In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the narrator (Sebastian’s half-brother V.) mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan:


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 (“Master of Froth,” 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


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.


Velimir Khlebnikov (the penname of Viktor Khlebnikov, 1885-1922, “a cretin of genius”) 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.


In TRLSK Nina Lecerf (alias Mme de Rechnoy) is La Belle Dame Sans Merci who has Sebastian in thrall. The name Rechnoy means “of the river” and hints at Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896). The action in it takes place in Sorin’s country house at the lakeside. The name Sorin brings to mind Sirin, VN’s Russian nom de plume.


Алексис Пан = леска + спина = лес + испанка = ласка/скала + пенис = плакса + сени


Алексис Пан – Alexis Pan

леска – fishing-line

спина – back

лес – forest, woods

испанка – Spanish woman; Spanish flue

ласка – caress; weasel

скала – rock; cliff

пенис – penis

плакса – cry-baby

сени – lobby


*the bird’s scientific name is Syrrhaptes paradoxus


Alexey Sklyarenko

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