Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027315, Fri, 3 Mar 2017 13:04:20 +0300

chess, Uncle Black, Mr Goodman & Nina Toorovetz in TRLSK
According to Sebastian’s half-brother V. (the narrator in VN’s novel The
Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941), there is an occult resemblance between
a man and the date of his death:

I have managed to reconstruct more or less the last year of Sebastian's
life: 1935. He died in the very beginning of 1936, and as I look at this
figure I cannot help thinking that there is an occult resemblance between a
man and the date of his death. Sebastian Knight d. 1936.... This date to me
seems the reflection of that name in a pool of rippling water. There is
something about the curves of the last three numerals that recalls the
sinuous outlines of Sebastian's personality.... (chapter 19)

Sebastian Knight, who was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, died
at the age of thirty-six. VN began writing TRLSK in December of 1938. On
November 19, 1938, Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose pseudonym comes from
shest’, “six”) died in Paris. Shestov, who was born in 1866, died at the
age of seventy-two. 72 = 36 × 2 = 12 × 6 = 8 × 8 + 8. In VN’s novel Dar
(“The Gift,” 1937) Fyodor decides to write a book on Chernyshevski after
reading an article in the Soviet chess magazine 8 × 8:

А как-то через несколько дней ему под руку
попался всё тот же шахматный журнальчик,
он перелистал его, ища недостроенных мес
т, и, когда оказалось, что всё уже сделано,
пробежал глазами отрывок в два столбца из
дневника Чернышевского; пробежал, улыбну
лся и стал сызнова читать с интересом. Заб
авно-обстоятельный слог, кропотливо вкра
пленные наречия, страсть к точке с запято
й, застревание мысли в предложении и нело
вкие попытки её оттуда извлечь (причём он
а сразу застревала в другом месте, и автор
у приходилось опять возиться с занозой), д
олбящий, бубнящий звук слов, ходом коня пе
редвигающийся смысл в мелочном толковани
и своих мельчайших действий, прилипчивая
нелепость этих действий (словно у человек
а руки были в столярном клее, и обе были ле
вые), серьёзность, вялость, честность, бед
ность, -- всё это так понравилось Федору Ко
нстантиновичу, его так поразило и развесе
лило допущение, что автор, с таким умствен
ным и словесным стилем, мог как-либо повли
ять на литературную судьбу России, что на
другое же утро он выписал себе в государс
твенной библиотеке полное собрание сочин
ений Чернышевского. По мере того, как он ч
итал, удивление его росло, и в этом чувств
е было своего рода блаженство.

But a few days later he happened to come across that same copy of 8 × 8; he
leafed through it, looking for unfinished bits, and when all the problems
turned out to be solved, he ran his eyes over the two-column extract from
Chernyshevski’s youthful diary; he glanced through it, smiled, and began to
read it over with interest. The drolly circumstantial style, the
meticulously inserted adverbs, the passion for semicolons, the bogging down
of thought in midsentence and the clumsy attempts to extricate it (whereupon
it got stuck at once elsewhere, and the author had to start worrying it out
all over again), the drubbing-in, rubbing-in tone of each word, the
knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions, the
viscid ineptitude of these actions (as if some workshop glue had got onto
the man’s hands, and both were left), the seriousness, the limpness, the
honesty, the poverty-all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and
tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was
considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia, that on the
very next morning he signed out the complete works of Chernyshevski from the
state library. And as he read, his astonishment grew, and this feeling
contained a peculiar kind of bliss. (Chapter Three)

Note “the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest

The name Chernyshevski comes from chyornyi (black). Shestov’s real name was
Schwarzmann. Schwarz is German for “black.” The characters of TRLSK
include Uncle Black (as V. calls Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy’s cousin). When V.
visits Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy, the latter is playing chess with his cousin:

The door at which I rang was opened by a lean, tall, shock-headed man in his
shirtsleeves and with a brass stud at his collarless throat. He held a
chessman - a black knight - in his hand. I greeted him in Russian.

'Come in, come in,' he said cheerfully, as if he had been expecting me.

'My name is so-and-so,' I said.

'And mine,' he cried, 'is Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy' - and he guffawed heartily
as if it were a good joke. 'If you please,' he said, pointing with the
chessman to an open door.

I was ushered into a modest room with a sewing machine standing in one
corner and a faint smell of ribbon-and-linen in the air. A heavily built man
was sitting sideways at a table on which an oilcloth chessboard was spread,
with pieces too large for the squares. He looked at them askance while the
empty cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth looked the other way. A
pretty little boy of four or five was kneeling on the floor, surrounded by
tiny motor cars. Pahl Pahlich chucked the black knight on to the table and
its head came off. Black carefully screwed it on again.

'Sit down,' said Pahl Pahlich. 'This is my cousin,' he added. Black bowed. I
sat down on the third (and last) chair. The child came up to me and silently
showed me a new red-and-blue pencil. (Chapter 15)

Uncle Black is apparently a former racing motorist who works as a taxi
driver in Paris:

The child, finding that I had been sufficiently interested in his pictures,
wandered off to his uncle, who at once took him on his knee and proceeded to
draw with incredible rapidity and very beautifully a racing car.

'You are an artist,' I said - to say something.

Pahl Pahlich, who was rinsing glasses in the tiny kitchen, laughed and
shouted over his shoulder: 'Oh, he's an all-round genius. He can play the
violin standing upon his head, and he can multiply one telephone number by
another in three seconds, and he can write his name upside down in his
ordinary hand.'

'And he can drive a taxi,' said the child, dangling its thin, dirty little
legs. (ibid.)

In his memoir essay “Chekhov” (1914) Bunin quotes Chekhov’s words that in
Perm all cabmen resemble Dobrolyubov:

- А кстати: вы знаете, что в Перми все извоз
чики похожи на Добролюбова?

- Вы не любите Добролюбова?

- Нет, люблю. Это же порядочные были люди. Н
е то что Скабичевский, который писал, что
я умру под забором от пьянства, так как у м
еня "искры божьей нет".

A radical critic, Dobrolyubov is a character in Fyodor’s “Life of
Chernyshevski” (Chapter Four of “The Gift”). Dobro being Russian for
“good” (a noun), the name Dobrolyubov brings to mind Mr. Goodman, the
author of The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. In his book Mr. Goodman tells
several stories that he heard from Sebastian (who was pulling the leg of his
future biographer):

Fourth: Sebastian in the summer of 1922 had overworked himself and,
suffering from hallucinations, used to see a kind of optical ghost - a
black-robed monk moving swiftly towards him from the sky.

This is a little harder: a short story by Chekhov. (Chapter 7)

A short story by Chekhov unknown to Mr. Goodman is Chyornyi monakh (“The
Black Monk,” 1894). In Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Five: VI: 8-14) Tatiana is
afraid of meeting a black monk:

Когда случалось где-нибудь
Ей встретить черного монаха
Иль быстрый заяц меж полей
Перебегал дорогу ей,
Не зная, что начать со страха,
Предчувствий горестных полна,
Ждала несчастья уж она.

When anywhere she happened

a black monk to encounter,

Or ’mongst the fields a rapid hare

would run across her path,

so scared she knew not what to undertake,

with sorrowful forebodings filled,

directly she expected sonic mishap.

In Chapter Four (XXVI: 9-14) of EO Lenski plays chess with Olga and Lenski
with a pawn takes in abstraction his own rook:

Уединясь от всех далёко,
Они над шахматной доской,
На стол облокотясь, порой
Сидят, задумавшись глубоко,
И Ленской пешкою ладью
Берёт в рассеяньи свою.

Secluded far from everybody,

over the chessboard they,

their elbows on the table, sometimes

sit deep in thought,

and Lenski with a pawn

takes in abstraction his own rook.

In Russian, “rook” is sometimes called tura (cf. Turati, Luzhin’s
opponent in VN’s novel “The Luzhin Defense”). According to Pahl Pahlich
Rechnoy, the name of his first wife when he first met her was Nina

'Well, when I met her her name was Nina Toorovetz - but whether - No, I
think, you won't find her. As a matter of fact, I often catch myself
thinking that she has never existed. I told Varvara Mitrofanna about her,
and she said it was merely a bad dream after seeing a bad cinema film. Oh,
you are not going yet, are you? She'll be back in a minute….' He looked at
me and laughed (I think he had had a little too much of that brandy).
(chapter 15)

While Nina Rechnoy brings to mind Nina Zarechnyi (a character in Chekhov’s
play “The Seagull,” 1896), the surname Toorovets seems to hint at tura.

According to V., Mr. Goodman’s face looks like a cow’s udder:

'I knew Mr Knight quite well,' she [Helen Pratt] added, looking at me with
bright round eyes.
'Oh, really,' said I, not quite knowing what else to say.
'Yes,' she went on, 'he was an amazing personality, and I don't mind telling
you that I loathed Goodman's book about him.'
'What do you mean?' I asked. 'What book?'
'Oh, the one he has just written. I was going over the proofs with him this
last week. Well, I must be running. Thank you so much.'
She darted away and very slowly I descended the steps. Mr Goodman's large
soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow's udder. (chapter 6)

In his poem Shekspir (“Shakespeare,” 1924) VN compares Falstaff’s face to
an udder with pasted-on mustache:

Надменно-чужд тревоге театральной,

ты отстранил легко и беспечально

в сухой венок свивающийся лавр

и скрыл навек чудовищный свой гений

под маскою, но гул твоих видений

остался нам: венецианский мавр

и скорбь его; лицо Фальстафа - вымя

с наклеенными усиками; Лир


Haughty, aloof from theatre’s alarums,
you easily, regretlessly relinquished
the laurels twinning into a dry wreath,
concealing for all time your monstrous genius
beneath a mask; and yet, your phantasm’s echoes
still vibrate for us; your Venetian Moor,
his anguish; Falstaff’s visage, like an udder
with pasted-on mustache; the raging Lear…

One of the stories that Mr. Goodman tells in his book is a parody of
Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Third story: Sebastian speaking of his very first novel (unpublished and
destroyed) explained that it was about a fat young student who travels home
to find his mother married to his uncle; this uncle, an ear-specialist, had
murdered the student's father.

Mr Goodman misses the joke. (chapter 7)

The name Sebastian Knight hints at Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother in
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In TRLSK V. managed to find out that on the
morning of Sebastian’s birth the temperature was twelve degrees below zero:

Therefore I am able to state that the morning of Sebastian's birth was a
fine windless one, with twelve degrees (Reaumur) below zero… this is all,
however, that the good lady found worth setting down. (chapter 1)

Sebastian Knight was born in St. Petersburg (VN’s home city). In Pushkin’s
poem Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) the action takes place
during the disastrous St. Petersburg flood of 1824 and the hero addresses
Falconet’s equestrian monument of Peter I with the words:

Dobro, stroitel' chudotvornyi!

(All right, you wondrous builder!)

The cover of the first edition of VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The
Luzhin Defense,” 1930) shows the Bronze Horseman. The name Luzhin comes
from luzha (pool). According to V., the date of Sebastian’s death seems to
him the reflection of Sebastian’s name in a pool of rippling water.

In his memoir essay on Chekhov Bunin mentions Shakespeare:

Говоря о Толстом, он как-то сказал:

- Чем я особенно в нём восхищаюсь, так это
его презрением ко всем нам, прочим писате
лям, или, лучше сказать, не презрением, а т
ем, что он всех нас, прочих писателей, счит
ает совершенно за ничто. Вот он иногда хва
лит Мопассана, Куприна, Семёнова, меня... О
тчего хвалит? Оттого, что он смотрит на на
с как на детей. Наши повести, рассказы, ром
аны для него детские игры, и поэтому он, в
сущности, одними глазами глядит и на Мопа
ссана и на Семенова. Вот Шекспир - другое д
ело. Это уже взрослый и раздражает его, чт
о пишет не по-толстовски...

According to Chekhov (whose words Bunin quotes), Tolstoy (for whom all other
writers are children) is annoyed by Shakespeare because he is grown-up and
dares to write not like Tolstoy. Tolstoy (1928) is a poem by VN written for
the centenary of Tolstoy’s birth. Its closing lines remind one of the
ending of VN’s poem Shakespeare:

И он ушёл, разборчивый творец,

на голоса прозрачные деливший

гул бытия, ему понятный гул...

Однажды он со станции случайной

в неведомую сторону свернул,

и дальше - ночь, безмолвие и тайна...

And he is gone, meticulous creator

who into lucid voices separated

the din of being, a din he understood…

One day, from a chance railroad station, he

turned off toward the unknown and left for good;

beyond lies night, silence, and mystery…

Tolstoy died on November 7, 1910, seven years before the October Coup of
1917. In his essay on Chekhov Bunin quotes Chekhov’s words that after
Tolstoy’s death everything will go to the devil, including literature:

Вот умрет Толстой, всё к чёрту пойдет! - го
ворил он не раз.

- Литература?

- И литература.

According to Bunin, in the spring of 1903, during one of their last
meetings, Chekhov told him that his books will be read only for seven years
(or seven and a half):

Знаете, сколько лет ещё будут читать меня?

- Почему семь? - спросил я.

- Ну, семь с половиной.

In his essay Bunin points out that one of the best articles on Chekhov was
written by Shestov (who calls Chekhov “a merciless talent”):

Одна из самых лучших статей о нём принадл
ежит Шестову, который называет его беспощ
аднейшим талантом.

Shestov’s essay on Chekhov is entitled Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation
from Nothing,” 1905). In his poem Gorit zvezda, drozhit efir (“The star
shines, the ether shivers…” 1921) Khodasevich says that he creates from
nothing (i ya tvoryu iz nichego) God’s seas, deserts, mountains and then
destroys them, like a child:

Горит звезда, дрожит эфир,

Таится ночь в пролеты арок.

Как не любить весь этот мир,

Невероятный Твой подарок?

Ты дал мне пять неверных чувств,

Ты дал мне время и пространство,

Играет в мареве искусств

Моей души непостоянство.

И я творю из ничего

Твои моря, пустыни, горы,

Всю славу солнца Твоего,

Так ослепляющего взоры.

И разрушаю вдруг шутя

Всю эту пышную нелепость,

Как рушит малое дитя

Из карт построенную крепость.

In Khodasevich’s poem Sorrentinskie fotografii (“The Sorrento
Photographs,” 1926) included in Evropeyskaya noch’ (“The European
Night”) the Bronze Horseman is reflected upside down (in TRLSK Uncle Black
can write his name upside down in his ordinary hand) in the gulf of Naples,
as it was once reflected in the Neva:

И отражён кастелламарской

Зеленоватою волной,

Огромный страж России царской

Вниз опрокинут головой.

Так отражался он Невой,

Зловещий, огненный и мрачный,

Таким явился предо мной -

Ошибка плёнки неудачной.

As in “The Luzhin Defense,” in TRLSK VN turns Falconet’s equestrian
monument of Peter I into a black knight (chessman).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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