Olga Olegovna Orlova & egg-like alliteration in TRLSK

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 10/01/2021 - 18:21

At the beginning of VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian’s half-brother V. (the narrator and main character) mentions Olga Olegovna Orlova, an old Russian lady who showed him in Paris the diary she had kept in the past:


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)


The surname Orlova comes from oryol (eagle). In his poem Ezerski (1832-36) written in the Eugene Onegin stanza Pushkin mentions oryol:


Зачем крутится ветр в овраге,
Подъемлет лист и пыль несет,
Когда корабль в недвижной влаге
Его дыханья жадно ждет?
Зачем от гор и мимо башен
Летит орел, тяжел и страшен,
На черный пень? Спроси его.
Зачем арапа своего
Младая любит Дездемона,
Как месяц любит ночи мглу?
Затем, что ветру и орлу
И сердцу девы нет закона.
Гордись: таков и ты, поэт,
И для тебя условий нет. (XIII)


In his poem Pushkin mentions Olga (Prince Igor's wife who ruled in Kiev in 945-960 AD, after her husband's death) and uses the phrase ab ovo (from the beginning): 


Начнем ab ovo: мой Езерский
Происходил от тех вождей,
Чей дух воинственный и зверский
Был древле ужасом морей.
Одульф, его начальник рода,
Вельми бе грозен воевода,
Гласит Софийский хронограф.
При Ольге сын его Варлаф
Приял крещенье в Цареграде
С рукою греческой княжны;
От них два сына рождены:
Якуб и Дорофей. В засаде
Убит Якуб; а Дорофей
Родил двенадцать сыновей. (II)


Latin for "egg," ovum brings to mind the egg-like alliteration mentioned by V.


On the other hand, in his poem Memorabilia (1855) Robert Browning mentions an eagle-feather:


Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,

And did he stop and speak to you?

And did you speak to him again?

How strange it seems, and new!


But you were living before that,

And you are living after,

And the memory I started at—

My starting moves your laughter!


I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt,

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:


For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—

Well, I forget the rest.


In his Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820) P. B. Shelley mentions “the asphodels of fame:”


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.


Sebastian Knight’s last book is entitled The Doubtful Asphodel. In Cancelled Passages of Adonais (Passages of the Preface) published by Dr. Garnett as Relics of Shelley, 1862, P. B. Shelley mentions “a young spirit panting for fame, doubtful of its powers, and certain only of its aspirations:”


…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…

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 . . .


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.

Импровизатор сошел опять с подмостков, держа в руках урну, и спросил: — Кому угодно будет вынуть тему? — Импровизатор обвел умоляющим взором первые ряды стульев. Ни одна из блестящих дам, тут сидевших, не тронулась. Импровизатор, не привыкший к северному равнодушию, казалось, страдал... вдруг заметил он в стороне поднявшуюся ручку в белой маленькой перчатке; он с живостию оборотился и подошел к молодой величавой красавице, сидевшей на краю второго ряда. Она встала безо всякого смущения и со всевозможною простотою опустила в урну аристократическую ручку и вынула сверток.

— Извольте развернуть и прочитать, — сказал ей импровизатор. Красавица развернула бумажку и прочла вслух:

— Cleopatra e i suoi amanti.

Эти слова произнесены были тихим голосом, но в зале царствовала такая тишина, что все их услышали. Импровизатор низко поклонился прекрасной даме с видом глубокой благодарности и возвратился на свои подмостки.


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.

The improvisatore again descended from the platform, holding the urn in his hands, and casting an imploring glance along the first row of chairs, asked:

"Who will be kind enough to draw out the theme?"

Not one of the brilliant ladies, who were sitting there, stirred. The improvisatore, not accustomed to Northern indifference, seemed greatly disconcerted.... Suddenly he perceived on one side of the room a small white-gloved hand held up: he turned quickly and advanced towards a tall young beauty, seated at the end of the second row. She rose without the slightest confusion, and, with the greatest simplicity in the world, plunged her aristocratic hand into the urn and drew out a roll of paper.

"Will you please unfold it and read," said the improvisatore to her.

The young lady unrolled the paper and read aloud:

"Cleopatra e i suoi amanti."

These words were uttered in a gentle voice, but such a deep silence reigned in the room, that everybody heard them. The improvisatore bowed profoundly to the young lady, with an air of the deepest gratitude, and returned to his platform. (Chapter III)


In Chapter Eight (XVI: 9-10) of Eugene Onegin 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 upon the Neva’s banks (like VN, a hundred years after Pushkin).