Doubtful Asphodel in TRLSK

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 09/30/2021 - 05:56

In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian Knight’s last book is entitled The Doubtful Asphodel:

 

That question which I had wished to ask Nina remained unuttered. I had wished to ask her whether she ever realized that the wan-faced man, whose presence she had found so tedious, was one of the most remarkable writers of his time. What was the use of asking! Books mean nothing to a woman of her kind; her own life seems to her to contain the thrills of a hundred novels. Had she been condemned to spend a whole day shut up in a library, she would have been found dead about noon. I am quite sure that Sebastian never alluded to his work in her presence: it would have been like discussing sundials with a bat. So let us leave that bat to quiver and wheel in the deepening dusk: the clumsy mimic of a swallow.

In those last and saddest years of his life Sebastian wrote The Doubtful Asphodel, which is unquestionably his masterpiece. Where and how dig he write it? In the reading room of the British Museum (far from Mr Goodman's vigilant eye). At a humble table deep in the corner of a Parisian 'bistro' (not of the kind that his mistress might patronize). In a deck-chair under an orange parasol somewhere in Cannes or Juan, when she and her gang had deserted him for a spree elsewhere. In the waiting room of an anonymous station, between two heart attacks. In a hotel, to the clatter of plates being washed in the yard. In many other places which I can but vaguely conjecture. The theme of the book is simple: a man is dying: you feel him sinking throughout the book; his thought and his memories pervade the whole with greater or lesser distinction (like the swell and fall of uneven breathing), now rolling up this image, now that, letting it ride in the wind, or even tossing it out on the shore, where it seems to move and live for a minute on its own and presently is drawn back again by grey seas where it sinks or is strangely transfigured. A man is dying, and he is the hero of the tale; but whereas the lives of other people in the book seem perfectly realistic (or at least realistic in a Knightian sense), the reader is kept ignorant as to who the dying man is, and where his deathbed stands or floats, or whether it is a bed at all. The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying, and drawing up a ghostly knee. One thought-image, then another breaks upon the shores of consciousness, and we follow the thing or the being that has been evoked: stray remnants of a wrecked life; sluggish fancies which crawl and then unfurl eyed wings. They are, these lives, but commentaries to the main subject. We follow the gentle old chess player Schwarz, who sits down on a chair in a room in a house, to teach an orphan boy the moves of the knight; we meet the fat Bohemian woman with that grey streak showing in the fast colour of her cheaply dyed hair; we listen to a pale wretch noisily denouncing the policy of oppression to an attentive plainclothes man in an ill-famed public-house. The lovely tall prima donna steps in her haste into a puddle, and her silver shoes are ruined. An old man sobs and is soothed by a soft-lipped girl in mourning. Professor Nussbaum, a Swiss scientist, shoots his young mistress and himself dead in a hotel room at half past three in the morning. They come and go, these and other people, opening and shutting doors, living as long as the way they follow is lit, and are engulfed in turn by the waves of the dominant theme: a man is dying. He seems to move an arm or turn his head on what might be a pillow, and as he moves, this or that life we have just been watching, fades or changes. At moments, his personality grows conscious of itself, and then we feel that we are passing down some main artery of the book. 'Now, when it was too late, and Life's shops were closed, he regretted not having bought a certain book he had always wanted; never having gone through an earthquake, a fire, a train accident; never having seen Tatsienlu in Tibet, or heard blue magpies chattering in Chinese willows; not having spoken to that errant schoolgirl with shameless eyes, met one day in a lonely glade; not having laughed at the poor little joke of a shy ugly woman, when no one had laughed in the room; having missed trains, allusions, and opportunities; not having handed the penny he had in his pocket to that old street violinist playing to himself tremulously on a certain bleak day in a certain forgotten town.'

Sebastian Knight had always liked juggling with themes, making them clash or blending them cunningly, making them express that hidden meaning, which could only be expressed in a succession of waves, as the music of a Chinese buoy can be made to sound only by undulation. In The Doubtful Asphodel, his method has attained perfection. It is not the parts that matter, it is their combinations. (Chapter 18)

 

The title of Sebastian Knight’s last book seems to hint at “the asphodels of fame” mentioned by P. B. Shelley in his Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820):

 

The spider spreads her webs, whether she be

In poet's tower, cellar, or barn, or tree;

The silk-worm in the dark green mulberry leaves

His winding sheet and cradle ever weaves;

So I, a thing whom moralists call worm,

Sit spinning still round this decaying form,

From the fine threads of rare and subtle thought –

No net of words in garish colours wrought

To catch the idle buzzers of the day –

But a soft cell, where when that fades away,

Memory may clothe in wings my living name

And feed it with the asphodels of fame,

Which in those hearts which must remember me

Grown, making love an immortality.

 

In Cancelled Passages of Adonais (Passages of the Preface) published by Dr. Garnett (Relics of Shelley, 1862) P. B. Shelley mentions “a young spirit panting for fame, doubtful of its powers, and certain only of its aspirations:”

 

Reviewers, with some rare exceptions, are a most stupid and malignant race. As a bankrupt thief turns thieftaker in despair, so an unsuccessful author turns critic. But a young spirit panting for fame, doubtful of its powers, and certain only of its aspirations, is ill qualified to assign its true value to the sneer of this world. He knows not that such stuff as this is of the abortive and monstrous births which time consumes as fast as it produces. Ho sees the truth and falsehood, the merits and demerits, of his case inextricably entangled

. . . No personal offence should have drawn from me this public comment upon such stuff . . .

. . . The offence of this poor victim seems to have consisted solely in his intimacy with Leigh Hunt, Mr. Hazlitt, and some other enemies of despotism and superstition. My friend Hunt has a very hard skull to crack, and will take a deal of killing. I do not know much of Mr. Hazlitt, but . . .

. . . I knew personally but little of Keats; but on the news of his situation I wrote to him, suggesting the propriety of trying the Italian climate, and inviting him to join me. Unfortunately he did not allow me . . .

 

P. B. Shelley’s Adonais (1821) is subtitled “An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.” During an 'immortal dinner' 28th December 1817 hosted by Benjamin Robert Haydon (a British painter, 1786-1846, who specialized in grand historical pictures) and attended by Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Keats, and Keats's friend Monkhouse, Keats lightheartedly said Newton 'has destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours.' Sebastian Knight’s first book (1925) is entitled The Prismatic Bezel:

 

The Prismatic Bezel was appreciated at its true worth only when Sebastian's first real success caused it to be presented anew by another firm (Bronson), but even then it did not sell as well as Success, or Lost Property. For a first novel it shows remarkable force of artistic will and literary self-control. As often was the way with Sebastian Knight he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion. J. L. Coleman has called it 'al clown developing wings, an angel mimicking a tumbler pigeon', and the metaphor seems to me very apt. Based cunningly on a parody of certain tricks of the literary trade, The Prismatic Bezel soars skyward. With something akin to fanatical hate Sebastian Knight was ever hunting out the things which had once been fresh and bright but which were now worn to a thread, dead things among living ones; dead things shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud. The decayed idea might be in itself quite innocent and it may be argued that there is not much sin in continually exploiting this or that thoroughly worn subject or style if it still pleases and amuses. But for Sebastian Knight, the merest trifle, as, say, the, adopted method of a detective story, became a bloated and malodorous corpse. He did not mind in the least 'penny dreadfuls' because he wasn't concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or nth-rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral. But The Prismatic Bezel is not only a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale; it is also a wicked imitation of many other things: as for instance a certain literary habit which Sebastian Knight, with his uncanny perception of secret decay, noticed in the modem novel, namely the fashionable trick of grouping a medley of people in a limited space (a hotel, an island, a street). Then also different kinds of styles are satirized in the course of the book as well as the problem of blending direct speech with narration and description which an elegant pen solves by finding as many variations of 'he said' as may be found in the dictionary between 'acceded' and 'yelped'. But all this obscure fun is, I repeat, only the author's springboard. (Chapter 10)

 

A bezel is a grooved ring holding the cover of a watch face or other instrument in position or a groove holding the crystal of a watch or the stone of a gem in its setting. On the other hand, the title of Sebastian Knight’s first novel brings to mind Keats’ Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818), a narrative poem adapted from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV.5). In his sonnet The Grave of Keats (1881) Oscar Wilde compares Keats to St. Sebastian and, in the sonnet’s last line, mentions Isabella and her Basil-tree:

 

RID of the world's injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God's veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water----it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

 

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, the artist who painted his portrait, and stabs the picture. The Prismatic Bezel is a parody of a detective novel:

 

Twelve persons are staying at a boarding house; the house is very carefully depicted but in order to stress the 'island' note, the rest of the town is casually shown as a secondary cross between natural mist and a primary cross between stage-properties and a real-estate agent's nightmare. As the author points out (indirectly) this method is somewhat allied to the cinema practice of showing the leading lady in her impossible dormitory years as glamorously different from a crowd of plain and fairly realistic schoolmates. One of the lodgers, a certain G. Abeson, art dealer, is found murdered in his room. The local police officer, who is described solely in terms of boots, rings up a London detective, asking him to come at once. Owing to a combination of mishaps (his car runs over an old woman and then he takes the wrong train) he is very long in arriving. In the meantime the inhabitants of the boarding house plus a chance passer-by, old Nosebag, who happened to be in the lobby when the crime was discovered, are thoroughly examined. All of them except the last named, a mild old gentleman with a white beard yellowish about the mouth, and a harmless passion for collecting snuffboxes, are more or less open to suspicion; and one of them, a fishy art-student, seems particularly so: half a dozen blood-stained handkerchiefs are found under his bed. Incidentally, it may be noted that in order to simplify and 'concentrate' things not a single servant or hotel employee is specifically mentioned and nobody bothers about their non-existence. Then, with a quick sliding motion, something in the story begins to shift (the detective, it must be remembered, is still on the way and G. Abeson's stiff corpse lying on the carpet). It gradually transpires that all the lodgers are in various ways connected with one another. The old lady in No.3 turns out to be the mother of the violinist in No.11. The novelist occupying the front bedroom is really the husband of the young lady in the third floor back. The fishy art-student is no less than this lady's brother. The solemn moonfaced person who is so very polite to everyone, happens to be butler to the crusty old colonel who, it appears, is the violinist's father. The gradual melting process continues through the art-student's being engaged to the fat little woman in No.5, and she is the old lady's daughter by a previous marriage. And when the amateur lawn-tennis champion in No.6 turns out to be the violinist's brother and the novelist their uncle and the old lady in No.3 the crusty old colonel's wife, then the numbers on the doors are quietly wiped out and the boarding-house motif is painlessly and smoothly replaced by that of a country-house, with all its natural implications. And here the tale takes on a strange beauty. The idea of time, which was made to look comic (detective losing his way… stranded somewhere in the night), now seems to curl up and fall asleep. Now the lives of the characters shine forth with a real and human significance and G. Abeson's sealed door is but that of a forgotten lumber room. A new plot, a new drama utterly unconnected with the opening of the story, which is thus thrust back into the region of dreams, seems to struggle for existence and break into light. But at the very moment when the reader feels quite safe in an atmosphere of pleasurable reality and the grace and glory of the author's prose seems to indicate some lofty and rich intention, there is a grotesque knocking at the door and the detective enters. We are again wallowing in a morass of parody. The detective, a shifty fellow, drops his h's, and this is meant to look as if it were meant to look quaint; for it is not a parody of the Sherlock Holmes vogue but a parody of the modern reaction from it. The lodgers are examined afresh. New clues are guessed at. Mild old Nosebag potters about, very absent-minded and harmless. (Chapter 10)

 

Half a dozen blood-stained handkerchiefs suggest tuberculosis, a disease that killed Keats at the age of twenty-five. Describing Sebastian’s youth, V. (Sebastian’s half-brother, the narrator and main character in TRLSK) mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan who translated into Russian Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci:' 

 

We did not hear from him very often, nor were his letters very long. During the three years at Cambridge, he visited us in Paris but twice – better say once, for the second time was when he came over for my mother's funeral. She and I talked of him fairly frequently, especially in the last years of her life, when she was quite aware of her approaching end. It was she who told me of Sebastian's strange adventure in 1917 of which I then knew nothing, as at the time I had happened to be on a holiday in the Crimea. 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 ("The Master of Foams," 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
Ивы,
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.

 

"A cretin of genius," Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was a Russian futurist poet. His surname comes from khlebnik (obs., baker). In Eugene Onegin (One: XXXV: 12-14) Pushkin mentions khlebnik, nemets akkuratnyi (the baker, a punctual German) who has more than once already opened his vasisdas (a small spy-window or transom with a mobile screen or grate):

 

Что ж мой Онегин? Полусонный
В постелю с бала едет он:
А Петербург неугомонный
Уж барабаном пробужден.
Встает купец, идет разносчик,
На биржу тянется извозчик,
С кувшином охтенка спешит,
Под ней снег утренний хрустит.
Проснулся утра шум приятный.
Открыты ставни; трубный дым
Столбом восходит голубым,
И хлебник, немец аккуратный,
В бумажном колпаке, не раз
Уж отворял свой васисдас.

 

And my Onegin? Half asleep,

he drives from ball to bed,

while indefatigable Petersburg

is roused already by the drum.

The merchant's up, the hawker's out,

the cabby to the hack stand drags,

the Okhta girl hastes with her jug,

the morning snow creaks under her.

Morn's pleasant hubbub has awoken,

unclosed are shutters, chimney smoke

ascends in a blue column, and the baker,

a punctual German in a cotton cap,

has more than once already

opened his vasisdas.

 

In his unfinished novella Egipetskie nochi (“The Egyptian Nights,” 1835) Pushkin mentions La famiglia dei Cenci:

 

Чарский с беспокойством ожидал, какое впечатление произведет первая минута, но он заметил, что наряд, который показался ему так неприличен, не произвел того же действия на публику. Сам Чарский не нашел ничего в нем смешного, когда увидел его на подмостках, с бледным лицом, ярко освещенным множеством ламп и свечей. Плеск утих; говор умолк... Итальянец, изъясняясь на плохом французском языке, просил господ посетителей назначить несколько тем, написав их на особых бумажках. При этом неожиданном приглашении все молча поглядели друг на друга и никто ничего не отвечал. Итальянец, подождав немного, повторил свою просьбу робким и смиренным голосом. Чарский стоял под самыми подмостками; им овладело беспокойство; он предчувствовал, что дело без него не обойдется и что принужден он будет написать свою тему. В самом деле, несколько дамских головок обратились к нему и стали вызывать его сперва вполголоса, потом громче и громче. Услыша имя его, импровизатор отыскал его глазами у своих ног и подал ему карандаш и клочок бумаги с дружескою улыбкою. Играть роль в этой комедии казалось Чарскому очень неприятно, но делать было нечего; он взял карандаш и бумагу из рук итальянца, написал несколько слов; итальянец, взяв со стола вазу, сошел с подмостков, поднес ее Чарскому, который бросил в нее свою тему. Его пример подействовал; два журналиста, в качестве литераторов, почли обязанностию написать каждый по теме; секретарь неаполитанского посольства и молодой человек, недавно возвратившийся из путешествия, бредя о Флоренции, положили в урну свои свернутые бумажки; наконец, одна некрасивая девица, по приказанию своей матери, со слезами на глазах написала несколько строк по-итальянски и, покраснев по уши, отдала их импровизатору, между тем как дамы смотрели на нее молча, с едва заметной усмешкою. Возвратясь на свои подмостки, импровизатор поставил урну на стол и стал вынимать бумажки одну за другой, читая каждую вслух:

 

Семейство Ченчи.

(La famiglia dei Cenci.)

L’ultimo giorno di Pompeïa.

Cleopatra e i suoi amanti.

La primavera veduta da una prigione.

Il trionfo di Tasso).

 

— Что прикажет почтенная публика? — спросил смиренный итальянец, — назначит ли мне сама один из предложенных предметов или предоставит решить это жребию?..

— Жребий!.. — сказал один голос из толпы.

— Жребий, жребий! — повторила публика.

 

The Italian, expressing himself in bad French, requested the gentlemen present to indicate some themes, by writing them upon separate pieces of paper. At this unexpected invitation, all looked at one another in silence, and nobody made reply. The Italian, after waiting a little while, repeated his request in a timid and humble voice. Charsky was standing right under the platform; a feeling of uneasiness took possession of him; he had a presentiment that the business would not be able to go on without him, and that he would be compelled to write his theme. Indeed, several ladies turned their faces towards him and began to pronounce his name, at first in a low tone, then louder and louder. Hearing his name, the improvisatore sought him with his eyes, and perceiving him at his feet, he handed him a pencil and a piece of paper with a friendly smile. To play a rôle in this comedy seemed very disagreeable to Charsky, but there was no help for it: he took the pencil and paper from the hands of the Italian and wrote some words. The Italian, taking the vase from the table, descended from the platform and presented it to Charsky, who deposited within it his theme. His example produced an effect: two journalists, in their quality as literary men, considered it incumbent upon them to write each his theme; the secretary of the Neapolitan embassy, and a young man recently returned from a journey to Florence, placed in the urn their folded papers. At last, a very plain-looking girl, at the command of her mother, with tears in her eyes, wrote a few lines in Italian and, blushing to the ears, gave them to the improvisatore, the ladies in the meantime regarding her in silence, with a scarcely perceptible smile. Returning to the platform, the improvisatore placed the urn upon the table, and began to take out the papers one after the other, reading each aloud:

 

"La famiglia dei Cenci. . . .

 L'ultimo giorno di Pompeia. . .

 Cleopatra e i suoi amanti. . . .

La primavera veduta da una prigione. . . .

Il trionfo di Tasso."

 

"What does the honourable company command?" asked the Italian humbly. "Will it indicate itself one of the subjects proposed, or let the matter be decided by lot?"

"By lot!" said a voice in the crowd. . . . "By lot, by lot!" repeated the audience. (Chapter III)

 

The Cenci (1819) is a verse drama in five acts by P. B. Shelley. In Cancelled Passages of Adonais (Passages of the Preface) Shelley mentions the tragedy of The Cenci:

 

... the expression of my indignation and sympathy. I will allow myself a first and last word on the subject of calumny as it relates to me. As an author I have dared and invited censure. If I understand myself, I have written neither for profit nor for fame. I have employed my poetical compositions and publications simply as the instruments of that sympathy between myself and others which the ardent and unbounded love I cherished for my kind incited me to acquire. I expected all sorts of stupidity and insolent contempt from those . . .

. . . These compositions (excepting the tragedy of The Cenci, which was written rather to try my powers than to unburthen my full heart) are insufficiently . . . commendation than perhaps they deserve, even from their bitterest enemies; but they have not attained any corresponding popularity. As a man, I shrink from notice and regard; the ebb and flow of the world vexes me; I desire to be left in peace. Persecution, contumely, and calumny have been heaped upon me in profuse measure; and domestic conspiracy and legal oppression have violated in my person the most sacred rights of nature and humanity. The bigot will say it was the recompense of my errors; the man of the world will call it the result of my imprudence; but never upon one head . . .

 

In Chapter Eight (XVI: 9-10) of EO Pushkin mentions brilliant Nina Voronskoy, that Cleopatra of the Neva:

 

К ней дамы подвигались ближе;
Старушки улыбались ей;
Мужчины кланялися ниже,
Ловили взор ее очей;
Девицы проходили тише
Пред ней по зале: и всех выше
И нос и плечи подымал
Вошедший с нею генерал.
Никто б не мог ее прекрасной
Назвать; но с головы до ног
Никто бы в ней найти не мог
Того, что модой самовластной
В высоком лондонском кругу
Зовется vulgar. (Не могу…

 

Люблю я очень это слово,
Но не могу перевести;
Оно у нас покамест ново,
И вряд ли быть ему в чести.
Оно б годилось в эпиграмме…)
Но обращаюсь к нашей даме.
Беспечной прелестью мила,
Она сидела у стола
С блестящей Ниной Воронскою,
Сей Клеопатрою Невы;
И верно б согласились вы,
Что Нина мраморной красою
Затмить соседку не могла,
Хоть ослепительна была.

 

Closer to her the ladies moved;

old women smiled to her;

the men bowed lower, sought

to catch her gaze;

maidens before her passed more quietly

across the room; and higher

than anyone lifted his nose and shoulders

the general who had come in with her.

None could have called her

a beauty; but from head to foot

none could have found in her

what is by autocratic fashion

in the high London circle

called “vulgar.” (I'm unable —

 

of that word I am very fond,

but am unable to translate it; in our midst

for the time being it is new

and hardly bound to be in favor;

it might do nicely in an epigram....

But to our lady let me turn.)

Winsome with carefree charm,

she at a table sat

with brilliant Nina Voronskóy,

that Cleopatra of the Neva;

and, surely, you would have agreed

that Nina with her marble beauty

could not — though dazzling —

eclipse her neighbor.

 

Like Pushkin's Onegin (and VN himself), Sebastian Knight was born in St. Petersburg:

 

Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December 1899, in the former capital of my country. An old Russian lady who has for some obscure reason begged me not to divulge her name, happened to show me in Paris the diary she had kept in the past. So uneventful had those years been (apparently) that the collecting of daily details (which is always a poor method of self-preservation) barely surpassed a short description of the day's weather; and it is curious to note in this respect that the personal diaries of sovereigns – no matter what troubles beset their realms – are mainly concerned with the same subject. Luck being what it is when left alone, here I was offered something which I might never have hunted down had it been a chosen quarry. 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. On second thought I cannot see any real necessity of complying with her anonymity. That she will ever read this book seems wildly improbable. Her name was and is Olga Olegovna Orlova – an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold. (chapter 1)

 

To sign his poems Sebastian draws a little black chess knight. Playing chess with Olga, Lenski with a pawn takes in abstraction his own rook (EO, Four: XXVI: 9-14):

 

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 dies 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 - 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)