Prismatic Bezel in TRLSK

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 09/07/2021 - 06:53

In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian Knight’s first book (1925) is entitled The Prismatic Bezel:

 

The Prismatic Bezel was appreciated at its true worth only when Sebastian's first real success caused it to be presented anew by another firm (Bronson), but even then it did not sell as well as Success, or Lost Property. For a first novel it shows remarkable force of artistic will and literary self-control. As often was the way with Sebastian Knight he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion. J. L. Coleman has called it 'al clown developing wings, an angel mimicking a tumbler pigeon', and the metaphor seems to me very apt. Based cunningly on a parody of certain tricks of the literary trade, The Prismatic Bezel soars skyward. With something akin to fanatical hate Sebastian Knight was ever hunting out the things which had once been fresh and bright but which were now worn to a thread, dead things among living ones; dead things shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud. The decayed idea might be in itself quite innocent and it may be argued that there is not much sin in continually exploiting this or that thoroughly worn subject or style if it still pleases and amuses. But for Sebastian Knight, the merest trifle, as, say, the, adopted method of a detective story, became a bloated and malodorous corpse. He did not mind in the least 'penny dreadfuls' because he wasn't concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or nth-rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral. But The Prismatic Bezel is not only a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale; it is also a wicked imitation of many other things: as for instance a certain literary habit which Sebastian Knight, with his uncanny perception of secret decay, noticed in the modem novel, namely the fashionable trick of grouping a medley of people in a limited space (a hotel, an island, a street). Then also different kinds of styles are satirized in the course of the book as well as the problem of blending direct speech with narration and description which an elegant pen solves by finding as many variations of 'he said' as may be found in the dictionary between 'acceded' and 'yelped'. But all this obscure fun is, I repeat, only the author's springboard. (Chapter 10)

 

During an 'immortal dinner' 28th December 1817 hosted by Benjamin Robert Haydon (a British painter, 1786-1846, who specialized in grand historical pictures) and attended by Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Keats, and Keats's friend Monkhouse, Keats lightheartedly said Newton 'has destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours.' John Keats is the author of Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818), a narrative poem adapted from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV.5). Sebastian Knight’s Bezel brings to mind Keats’ Basil. In his sonnet The Grave of Keats (1881) Oscar Wilde compares Keats to St. Sebastian and, in the sonnet’s last line, mentions Isabella and her Basil-tree:

 

RID of the world's injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God's veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water----it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

 

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, the artist who painted his portrait, and stabs the picture (with fatal consequences for himself). The Prismatic Bezel is a parody of a detective novel:

 

Twelve persons are staying at a boarding house; the house is very carefully depicted but in order to stress the 'island' note, the rest of the town is casually shown as a secondary cross between natural mist and a primary cross between stage-properties and a real-estate agent's nightmare. As the author points out (indirectly) this method is somewhat allied to the cinema practice of showing the leading lady in her impossible dormitory years as glamorously different from a crowd of plain and fairly realistic schoolmates. One of the lodgers, a certain G. Abeson, art dealer, is found murdered in his room. The local police officer, who is described solely in terms of boots, rings up a London detective, asking him to come at once. Owing to a combination of mishaps (his car runs over an old woman and then he takes the wrong train) he is very long in arriving. In the meantime the inhabitants of the boarding house plus a chance passer-by, old Nosebag, who happened to be in the lobby when the crime was discovered, are thoroughly examined. All of them except the last named, a mild old gentleman with a white beard yellowish about the mouth, and a harmless passion for collecting snuffboxes, are more or less open to suspicion; and one of them, a fishy art-student, seems particularly so: half a dozen blood-stained handkerchiefs are found under his bed. Incidentally, it may be noted that in order to simplify and 'concentrate' things not a single servant or hotel employee is specifically mentioned and nobody bothers about their non-existence. Then, with a quick sliding motion, something in the story begins to shift (the detective, it must be remembered, is still on the way and G. Abeson's stiff corpse lying on the carpet). It gradually transpires that all the lodgers are in various ways connected with one another. The old lady in No.3 turns out to be the mother of the violinist in No.11. The novelist occupying the front bedroom is really the husband of the young lady in the third floor back. The fishy art-student is no less than this lady's brother. The solemn moonfaced person who is so very polite to everyone, happens to be butler to the crusty old colonel who, it appears, is the violinist's father. The gradual melting process continues through the art-student's being engaged to the fat little woman in No.5, and she is the old lady's daughter by a previous marriage. And when the amateur lawn-tennis champion in No.6 turns out to be the violinist's brother and the novelist their uncle and the old lady in No.3 the crusty old colonel's wife, then the numbers on the doors are quietly wiped out and the boarding-house motif is painlessly and smoothly replaced by that of a country-house, with all its natural implications. And here the tale takes on a strange beauty. The idea of time, which was made to look comic (detective losing his way… stranded somewhere in the night), now seems to curl up and fall asleep. Now the lives of the characters shine forth with a real and human significance and G. Abeson's sealed door is but that of a forgotten lumber room. A new plot, a new drama utterly unconnected with the opening of the story, which is thus thrust back into the region of dreams, seems to struggle for existence and break into light. But at the very moment when the reader feels quite safe in an atmosphere of pleasurable reality and the grace and glory of the author's prose seems to indicate some lofty and rich intention, there is a grotesque knocking at the door and the detective enters. We are again wallowing in a morass of parody. The detective, a shifty fellow, drops his h's, and this is meant to look as if it were meant to look quaint; for it is not a parody of the Sherlock Holmes vogue but a parody of the modern reaction from it. The lodgers are examined afresh. New clues are guessed at. Mild old Nosebag potters about, very absent-minded and harmless. (Chapter 10)

 

Half a dozen blood-stained handkerchiefs suggest tuberculosis, a disease that killed Keats at the age of twenty-five. Describing Sebastian’s youth, V. (Sebastian’s half-brother, the narrator and main character in TRLSK) mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan who translated into Russian Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci:'  

 

We did not hear from him very often, nor were his letters very long. During the three years at Cambridge, he visited us in Paris but twice – better say once, for the second time was when he came over for my mother's funeral. She and I talked of him fairly frequently, especially in the last years of her life, when she was quite aware of her approaching end. It was she who told me of Sebastian's strange adventure in 1917 of which I then knew nothing, as at the time I had happened to be on a holiday in the Crimea. It appears that Sebastian had developed a friendship with the futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa, a weird couple who rented a cottage close to our country estate near Luga. He was a noisy robust little man with a gleam of real talent concealed in the messy obscurity of his verse. But because he did his best to shock people with his monstrous mass of otiose words (he was the inventor of the 'submental grunt' as he called it), his main output seems now so nugatory, so false, so old-fashioned (super-modern things have a queer knack of dating much faster than others) that his true value is only remembered by a few scholars who admire the magnificent translations of English poems made by him at the very outset of his literary career – one of these at least being a very miracle of verbal transfusion: his Russian rendering of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. (Chapter 3)

 

The inscription on Keats's tombstone reads: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." In Khlebnikov's poem Pen pan ("The Master of Foams," 1915) the author's name is whispered by air:

 

У вод я подумал о бесе
И о себе,
Над озером сидя на пне.
Со мной разговаривал пен пан
И взора озёрного жемчуг
Бросает воздушный, могуч меж
Ивы,
Большой, как и вы.
И много невестнейших вдов вод
Преследовал ум мой, как овод,
Я, брезгая, брызгаю ими.

Моё восклицалося имя -
Шепча, изрицал его воздух.
Сквозь воздух умчаться не худ зов.
Я озеро бил на осколки
И после расспрашивал: «Сколько?»
И мир был прекрасно улыбен,
Но многого этого не было.
И свист пролетевших копыток
Напомнил мне много попыток
Прогнать исчезающий нечет
Среди исчезавших течений.

 

"A cretin of genius," Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was a Russian futurist poet. His surname comes from khlebnik (obs., baker), a word that comes from khleb (bread). The name Alexis Pan seems to hint at Khlebnikov not only through panis ("bread" in Latin), but – Pen pan being a poem by Khlebnikov – also through penis. In Pen pan the author is sitting nad ozerom na pne (on a tree stump above the lake; [p]en pan is na pne backwards). An ornithologist's son, Khlebnikov mentions in his poem svist proletevshikh kopytok (the piping of sandgrouses* that flew by). In the opening stanza of La Belle Dame Sans Merci (a ballad that was translated into Russian by VN) Keats mentions the knight, the lake and the birds:

 

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

 

Khlebnikov’s last book is entitled Chasy (“The Watch,” 1922). A bezel is "a grooved ring holding the cover of a watch face or other instrument in position" or "a groove holding the crystal of a watch or the stone of a gem in its setting." According to V., Sebastian disapproved of watches in his riper years:

 

As in Byron's dream, again the picture changes. It is night. The sky is alive with stars. Years later Sebastian wrote that gazing at the stars gave him a sick and squeamish feeling, as for instance when you look at the bowels of a ripped-up beast. But at the time, this thought of Sebastian's had not yet been expressed. It is very dark. Nothing can be discerned of what is possibly an alley in the park. Sombre mass on sombre mass and somewhere an owl hooting. An abyss of blackness where all of a sudden a small greenish circle moves up: the luminous dial of a watch (Sebastian disapproved of watches in his riper years). (Chapter 14)

 

At the end of Beppo (1818), a narrative poem in octaves, Lord Byron says: "My pen is at the bottom of the page."

 

At the 'immortal dinner' Keats proposed a toast to 'Newton's health, and confusion to mathematics' to the amusement of allDescribing Sebastian’s London flat, V. mentions a cigarette end in a glass ashtray left there by a certain Mr. McMath, house agent:

 

Then I examined the two main rooms. The dining-room was curiously impersonal, like all places where people eat – perhaps because food is our chief link with the common chaos of matter rolling about us. There was, it is true, a cigarette end in a glass ashtray, but it had been left there by a certain Mr. McMath, house agent. (Chapter 4)

 

In 1922 or 1923 Alexis Pan committed suicide with the aid of a pair of braces:

 

So one morning in early summer seventeen-year-old Sebastian disappeared, leaving my mother a short note which informed her that he was accompanying Pan and his wife on a journey to the East. At first she took it to be a joke (Sebastian, for all his moodiness, at times devised some piece of ghoulish fun, as when in a crowded tramcar he had the ticket-collector transmit to a girl in the far end of the car a scribbled message which really ran thus: I am only a poor ticket-collector, but I love you); when, however, she called upon the Pans she actually found that they had left. It transpired somewhat later that Pan's idea of a Marcopolian journey consisted in gently working eastwards from one provincial town to another, arranging in every one a 'lyrical surprise', that is, renting a hall (or a shed if no hall was available) and holding there a poetical performance whose net profit was supposed to get him, his wife, and Sebastian to the next town. It was never made clear in what Sebastian's functions, help or duties lay, or if he was merely supposed to hover around, to fetch things when needed and to be nice to Larissa, who had a quick temper and was not easily soothed. Alexis Pan generally appeared on the stage dressed in a morning coat, perfectly correct but for its being embroidered with huge lotus flowers. A constellation (the Greater Dog) was painted on his bald brow. He delivered his verse in a great booming voice which, coming from so small a man, made one think of a mouse engendering mountains. Next to him on the platform sat Larissa, a large equine woman in a mauve dress, sewing on buttons or patching up a pair of old trousers, the point being that she never did any of these things for her husband in everyday life. Now and then, between two poems, Pan would perform a slow dance – a mixture of Javanese wrist-play and his own rhythmic inventions. After recitals he got gloriously soused – and this was his undoing. The journey to the East ended in Simbirsk with Alexis dead-drunk and penniless in a filthy inn and Larissa and her tantrums locked up at the police-station for having slapped the face of some meddlesome official who had disapproved of her husband's noisy genius. Sebastian came home as nonchalantly as he had left. 'Any other boy,' added my mother, 'would have looked rather sheepish and rightly ashamed of the whole foolish affair,' but Sebastian talked of his trip as of some quaint incident of which he had been a dispassionate observer. Why he had joined in that ludicrous show and what in fact had led him to pal with that grotesque couple remained a complete mystery (my Mother thought that perhaps he had been ensnared by Larissa but the woman was perfectly plain, elderly, and violently in love with her freak of a husband). They dropped out of Sebastian's life soon after. Two or three years later Pan enjoyed a short artificial vogue in Bolshevik surroundings which was due I think to the queer notion (mainly based on a muddle of terms) that there is a natural connexion between extreme politics and extreme art. Then, in 1922 or 1923 Alexis Pan committed suicide with the aid of a pair of braces. (Chapter 3)

 

On December 28, 1925, Sergey Esenin hanged himself in his Hotel Angleterre room in Leningrad. Keats' 'immortal dinner' took place on Dec. 28, 1817.

 

*The bird's scientific name is Syrrhaptes paradoxus. Like Lord Henry (a character in The Picture of Dorian Gray), Oscar Wilde loved paradoxes.