Friday, December 17, 2010

When Nabokov met Tolstoy

I may have stretched the truth a little in this post’s title, but then maybe Nabokov did as well. While listening to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory the following passage caught my ear, probably because I read Hadji Murad recently. The following scene takes place in southern Crimea in the spring of 1918:
One morning, on a mountain trail, I suddenly met a strange cavalier, clad in a Circassian costume, with a tense, perspiring face painted a fantastic yellow. He kept furiously tugging at his horse, with, without heeding him, proceeded down the steep path at a curiously purposeful walk, like that of an offended person leaving a party. I had seen runaway horses, but I had never seen a walkaway one before, and my astonishment was given a still more pleasurable edge when I recognized the unfortunate rider as Mozzhuhin, whom Tamara and I had so often admired on the screen. The film Haji Murad (after Tolstoy’s tale of that gallant, rough-riding mountain chief) was being rehearsed on the mountain pastures of the range. “Stop that brute,” he said through his teeth as he saw me, but at the same moment, with a mighty sound of crunching and crashing stones, two authentic Tatars came running down to the rescue, and I trudge on, with my butterfly net, toward the upper crags where the Euxine race of the Hippolyte Grayling was expecting me.

A wonderful passage, especially the walkaway horse. The Wikipedia entry for Ivan Mozzhukhin mentions “he, along with his entire film production company, departed for the relative safety of Crimea in 1917.” Looking up Mozzhukhin’s entry at, I find two movies for Mozzhukhin during 1918, Bogatyr dukha and Malyutka Elli. (The 1919 film mentioned doesn't sound like it could be related to Hadji Murad at all). Taking all of five seconds to search, nothing shows up for the second film, but the term Bogatyr turns up as meaning “a medieval heroic warrior of Kievan Rus' and the Novgorodian Republic, akin to a Western European knight errant.”

Did Nabokov really see the filming of Tolstoy’s book (possibly not released, or if so, not listed)? Did he see a completely different story, set 900 years before Hadji Murad and misinterpret what he saw (or ironically, remember incorrectly)? Does it really matter since it makes a great story?


Unknown said...

The second film is mentioned in Youngblood's Magic Mirror & is extant, it sounds like a proto-M with Mozzhukhin killing the unfortunate Ellie the much younger sister of Nathalie Lissenko's character.

Dwight said...

Ah, thanks for the information.

It's a small point and, like I said, doesn't really matter but I'm curious about it. Appreciate the comment!