NABOKV-L post 0027364, Thu, 20 Apr 2017 15:44:26 +0300

Subject
masquerade & Sebastian's mask in TRLSK
Date
Body
At the end of VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the
narrator (Sebastian’s half-brother V.) mentions the masquerade and says
that Sebastian’s mask clings to his face:



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)



Maskarad (“The Masquerade,” 1835) is a drama in verse by Lermontov, the
author of Iz-pod tainstvennoy, kholodnoy polumaski… (“From beneath a
mysterious and ice-cold half-mask…” 1841) and Na smert’ poeta (“On the
Poet’s Death,” 1837), a poem on Pushkin’s death. In his poem Epizod (“An
Episode,” 1918) Khodasevich mentions Pushkin’s death mask:



Бессмысленно смотрел я

На полку книг, на жёлтые обои,

На маску Пушкина, закрывшую глаза.



Senselessly I looked

at the bookshelf, at the yellow wall-paper,

at Pushkin’s death mask that closed its eyes.



In this poem written in blank verse Khodasevich appears to watch himself
dying and leaving his body. Describing his difficult return to life,
Khodasevich compares himself to a snake that was forced to get back into its
shed skin:



И как пред тем не по своей я воле

Покинул эту оболочку ― так же

В неё и возвратился вновь. Но только

Свершилось это тягостно, с усильем,

Которое мне вспомнить неприятно.

Мне было трудно, тесно, как змее,

Которую заставили бы снова

Вместиться в сброшенную кожу...



In a letter to his brother Sebastian mentioned his shed snake-skins
[vypolziny]:



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)



In his article “Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya” (“Without Divinity,
without Inspiration,” 1921) Alexander Blok mentions oskomina (“sour
taste,” a word used by Sebastian in his letter to V.) left by the
controversy about “pure poetry:”



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 article Blok criticizes Gumilyov and the acmeists who hush up in
their verses 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 poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1921) Gumilyov says that only snakes shed
their skin and we change souls, not bodies:



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.



In Smyatenie (“Confusion”), a poem from the cycle Snezhnaya maska (“The
Snow Mask,” 1907), Blok asks the mask to give him back his soul:



Маска, дай мне чутко слушать

Сердце тёмное твоё,

Возврати мне, маска, душу,

Горе светлое моё!



In Teni na stene (“Shadows on the Wall”), another poem in the cycle “The
Snow Mask,” Blok mentions korol’ (the king), shut (the jester), damy (the
ladies), pazhi (the pages) and 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...



Korol, dama, valet (“King, Queen, Knave,” 1928) is a novel by VN. At the
end of TRLSK V. discovers that the soul is but a manner of being and that
any soul can 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. (chapter 20)



The two poets who could not stand each other, Blok and Gumilyov died almost
simultaneously in August of 1921. In his memoir essay “Gumilyov and Blok”
(1931) Khodasevich mentions Blok’s article “Without Divinity, without
Inspiration” and quotes Blok’s words that Gumilyov makes poets iz nichego
(from nothing):



Как раз в это время удалось получить разр
ешение на издание еженедельника под назв
анием ?Литературная Газета?. В редакцию во
шли А. Н. Тихонов, Е. И. Замятин и К. И. Чуков
ский. Для первого номера Блок дал статью,
направленную против Гумилёва и ?Цеха?. Наз
ывалась она ?Без божества, без вдохновень
я?. ?Литературная Газета? прекратила сущес
твование раньше, чем начала выходить: за р
ассказ Замятина и мою передовицу номер бы
л конфискован ещё в типографии по распоря
жению Зиновьева. Статью Блока я прочёл ли
шь много лет спустя, в собрании его сочине
ний. Признаться, она мне кажется очень вял
ой и туманной, как многие статьи Блока. Но
в ту пору ходили слухи, что она очень резк
а. В одну из тогдашних встреч Блок и сам го
ворил мне то же. С досадой он говорил о то
м, что Гумилёв делает поэтов ?из ничего?.



Lev Shestov’s essay on Chekhov is entitled Tvorchestvo iz nichego
(“Creation from Nothing,” 1905). The name Shestov comes from shest’
(six); Chekhov is the author of Palata № 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892). The name
of the main character in Chekhov’s story Maska (“The Mask,” 1884),
Pyatigorov, brings to mind Pyatigorsk (the Caucasian spa where Lermontov was
killed in a duel) and Trigorin (a character in Chekhov’s play “The
Seagull,” 1896). According to Shestov, one of Chekhov’s most remarkable
works, in which the artist’s real attitude to life was expressed most
fully, 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.
(VIII)



The characters of “The Seagull” include Nina Zarechnyi, Trigorin’s
mistress who brings to mind Nina Lecerf (alias Mme de Rechnoy), Sebastian’s
mistress in TRLSK.



Pyatigorsk (from pyat’, “five,” and gora, “mountain”) and Trigorin
(from tri, “three” and gora) bring to mind Trigorskoe (the Osipovs’
countryseat, near Pushkin’s Mikhaylovskoe, in the Province of Pskov). The
name Trigorin rhymes with Chigorin, the chess player (1850-1908) mentioned
by little Luzhin in VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,”
1930). Gora in Pyatigorov, Pyatigorsk, Trigorin and Trigorskoe brings to
mind The Funny Mountain, one of Sebastian Knight’s best stories:



Also some of my father's favourite quips seem to have broken into fantastic
flower in such typical Knight stories as Albinos in Black or The Funny
Mountain, his best one perhaps, that beautifully queer tale which always
makes me think of a child laughing in its sleep. (Chapter 1)



Btw., acmeism (a literary school despised by Blok) comes from acme (the
highest point; summit; peak). In his speech on Pushkin, O naznachenii poeta
(“About the Destination of a Poet,” 1921), 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 трагиче
ская; Пушкин вёл свою роль широким, уверен
ным и вольным движением, как большой маст
ер; и, однако, у нас часто сжимается сердце
при мысли о Пушкине: праздничное и триумф
альное шествие поэта, который не мог меша
ть внешнему, ибо дело его - внутреннее - ку
льтура, - это шествие слишком часто наруша
лось мрачным вмешательством людей, для ко
торых печной горшок дороже Бога.



Goodman’s biography of Sebastian Knight is entitled The Tragedy of
Sebastian Knight. Describing his meeting with Mr. Goodman, V. mentions a
black mask covering Goodman’s face:



'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 thanked Mr Goodman for his advice and reached for my hat. I felt he had
proved a failure and that I had followed a false scent. Somehow or other I
did not care to ask him to enlarge upon those days when he and Sebastian had
been 'such pals'. I wonder now what his answer would have been had I begged
him to tell me the story of his secretaryship. After shaking hands with me
most cordially, he returned the black mask which I pocketed, as I supposed
it might come in usefully on some other occasion. (chapter 6)



In Zdes’ i tam (“Here and There”), yet another poem in the cycle “The
Snow Mask,” Blok mentions chyornye maski (the black masks) and koni
(horses):



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 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 says that Shakespeare
concealed his monstrous genius beneath a mask and 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

бушующий...



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…



In his poem Zabludivshiysya tramvay (“The Lost Tram,” 1921) Gumilyov
mentions the executioner with a face like an udder:



В красной рубашке, с лицом, как вымя,
Голову срезал палач и мне,
Она лежала вместе с другими
Здесь, в ящике скользком, на самом дне.



In a red shirt, with a face like an udder,

The executioner cuts my head off, too,

It lies together with the others

Here, in a slippery box, at the very bottom.



In his poem Gumilyov several times addresses Mashenka, a girl who lived here
and sang:



Машенька, ты здесь жила и пела,

Мне, жениху, ковёр ткала,

Где же теперь твой голос и тело,

Может ли быть, что ты умерла?



Mashenka, you lived here and sang,

You wove me, your betrothed, a carpet,

Where are your voice and body now,

Is it possible that you are dead?



Gumilyov’s Mashenka seems to be Masha Mironov, a character in Pushkin’s
short novel Kapitanskaya dochka (“The Captain’s Daughter,” 1836). On the
other hand, Mashenka (“Mary,” 1926) is VN’s first novel. Ganin’s first
love, Mashenka does not appear in “Mary,” but in “The Luzhin Defense”
Luzhin and his wife meet Alfyorov and Mashenka (Alfyorov’s wife) in a
Berlin street. The characters of “Mary” include Klara, a Russian girl who
is in love with Ganin and whose name brings to mind Clare Bishop. VN’s
first three novels (“Mary,” KQK and “The Luzhin Defense”) were
criticized by G. Ivanov, a poet (Gumilyov’s pupil) who attacked Sirin (VN’
s Russian nom de plume) in the Paris émigré review Chisla (Numbers, 1930,
#1).



In a letter of January 14, 1831, to Pushkin Vyazemski mentions Bulgarin (the
loathsome critic) and his friends who insisted that all magazine articles
should be signed with an author’s or translator’s real name, in the hope
that Pushkin and Vyazemski would be ashamed to walk from time to time among
them bez maski (without a mask):




Что это за новое дополнение к цензуре, что
все статьи в журналах должны быть за подп
исью автора, или переводчика? Не смешно ли
видеть русское самодержавие, которое воз
ится с нашею литтерат(или д)урочкою. Уж и т
а её пугает. Как не чувствовать им, что ест
ь цензура, есть и всё. Уж и это не штука ли
Булгарина против Литтературной Газеты, ч
тобы заставить нас демаскироваться? Инач
е растолковать не умею. Булгарину с брать
ею огласки бояться нечего, а между тем над
еются они, что нам иногда стыдно будет без
маски пройти между ими.



On January 14, 1831, Delvig (Pushkin’s best friend at the Lyceum) suddenly
died in St. Petersburg (Pushkin in Moscow and Vyazemski in Ostafievo knew
nothing about it). In his next letter to Pushkin, written on January 17,
Vyazemski (who wanted to publish his translation of Constant’s novel
Adolphe) says that he would not like poddat’ bokov kritike (“to provoke an
attack of critics”):



Мне хочется, по крайней мере в предислови
и, не поддать боков критике.



Bokov (a word used by Vyazemski, accented on the second syllable) is Gen.
pl. of bok (side). In Chapter Four of VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937),
Zhizn’ Chernyshevskogo (“The Life of Chernyshevski”), Fyodor mentions
Doctor Bokov (who was present when Chernyshevski was arrested by Rakeev, a
police officer who “had whisked Pushkin’s coffin out of the capital into
posthumous exile”) and Dobrolyubov, a radical critic whose name brings to
mind Goodman (in Russian, dobro means “good”). The name Bokov rhymes with
Nabokov. In the last sentence of TRLSK V. suggests that both he and
Sebastian are someone whom neither of them knows. This mysterious man whom
neither V., nor Sebastian knows seems to be Nabokov, the real author of
TRLSK. Just like Sebastian’s mask clings to the face of his half-brother,
Pushkin’s death mask clings to Nabokov’s face, and the likeness will not
be washed off.



Alexey Sklyarenko


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