Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027365, Sat, 22 Apr 2017 18:54:27 +0300

Sebastian Knight's simple Russian name
According to V. (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941), during his interview with Mr Goodman (Sebastian Knight’s former secretary) the latter tried to pronounce his (and Sebastian’s) simple Russian name:

'Pray be seated,' he said, courteously waving me into a leather armchair near his desk. He was remarkably well-dressed though decidedly with a city flavour. A black mask covered his face. 'What can I do for you?' He went on looking at me through the eyeholes and still holding my card.
I suddenly realized that my name conveyed nothing to him. Sebastian had made his mother's name his own completely.
'I am,' I answered, 'Sebastian Knight's half-brother.' There was a short silence.
'Let me see,' said Mr Goodman, 'am I to understand, that you are referring to the late Sebastian Knight, the well-known author?'
'Exactly,' said I.
Mr Goodman with finger and thumb stroked his face.... I mean the face under his mask... stroked it down, down, reflectively.'
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'but are you quite sure that there is not some mistake?'
'None whatever,' I replied, and in as few words as possible I explained my relationship to Sebastian.
'Oh, is that so?' said Mr Goodman, growing more and more pensive. 'Really, really, it never entered my head. I was certainly quite aware that Knight was born and brought up in Russia. But I somehow missed the point about his name. Yes, now I see... Yes, it ought to be a Russian one.... His mother....'
Mr Goodman drummed the blotting-pad for a minute with his fine white fingers and then faintly sighed.
'Well, what's done is done,' he remarked. 'Too late now to add a... I mean,' he hurriedly continued, 'that I'm sorry not to have gone into the matter before. So you are his half-brother? Well, I am delighted to meet you.''

First of all,' I said, 'I should like to settle the business question. Mr Knight's papers, at least those that refer to his literary occupations, are not in very great order and I don't quite know exactly how things stand. I haven't yet seen his publishers, but I gather that at least one of them — the firm that brought out The Funny Mountain — no longer exists. Before going further into the matter I thought I'd better have a talk with you.'

'Quite so,' said Mr Goodman. 'As a matter of fact you may not be cognizant of my having interest in two Knight books, The Funny Mountain and Lost Property. Under the circumstances the best thing would be for me to give you some details which I can send you by letter tomorrow morning as well as a copy of my contract with Mr Knight. Or should I call him Mr...' and smiling under his mask Mr Goodman tried to pronounce our simple Russian name.

'Then there is another matter,' I continued. 'I have decided to write a book on his life and work, and I sorely need certain information. Could you perhaps....'
It seemed to me that Mr Goodman stiffened Then he coughed once or twice and even went as far as to select a blackcurrant lozenge from a small box on his distinguished-looking desk.
'My dear Sir,' he said, suddenly veering together with his seat and whirling his eyeglass on his ribbon. 'Let us be perfectly outspoken. I have certainly known poor Knight better than anyone else, but... look here, have your started writing that book?'
'No,' I said.
'Then don't. You must excuse my being so very blunt. An old habit — a bad habit, perhaps. You don't mind, do you? Well, what I mean is... how should I put it?... You see, Sebastian Knight was not what you might call a great writer.... Oh, yes, I know — a fine artist and all that — but with no appeal to the general public. I don't wish to say that a book could not be written about him. It could. But then it ought to be written from a special point of view which would make the subject fascinating. Otherwise it is bound to fall flat, because, you see, I really don't think that Sebastian Knight's fame is strong enough to sustain anything like the work you are contemplating.' (chapter 6)

V. does not yet know that Mr Goodman just wrote a book about Sebastian Knight. Goodman’s biography of V.’s half-brother is entitled The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. In his speech on Pushkin, O naznachenii poeta (“About the Destination of a Poet,” 1921), Alexander Blok says that a poet’s part is not easy and funny, it is tragic:

Пушкин так легко и весело умел нести своё творческое бремя, несмотря на то, что роль поэта - не лёгкая и не весёлая; она трагическая; Пушкин вёл свою роль широким, уверенным и вольным движением, как большой мастер; и, однако, у нас часто сжимается сердце при мысли о Пушкине: праздничное и триумфальное шествие поэта, который не мог мешать внешнему, ибо дело его - внутреннее - культура, - это шествие слишком часто нарушалось мрачным вмешательством людей, для которых печной горшок дороже Бога.

According to V., during the conversation with him Mr Goodman wears a black mask. In his poem Zdes’ i tam (“Here and There”) included in the cycle Snezhnaya maska (“The Snow Mask,” 1907) Blok mentions chyornye maski (the black masks), koni (horses) and kto-to belyi (someone white):

Ветер звал и гнал погоню,

Чёрных масок не догнал...

Были верны наши кони,

Кто-то белый помогал...

Russian for “horse,” kon’ also means “knight” (a chessman).

According to V., “Mr Goodman's large soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow's udder.” In his poem “Shakespeare” (1924) VN says that Shakespeare concealed his monstrous genius beneath a mask and compares Falstaff’s face to an udder with pasted-on mustache. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Sebastian is the name Viola’s twin brother. Blok is the author of Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918). One of Blok’s poems begins: Ya – Gamlet. Kholodeet krov’… (“I am Hamlet. Freezes blood…” 1914). In his youth Blok played Hamlet in an amateur stage version of Shakespeare’s play in his family estate Shakhmatovo (in the Province of Moscow). The place name Shakhmatovo comes from shakhmaty (chess).

In Teni na stene (“Shadows on the Wall”), another poem in the cycle “The Snow Mask,” Blok mentions rytsar’ (the knight):

Вот прошёл король с зубчатым

Пляшущим венцом.

Шут прошёл в плаще крылатом

С круглым бубенцом.

Дамы с шлейфами, пажами,

В розовых тенях.

Рыцарь с тёмными цепями

На стальных руках...

Ах, к походке вашей, рыцарь,
‎Шёл бы длинный меч!

Под забралом вашим, рыцарь,
‎Нежный взор желанных встреч!

Ах, петуший гребень, рыцарь,
‎Ваш украсил шлем!

Ах, скажите, милый рыцарь,
‎Вы пришли зачем?

К нашим сказкам, милый рыцарь,
‎Приклоните слух...

Эти розы, милый рыцарь,
‎Подарил мне друг.

Эти розаны — мне, рыцарь,
‎Милый друг принёс...

Ах, вы сами в сказке, рыцарь!
‎Вам не надо роз...

In Oni chitayut stikhi (“They are Reading Verses”), a poem also included in “The Snow Mask,” Blok mentions rifm vesyolykh ogon’ki (“the lights of gay rhymes):

Смотри: я спутал все страницы,
Пока глаза твои цвели.
Большие крылья снежной птицы
Мой ум метелью замели.

Как странны были речи маски!
Понятны ли тебе? - Бог весть!
Ты твёрдо знаешь: в книгах - сказки,
А в жизни - только проза есть.

Но для меня неразделимы
С тобою - ночь, и мгла реки,
И застывающие дымы,
И рифм весёлых огоньки.

Не будь и ты со мною строгой
И маской не дразни меня,
И в тёмной памяти не трогай
Иного - страшного - огня.

In his poem Poety (“The Poets,” 1939) VN mentions fosfornye rifmy poslednikh stikhov (the phosphorent rhymes of our last verse):

Из комнаты в сени свеча переходит

и гаснет. Плывёт отпечаток в глазах,

пока очертаний своих не находит

беззвездная ночь в темно-синих ветвях.

Пора, мы уходим - ещё молодые,

со списком ещё не приснившихся снов,

с последним, чуть зримым сияньем России

на фосфорных рифмах последних стихов…

From room to hallway a candle passes
and is extinguished. Its imprint swims in one's eyes,
until, among the blue-black branches,
a starless night its contours finds.

It is time, we are going away: still youthful,
with a list of dreams not yet dreamt,
with the last, hardly visible radiance of Russia
on the phosphorent rhymes of our last verse…

VN’s poem that appeared in Russkie Zapiski (Russian Notes) and was enthusiastically praised by Adamovich (a hostile critic who did not recognize the author) was signed Vasiliy Shishkov. Vasiliy Shishkov (1939) is a story by VN that begins as follows:

-- Меня зовут Василий Шишков, Я поэт.

“My name is Vasiliy Shishkov. I’m a poet.”

When he visits Pahl Pahlych Rechnoy (a character in TRLSK to whom V. refers White, because in a game of chess that he plays with Uncle Black Pahl Pahlich has white pieces), V. mentions his full name:

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. (chapter 15)

One is tempted to assume that “so-and-so” stands for Vasiliy Shishkov. The simple Russian name that Mr Goodman tries to pronounce seems to be Shishkov (Sebastian’s Russian name is thus Sevast’yan Shishkov). In Pushkin’s epigram Ugryumykh troika est’ pevtsov… (“There is a troika of gloomy bards…” 1815) one of the three bards is Shishkov:

Угрюмых тройка есть певцов -
Шихматов, Шаховской, Шишков.
Уму есть тройка супостатов -
Шишков, наш Шаховской, Шихматов.
Но кто глупей из тройки злой?
Шишков, Шихматов, Шаховской!

Another member of the troika, Prince Shirinski-Shikhmatov, brings to mind Shirin and Shakhmatov, the litarati who appear in Chapter Five of VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937). According to Fyodor, Shirin’s novel Sedina (“The Hoary Abyss”) which had been received very sympathetically by the émigré critics had an epigraph from the Book of Job. Na vesakh Iova (“In Job’s Balances,” 1929) is a book by Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose name comes from shest’, “six”). In the closing lines of his poem Neokonchennyi chernovik (“A Unnfinished Draft,” 1931) VN says that he has weighed his life and his honor na pushkinskikh vesakh (on Pushkin’s scales) and dares to prefer honor:

…жизнь и честь мою я взвесил

на пушкинских весах и честь

осмеливаюсь предпочесть.

VN satirizes Adamovich and G. Ivanov (the author of a rude article on VN in the Paris émigré review Numbers) in his story Usta k ustam (“Lips to Lips,” 1931). Blok’s poem Ne stroy zhilishch u rechnykh izluchin… (“Do not build dwellings near the meanders of a river…” 1905) ends in the words k ustam usta (lips to lips):

Не строй жилищ у речных излучин,
Где шумной жизни заметен рост.
Поверь, конец всегда однозвучен,
Никому не понятен и торжественно прост.

Твоя участь тиха, как рассказ вечерний,
И душой одинокой ему покорись.
Ты иди себе, молча, к какой хочешь вечерне,
Где душа твоя просит, там молись.

Кто придёт к тебе, будь он, как ангел, светел,
Ты прими его просто, будто видел во сне,
И молчи без конца, чтоб никто не заметил,
Кто сидел на скамье, промелькнул в окне.

И никто не узнает, о чём молчанье,
И о чём спокойных дум простота.
Да. Она придёт. Забелеет сиянье.
Без вины прижмёт к устам уста.

Rechnye izluchiny (the meanders of a river) in the opening line of Blok’s poem bring to mind Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy and his former wife Nina (Sebastian’s mistress). According to V., Pahl Pahlich “had had a little too much of that brandy:”

'What exactly was her name?' I asked.

'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)

In his poem Neznakomka (“The Stranger,” 1906) Blok mentions tangy wine that has penetrated all the meanders of his soul:

Глухие тайны мне поручены,

Мне чьё-то солнце вручено,

И все души моей излучины

Пронзило терпкое вино.

Dim mysteries are in my keeping,

the orb of somebody’s day has been entrusted to me,

and the tangy wine has penetrated

all the meanders of my soul.

(transl. by VN)

At the end of TRLSK V. discovers that the soul is but a manner of being and that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations:

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 – not a constant state – 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 – I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and going – the dim figures of the few friends he had, the scholar, and the poet, and the painter – 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 – the pale radiance of Clare's inclined head, as she is led away weeping by a friendly maiden. They moved round Sebastian – round me who am acting Sebastian – 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) – 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)

Blok’s Neznakomka ends in the line Ya znayu: istina v vine. (I know: in wine is truth). In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin, Chekhov says that modern art lacks the alcohol that would intoxicate the reader or viewer and mentions Shishkin’s pictures:

Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь. Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нём нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даёте понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне «Палату № 6» и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам не скучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30—45 лет дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить.

You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions—the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside "Ward No. 6" and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let us discuss the general causes, if that won't bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin's or Shishkin's pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can't forget that you want to smoke.

Like Shishkin, the name Shishkov comes from shishka (cone; bump, lump). In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose name comes from shest’, “six”) points out that in Chekhov’s story Palata № 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) the doctor dies beautifully, in his last minutes he sees a herd of deer, etc.:

И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо оленей и т. п. (VI)

When V. meets Sebastian’s mistress, her name is Nina Lecerf. Cerf is French for “deer.”

Btw., in the last sentence of my previous post, “masquerade & Sebastian's mask in TRLSK,” the phrase “Pushkin’s death mask” should be “Pushkin’s mask.”

Alexey Sklyarenko

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,dana.dragunoiu@gmail.com,shvabrin@humnet.ucla.edu
Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com
AdaOnline: "http://www.ada.auckland.ac.nz/
The Nabokov Society of Japan's Annotations to Ada: http://vnjapan.org/main/ada/index.html
The VN Bibliography Blog: http://vnbiblio.com/
Search the archive with L-Soft: https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A0=NABOKV-L

Manage subscription options :http://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?SUBED1=NABOKV-L