes. Nabokov also insists on what he calls ‘the beauty or horror of chance’. ‘Chance is not always stumbling,’ he says: not only a piece of silly or convenient machinery for the hard-pressed writer. Nabokov has the most withering scorn for what he regards as the determinism of drama, its iron rules of cause and effect, its passion for plausible literary logic, and has a very funny sequence about the technical troubles a playwright meets in trying to end a plot. Death is the only real end, he suggests, and argues, with poker-faced pedantry, that suicide is better than murder (because we worry about how the murderer will feel ‘in the long years following the final curtain’) or natural death (‘the cause-and-effect idea ... makes natural death occurring at the right moment look a little too smart’). ‘Suicide is your determinist’s favourite.’ But then how to have it done? Daggers and poison are messy or slow, so the only satisfactory thing is ‘the backstage pistol shot’. There’s the rub, though. How do we know the character is dead? Because another character comes and tells us. (He says: ‘He is dead,’ ‘or perhaps something “deeper” like, for instance, “He has paid his debt.”’) How does he know? Has he examined the body? After a bit of malarky with this problem, Nabokov concludes that the messenger must be a doctor, and a good one at that, because otherwise he might have made a mistake. Then, perhaps, we can rest: the play is really over.

This is good fun, and Nabokov’s plea for chance is attractive and important. But tragedy itself is trivialised in the process, indeed becomes indistinguishable from mournful melodrama. Nabokov’s polemics generally pick easy topics, unlike his novels, which thrive on the rare and difficult. The other lecture similarly seeks to simplify, and therefore to shelve, complex questions, but the simplification here concerns the nature of illusion, a topic much closer to the lecturer’s lofty heart. Nabokov recognises only one stage convention, but that one, he says, is ‘a natural rule of the theatre’: ‘the people you see or hear can under no circumstances see or hear you.’ ‘A play is an ideal conspiracy,’ because it both keeps us out and lets us watch. Even when an actor addresses the audience directly, the rule is complicated or played with rather than broken: this address itself is part of the play, or the audience is one constructed by the author, rather than the actual audience of flesh and blood and chocolates. Or the audience doesn’t believe the actor, can’t separate him from the play. Nabokov gives a nice example involving his grandfather, a friend of the great actor Varlamov. One night Varlamov, bored with his role, decided to conduct a bit of his private life at the same time and said across the footlights: ‘By the way, Ivan Vasilich, I’m afraid I shall be unable to have luncheon with you tomorrow.’ It didn’t occur to Nabokov’s grandfather that his luncheon date was really being cancelled. The phenomenon recalls the letters painted on a van at the beginning of The Gift. They are shaded laterally to suggest perspective, and this, Nabokov says, is ‘a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension’.

This is a novelist’s or a movie-goer’s notion of illusion rather than a playwright’s, and I can imagine Brecht making short work of it. What is interesting about it is the way it underlines the audience’s immunity, and the ambush of unsuspecting characters by a faceless crowd. Nabokov plays with just this idea in The Event, ‘a dramatic comedy’ which is by far the most substantial work in this volume, and the piece that most severely corrects our first glance. It was written in France, after Nabokov had left Berlin, and it was produced in Paris in 1938. It was later staged in Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade and New York. The actors in Paris had some difficulty with the stylised roles, Andrew Field tells us, but this may have been because they weren’t sure whether they were doing something like Gogol or something like Chekhov. They were doing Nabokov, although it can’t have been clear to them what that was. He was by this time a practised and published novelist, and had written, among other things, The Defence, Despair, Invitation to a Beheading and The Gift, but his particular mixture of allusion and parody would take some getting used to – as the later reception of Lolita makes clear. The Event is a mirror version of The Inspector General – the event everyone is waiting for doesn’t take place, and that itself, the absence of the event, is an important thing that ‘happens’. But the play also offers a revision of Chekhov. ‘The point is,’ the main character, a rather seedy portrait painter called Troshcheykin says, ‘that we are decaying in this hick-town atmosphere, like Chekhov’s three sisters’; and another character is quoted as adapting Chekhov’s dictum that a rifle on the wall in the first act must go off in the last. In the last act, he says, the rifle will misfire – a sentiment not far from Nabokov’s view that tragedies tragically fizzle out.

The event that doesn’t occur is a violent scene between Troshcheykin and his wife and her former lover. Some years ago the lover attempted to kill them both, and was put away in prison. Now he has been released early for good behaviour, and has returned to the town.

Troshcheykin is sure he will be killed this time, and runs around in a tremendous panic.

Poor idiot that I am, a moment ago I still had a year and a half in reserve. By that time we would have long since been in a different city, in a different country, on a different planet ... Where did these tenderhearted judges come from? The bastards!

His wife Lyubov, on the other hand, is apathetic, haunted by thoughts of a baby boy who died. She would just as soon have the showdown. ‘Look into my eyes,’ she says to her frightened husband; but he can’t. He can’t face the mess they have made of their marriage, the shabby infidelities on both sides, all the hopes they have buried. Lyubov’s mother, a literary lady who writes highbrow fairy tales, explains at one point her daughters’ names, making an unintentional epigram as she does so. The girls are Lyubov and Vera. ‘Their names mean Love and Faith. There isn’t any Hope.’ There is a splendid literary birthday party, where a famous writer modelled on Ivan Bunin (I take this information, again, from Andrew Field) holds forth and receives homage. The feared assassination doesn’t take place, since the putative killer simply takes a train and leaves the town (the cast of characters notes of him that he ‘does not appear’); but not before a marvellously unlikely sleuth and bodyguard has shown up. His name is almost identical with that of the released convict (Barboshin not Barbashin), and he is ‘a detective with a Dostoevskian flawed soul’. He enters and says to Lyubov: ‘I bow not to you, no, not to you, but to all wives who are deceived, strangled and burned, and to the lovely adulteresses of the last century beneath their veils thick as night itself.’ Not a bad start. Later he says to a new arrival: ‘Judging by certain outward signs intelligible only to an experienced eye, I can tell you that you have served in the navy, are childless, have recently been to the doctor, and are fond of music.’ The other man says: ‘Wrong on all counts.’

Characters quote famous lines from Pushkin and Turgenev, The Inspector General itself is mentioned, but the point is not to create a world of allusions, or hang the play on a tradition – too many wires are crossed for that. The point, I take it, is to evoke a set of characters whose lives have become unreal to them, who experience life as a bad play they are caught up in: The Crime of Passion, it might be called, a farce in three or more hearts. And this is where Nabokov seems to break his ‘natural rule of the theatre’. Troshcheykin tells Lyubov he has just had an idea for a painting, a ‘stroke of genius’. He steps to the proscenium and says:

Here’s what I’d like to paint – try to imagine that this wall is missing, and instead there is a black abyss and what looks like an audience in a dim theatre, rows and rows of faces, sitting and watching me. And all the faces belong to people whom I know or once knew, and who are now watching my life ... This man with envy; that woman with compassion. There they sit before me, so pale and wondrous in the semi-darkness. My late parents are there, and my past enemies ... Then again, maybe it’s all nonsense ... Let there be a wall again.

Later in the play, while Lyubov’s mother is reading her fairy tale aloud, most of the characters freeze into a tableau, and Troshcheykin and Lyubov, in front of the proscenium, experience a moment of reality – reality without the quotation marks it usually wears, ‘like claws’, as Nabokov says in Ada. They see where they are and what they have done, and they do this by understanding that they are in a play: ‘Alone on this narrow, lighted stage. Behind us, the old theatrical frippery of our whole life, the frozen masks of a second-rate comedy, and in front a dark chasm full of eyes, eyes, eyes watching us, awaiting our destruction.’ The moment of understanding passes and fizzles, the frozen tableau returns to life and the comedy resumes. Nabokov has broken his rule, it seems, in order to show us what sort of rule it is, and what it might mean to be governed by it in the world away from the theatre. That world for him is not usually a stage but a muddled text, and perhaps a text without a reader. Asked if he believed in God, Nabokov once made a remarkably opaque and eerie remark: ‘I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.’ I don’t know whether that means that God reads our text, or simply that the richness of the inexpressible gives the idea of God a meaning which it seemed to have forfeited.

The Man from the USSR is a slighter play than The Event, and a good deal duller; but it is a touch more solid than the verse plays. It was written in 1925-26 and shows Nabokov to be moving towards the scene of his early novels. The setting is the Berlin of taverns and boarding-houses and sad clusters of Russian émigrés we find in Mary, for example. I don’t know why Dmitri Nabokov chose this as the title-piece for the volume, unless it was because he wanted to remind us that his father was a Russian writer, and that his country is no longer on the map. ‘I’m going to the USSR,’ a double agent says at the end of the play, hinting at his hopes of undoing the Soviet regime, ‘so that you will be able to come to Russia.’ This work, too, has its skirmishes with the idea of illusion – one act takes place at a movie studio, and one of these émigré actresses is playing the ‘abominably difficult part’ of a Communist woman. The double agent of course plays several roles, and at one point casually remarks that he has forgotten his lines. But the chief interest of the piece is the faintly but eloquently sketched relationship between the agent and the wife he leaves behind when he takes off on his missions. ‘I absolutely can’t bear the thought of someone thinking about me with love, with longing, with concern,’ he says. ‘It distracts me.’ At the end of the play, however, he seems to have accepted just this, and we see that much of his scoundrelly behaviour has been part of an attempt to fly from feeling, to put himself out of reach of mere sentiment. His defeat in this respect is his human success, of course, and it is mirrored and achieved by his wife’s willingness to pretend she doesn’t love him. ‘You can’t imagine how enormous Russia seems to me when you disappear into it,’ she says:

Imagine, say the sound of a bad violin outside the window ... Don’t look at me that way ... I don’t love you. There was no violin.

But there was a violin. Much of Nabokov, I believe, needs understanding in this backhanded way. He is not the warm-hearted writer his son seeks to present, but he is not the monster he himself liked to pretend he was. Perhaps the last word should go to Professor Pnin: ‘He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts.’