Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027354, Sun, 16 Apr 2017 14:58:55 +0300

osskomina, vypolziny, Dr Starov & St. Damier in TRLSK
In a letter to V. (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel The Real
Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941) Sebastian Knight (a half-Russian English
author who wrote his last letter to his Russian half-brother in the latter’
s native tongue) mentioned osskomina (a word used in the phrase nabit’
oskominu, “set the teeth on edge”) and vypolziny (“shed snake-skins or
pupae shed by insects,” a rare word that can be found in Dahl’s

I am fed up [osskomina] with a number of tortuous things and especially with
the patterns of my shed snake-skins [vypolziny] so that now I find a poetic
solace in the obvious and the ordinary which for some reason or other I had
overlooked in the course of my life. (chapter 19)

Sebastian’s vypolziny bring to mind the opening and closing lines of
Gumilyov’s poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1921):

Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,

Чтоб душа старела и росла.

Мы, увы, со змеями не схожи,

Мы меняем души, не тела.

Only snakes shed their skin,

So their souls can age and grow.

We, alas, do not resemble snakes,

We change souls, not bodies.

Крикну я... но разве кто поможет,

Чтоб моя душа не умерла?

Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,

Мы меняем души, не тела.

I will cry out... but who can prevent

My soul from dying?

Only snakes shed their skin

We change souls, not bodies.

In one of his last articles, “Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya”*
(“Without Divinity, without Inspiration,” 1921), Alexander Blok criticizes
Gumilyov and the acmeists who, according to Blok, deliberately hush up what
is most significant and precious in them, the soul:

Когда отбросишь все эти горькие шутки, ст
ановится грустно; ибо Н. Гумилев и некотор
ые другие "акмеисты", несомненно даровиты
е, топят самих себя в холодном болоте безд
ушных теорий и всяческого формализма; они
спят непробудным сном без сновидений; они
не имеют и не желают иметь тени представл
ения о русской жизни и о жизни мира вообщ
е; в своей поэзии (а следовательно, и в себ
е самих) они замалчивают самое главное, ед
инственно ценное: душу. (3)

In his essay Blok mentions oskomina (one of Blok’s favorite words that also
occurs in his diaries):

Мы привыкли к окрошке, ботвинье и блинам,
и французская травка с уксусом в виде отд
ельного блюда может понравиться лишь гур
манам. Так и "чистая поэзия" лишь на минуту
возбуждает интерес и споры среди "специал
истов"; споры эти потухают так же быстро, к
ак вспыхнули, и после них остаётся одна ос
комина; а "большая публика", никакого учас
тия в этом не принимающая и не обязанная п
ринимать, а требующая только настоящих, ж
ивых художественных произведений, верхни
м чутьём догадывается, что в литературе н
е совсем благополучно, и начинает относит
ься к литературе новейшей совсем иначе, ч
ем к литературе старой. (1)

In his letter to V. Sebastian Knight used the word prednaznachalos’ (had
been destined):

This letter was begun almost a week ago, and up to the word "life" it had
been destined [prednaznachalos] to quite a different person. (chapter 19)

Blok’s famous Pushkinskaya rech’ (speech on Pushkin) written for the 84th
anniversary of Pushkin’s death is entitled O naznachenii poeta (“About the
Destination of a Poet,” 1921).

In his letter to V. Sebastian mentions old Dr Starov:

Lately I have been seeing a good deal of old Dr Starov, who treated maman
[so Sebastian called my mother]. I met him by chance one night in the
street, when I was taking a forced rest on the running-board of somebody's
parked car. He seemed to think that I had been vegetating in Paris since
maman's death, and I have agreed to his version of my émigré existence,
because [eeboh] any explanation seemed to me far too complicated. (ibid.)

Dr Starov brings to mind Dr Startsev, the main character in Chekhov’s story
Ionych (1898). On the other hand, old Dr Starov has the same
name-and-patronymic as Alexander Alexandrovich Blok:

Doctor Starov. Alexander Alexandrovich Starov. The train clattered over the
points, repeating those x's. (chapter 20)

The surname Starov comes from staryi (old). In his poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The
Twelve,” 1918) Blok mentions staryi mir (the old world) and compares it to
a mongrel dog:

Стоит буржуй, как пёс голодный,

Стоит безмолвный, как вопрос.

И старый мир, как пёс безродный,

Стоит за ним, поджавши хвост.

The bourgeois stands, like a hungry dog,

Wordless he stands, like a question mark.

And the old world stands, like a mongrel dog,

Right behind him, its tail between its legs. (9)

(transl. Maria Carlson)

Pyos golodnyi (a hungry dog) and pyos bezrodnyi (a mongrel dog) bring to
mind lokhmatyi pyos (a shaggy dog) that accompanies the visitor (“that
gentleman”) and that remains with the author in Blok’s poem Osenniy vecher
byl… (“It was an autumnal evening...” 1912). On the other hand, Bol’shoy
Pyos is the Russian name of the Greater Dog, a constellation painted on the
bald brow of Alexis Pan (a futurist poet with whom Sebastian in the summer
of 1917 traveled to the East) when he appeared on the stage:

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. (Chapter 3)

The Russian name Starov has the English star in it.

In his poem V oktyabre (“In October,” 1906) Blok twice uses the phrase po
staromu, byvalomu (in the old usual way):

Всё, всё по старому, бывалому,
И будет как всегда:
Лошадке и мальчишке малому
Не сладки холода…

Everything, everything is in the old usual way,

And will be as ever:

To the little horse and to the little boy

Cold times are not pleasant.

Лечу, лечу к мальчишке малому,
Средь вихря и огня…
Всё, всё по старому, бывалому,
Да только ― без меня!

I fly, I fly to the little boy,

amidst the whirlwind and fire…

Everything, everything in the old usual way

But only \xa8C without me!

Blok’s poem begins as follows:

Открыл окно. Какая хмурая
Столица в октябре!
Забитая лошадка бурая
Гуляет на дворе.

I opened my window. How dull

Is the capital in October!

A downtrodden little horse

Walks to and fro in the courtyard.

At the end of his letter to V. Sebastian mentioned those bare branches and
twigs which he saw from his window:

So forgive me if I bore you [dokoochayou], but somehow I don't much like
those bare branches and twigs which I see from my window. (chapter 19)

In Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (One: III: 12) Monsieur l’Abbé (Onegin’s
French tutor) ne dokuchal (bothered not) the child with stern moralization.
In Chapter Five of EO (II: 1-14), the stanza that often appears in Russian
schoolbooks as a separate poem entitled Winter, Pushkin mentions a peasant’
s loshadka (little horse) and dvorovyi mal’chik (a household lad) who has
frozen a finger. In Chapter Four ( XXVI: 9-14) of EO Lenski plays chess with
Olga and 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.

Sebastian Knight wrote his letter to V. and died in a sanatorium in St
Damier (near Paris). Damier is French for “chess board:”

Would I never get to Sebastian? Who were those idle idiots who wrote on the
wall 'Death to the Jews' or 'Vive le front populaire', or left obscene
drawings? Some anonymous artist had begun blacking squares \xa8C a chess board,
ein Schachbrett, un damier…. There was a flash in my brain and the word
settled on my tongue: St Damier! (chapter 20)

The name of Blok’s family estate in the Province of Moscow, Shakhmatovo,
comes from shakhmaty (chess). On the other hand, it brings to mind Anna
Akhmatova, Gumilyov’s first wife whose poem Seroglazyi korol’ (“The
Gray-Eyed King,” 1910) begins as follows:

Слава тебе, безысходная боль!
Умер вчера сероглазый король.

Glory to you, inescapable pain!

The gray-eyed king died yesterday.

In terms of chess, Sebastian Knight (who used to draw a black knight to sign
his writings) is korol’ (the king) and Nina Lecerf (Sebastian’s mistress),
ferz’ (the queen). It seems that, before turning towards V., Sebastian’s
letter (that can be compared to a castling made after an inordinately long
meditation) “had been destined” to the woman he loved (and who, like V.,
is Russian). In her conversation with V. (who does not suspect that his
interlocutor is Russian) Mme Lecerf uses the French idiom bonne comme le bon
pain (as good as good bread):

We were silent for quite a long time. Alas, I had no more doubts, though the
picture of Sebastian was atrocious \xa8C but then, too, I had got it

'Yes,' I said, 'I shall see her at all costs. And this for two reasons.
Firstly, because I want to ask her a certain question \xa8C one question only.
And secondly '

'Yes?' said Madame Lecerf sipping her cold tea. 'Secondly?'

'Secondly, I am at a loss to imagine how such a woman could attract my
brother; so I want to see her with my own eyes.'

'Do you mean to say,' asked Madame Lecerf, 'that you think she is a
dreadful, dangerous woman? Une femme fatale? Because, you know, that's not
so. She's good as good bread.' (chapter 16)

In his poem Shestoe chuvstvo (“The Sixth Sense,” 1920) Gumilyov mentions
dobryi khleb (the good bread) baked for our sake:

Прекрасно в нас влюблённое вино
И добрый хлеб, что в печь для нас садится,
И женщина, которою дано,
Сперва измучившись, нам насладиться.

Fine is the wine enamored of us,

and the good bread baked for our sake,

and the woman who delights us

when she's finished her tweaking games.

(transl. Burton Raffel)

It must have been some “sixth sense” (or, perhaps, the spirit of his
Russian step-mother) that made Sebastian change his mind and write to his
brother instead of writing to his mistress. In his book Na vesakh Iova (“In
Job’s Balances,” 1929) Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose pseudonym comes
from shest’, “six”) quotes a Russian saying sprosi ne starogo, sprosi
byvalogo (ask not the aged, ask him who knows about life):

Есть замечательная русская поговорка: сп
роси не старого, спроси бывалого. Думаю, ч
то философам, так много спорившим об апри
орном и апостериорном знании, не мешало б
ы прислушаться иной раз к голосу народной
мудрости. Старый, долго живший, но мало ви
девший человек склонен к априорному мышл
ению. Он верит в неизменные принципы, в пр
очный строй жизни \xa8C так верит, что склонен
считать свои убеждения априорными, даже в
рожденными, внушенными богами. ?Опытом? он
пренебрегает \xa8C ему кажется, что под солнц
ем не бывает ничего нового, что все то, что
есть, уже много раз было и много раз еще бу
дет. Бывалый знает другое: он в качестве б
ывалого сам, своими глазами видел такое, ч
ему бы никогда не поверил, если бы именно
сам не видел. Кант жил до 80 лет. Ницше толь
ко до 44. Но насколько Ницше опытнее Канта!

There is an excellent Russian proverb: "Ask not the aged, ask him who knows
about life." I think that it would not hurt philosophers, who have argued so
much about a priori and a posteriori knowledge, to listen now and then to
the voice of popular wisdom. An aged man who, in his many days, has yet seen
little of life, inclines to a priori thinking. He believes in unalterable
principles, in a rigid construction of life - believes so firmly that he is
inclined to hold his convictions for a priori, even innate, given by the
gods. He despises "experience", thinks that there is nothing new under the
sun, that all that is has often been and will often happen again. The
knowledge of the experienced in life is different: as a man experienced in
life, he has seen with his own eyes things that he would never have believed
if he had not seen them himself. Kant lived to eighty, Nietzsche only to
forty-four. But how much more experienced was Nietzsche than Kant! (23)

In Pushkin’s EO (Two: VI: 8) Lenski is poklonnik Kanta i poet (Kant’s
votary, and a poet). Lenski is only eighteen, when he is killed in his duel
with Onegin. In the description of the Onegin-Lenski duel in Chapter Six of
EO Pushkin predicted his own fatal duel with d’Anthès. Pushkin died in
January (OS) of 1837, aged thirty-seven. Sebastian Knight (who was born on
December 31, 1899, and died in the very beginning of 1936) was thirty-six.
Lev Shestov (who was born in 1866 and died on November 19, 1938) was twice
as old. VN began writing TRLSK in December of 1938, soon after Shestov’s

Like Nietzsche, Chekhov lived only to forty-four. Nina Lecerf (alias Mme de
Rechnoy) brings to mind Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov’s play
Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896). In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz
nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905) Shestov says that one of Chekhov’
s most remarkable works is his play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896):

Одним из самых характерных для Чехова, а п
отому и замечательных его произведений д
олжна считаться его драма “Чайка”. В ней с
наибольшей полнотой получило своё выраже
ние истинное отношение художника к жизни.

According to Shestov, in “The Seagull” the artist’s real attitude to life
was expressed most fully.

In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov says that the works of
contemporary writers lack the alcohol that would intoxicate the reader and
modestly compares his story Palata № 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) to lemonade. In
Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) the drunks with the eyes of
rabbits cry out: “In vino veritas!” At the beginning of his essay “Bez
bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya” Blok mentions Leo Tolstoy (the writer who
lived to the age of eighty-two) and Chekhov:

Среди широкой публики очень распростране
но мнение, что новая русская изящная лите
ратура находится в упадке. Последнее имя,
которое произносится с убеждением людьм
и, стоящими совершенно вне литературы, ес
ть имя Льва Толстого. Всё позднейшее - увы,
даже и Чехов, - по меньшей мере спорно; бол
ьшая же часть писателей, о которых много г
оворила критика, за которыми числятся дес
ятки лет литературной работы, просто неиз
вестны по имени за пределами того сравнит
ельно узкого круга людей, который составл
яет "интеллигенцию". Пожалуй, нельзя сказа
ть даже этого; есть люди, считающие себя и
нтеллигентными и имеющие на это право, ко
торые вовсе не знают, однако, имён многих "
известных" современных писателей. (1)

Shestov’s book “In Job’s Balances” brings to mind na pushkinskikh vesakh
(on Pushkin’s scales), a phrase used by VN at the end of his poem
Neokonchennyi chernovik** (“An Unfinished Draft,” 1931):

Поэт, печалью промышляя,

твердит прекрасному: прости!

Он говорит, что жизнь земная -

слова на поднятой в пути -

откуда вырванной? - странице

(не знаем и швыряем прочь),

или пролёт мгновенный птицы

чрез светлый зал из ночи в ночь.

Зоил (пройдоха величавый,

корыстью занятый одной)

и литератор площадной

(тревожный арендатор славы)

меня страшатся потому,

что зол я, холоден и весел,

что не служу я никому,

что жизнь и честь мою я взвесил

на пушкинских весах, и честь

осмеливаюсь предпочесть.

According to VN, he has weighed his life and his honor on Pushkin’s scales
and dares to prefer honor.

At the end of TRLSK Sebastian’s brother discovers that a soul is but a
manner of being and that any soul may be yours:

So I did not see Sebastian after all, or at least I did not see him alive.
But those few minutes I spent listening to what I thought was his breathing
changed my life as completely as it would have been changed, had Sebastian
spoken to me before dying. Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret
too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being \xa8C not a constant
state \xa8C that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.
The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen
soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their
interchangeable burden. Thus \xa8C I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were
impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and
going \xa8C the dim figures of the few friends he had, the scholar, and the
poet, and the painter \xa8C smoothly and noiselessly paying their graceful
tribute; and here is Goodman, the flat-footed buffoon, with his dicky
hanging out of his waistcoat; and there \xa8C the pale radiance of Clare's
inclined head, as she is led away weeping by a friendly maiden. They moved
round Sebastian \xa8C round me who am acting Sebastian \xa8C and the old conjuror
waits in the wings with his hidden rabbit: and Nina sits on a table in the
brightest corner of the stage, with a wineglass of fuchsined water, under a
painted palm. And then the masquerade draws to a close. The bald little
prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. They
all go back to their everyday life (and Clare goes back to her grave) \xa8C but
the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part:
Sebastian's mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I
am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither
of us knows. (chapter 20)

At the beginning of VN’s novel the narrator is a black pawn that on an
imaginary chess board occupies the white square B7 (in front of the black
knight on the black square B8). At the end of the novel he reaches the first
rank (presumably, ending up on the black square A1) and turns into a knight
(as often happens in chess problems). In his poem Vozmezdie
(“Retribution,” 1910-21) Blok mentions all those people who ceased to be
peshki (the pawns) and whom the authorities hasten v tur prevrashchat’ ili
v koney (to promote to the rooks or to the knights):

И власть торопится скорей
Всех тех, кто перестал быть пешкой,
В тур превращать, или в коней… (Chapter One, ll.

According to Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy (Mme Lecerf’s former husband), when he
first met his wife, her name was Nina Toorovetz:

'Well, when I met her her name was Nina Toorovetz \xa8C but whether \xa8C 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)

The surname Toorovets seems to hint at tura (obs., rook), a chessman
mentioned by Blok in “Retribution,” and at Turati, a grandmaster in VN’s
novel Zaschita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1931). At the end of VN’s
novel Luzhin commits suicide by falling to his death from the bathroom
window. The ground on which Luzhin is about to fall resembles a chess board:

После многих усилий он оказался в странно
м и мучительном положении: одна нога висе
ла снаружи, где была другая \xa8C неизвестно,
а тело никак не хотело протиснуться. Руба
шка на плече порвалась, все лицо было мокр
ое. Уцепившись рукой за что-то вверху, он б
оком пролез в пройму окна. Теперь обе ноги
висели наружу, и надо было только отпусти
ть то, за что он держался, \xa8C и спасён. Прежд
е чем отпустить, он глянул вниз. Там шло ка
кое-то торопливое подготовление: собирал
ись, выравнивались отражения окон, вся бе
здна распадалась на бледные и темные квад
раты, и в тот миг, что Лужин разжал руки, в
тот миг, что хлынул в рот стремительный ле
дяной воздух, он увидел, какая именно вечн
ость угодливо и неумолимо раскинулась пе
ред ним.

After many efforts he found himself in a strange and mortifying position:
one leg hung outside, and he did not know where the other one was, while his
body would in no wise be squeezed through. His shirt had torn at the
shoulder, his face was wet. Clutching with one hand at something overhead,
he got through the window sideways. Now both legs were hanging outside and
he had only to let go of what he was holding on to ― and he was saved.
Before letting go he looked down. Some kind of hasty

preparations were under way there: the window reflections gathered together
and leveled themselves out, the whole chasm was seen to divide into dark and
pale squares, and at the instant when Luzhin unclenched his hand, at the
instant when icy air gushed into his mouth, he saw exactly what kind of
eternity was obligingly and inexorably spread out before him. (Chapter XIV)

According to Sebastian Knight, he did not much like the view in the window
of his room in the St Damier hospital.

*a line in Pushkin’s poem K*** (“To***,” 1825)

**included in Poems and Problems (1970)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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