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Monday November 25, 1940

Crystal and Ruby 

The Knight in the Tiger's SkinBy Shot'ha Rust'hveliNew York: International Publishers. 347 pages. $4.50.
Tariel, the sunlike, the cypress-formed, may be inferior, spiritually and intellectually, to his Western brethren, King Arthur's knights, but, otherwise, he puts them rather into the shade. Matched with this mournful, moaning, "mad-minded" rover, great Lancelot of the Lake would seem almost perky, and romantic Sir Tristram a very lukewarm lover. The mysterious Meskhian bard, Shot'ha Rust'hveli, who some time between 1184 and 1207, in remote Georgia, where the vine in the valley looks up at the snow of the heights, composed a 60,000-word poem, certainly had both genius and leisure.
An author's worth is tested by his manner of introducing his characters. Rust'hveli's approach is enchanting. "They [the King and his hunters] saw a strange knight on the bank of a stream"--no, this is not Keats, and the fair ladies here are anything but "sans merci." Fate, court intrigues and two purple-black Negroes who smuggle a moon-pale princess to a land beyond the sea, these are the instruments of a lover's woe. The poem is unrolled like an Oriental rug. Such symbols as "cleft roses" and"opening pearl" are delightfully used for defining the actions of speech when lovers or friends converse. More often, however, Tariel and his boon companion, those two "pale lions," those raven-haired knights, shed torrents of ruby tears, scratch their violet cheeks, and swoon at the mere mention of the fair one's name; but between fits they are tough customers, demigods in subtropical forests, slaughtering beasts and men with Homeric ease and gusto (note that splendid passage where Tariel tries to kiss a roaring tigress before killing her). And, as the tale proceeds, and adventures, feasts, deceits and disguises accompany the quest for the moonlike crystal-ruby-faced Nestan-Daredjan, and "crystal and ruby become bluest indigo" and "the aloe-tree opens not its pearl," and dazzling metaphors are heaped and scattered this way and that, with the poet finding voluptuous delight in the paradox of blending variety with repetition, more than one reader will exclaim (falling into the style of the poet): this is like a drunken florist fighting a mad jeweler!
But we succumb in the end to the writer's charm. I have especially enjoyed such details as Rust'hveli's fondness for describing eyelashes (which are such a prominent feature in Persian miniatures), and all the comparisons he finds for them: they "droop like the tail-feathers of the raven" and rise "like a host of dusky Hindus" (which, again, reminds one of that other Oriental poet--was it Hafiz?--who called the dark eye of his mistress, "you cruel Negro"). The Knight in the Tiger's (or rather Panther's) Skin" can be likened as a whole to that giant gem of whose radiance Rust'hveli says that "before it at night a painter could have painted a picture."
Has the original Georgian, perchance, passed into English via the Russian medium? I wonder. Anyway, Mrs. Marjory Scott Wardrop's translation looks beautifully done, and the tone sounds right everywhere. In regard to the incredibly cheap illustrations by J. M. Toidze, my roses would prefer to glue together. Then there is the preface by Comrade Pavle Ingorokva. Containing as it does some valuable information about Georgian poetry, it would have been much more to the point (though much less amusing) had it not advertised with such primitive pomp "the land of the Soviets where mankind's dream of freedom has in truth been realized . . . the land of emancipated labor and free thought." . . .By the way, I have a queer inkling that readers of the Russian version are supposed to understand that the hero of Rust'hveli's poem is really St'halin, the sunlike, the cypress-formed.
 Vladimir Nabokov

By Vladimir Nabokov
Monday November 18, 1940

Diaghilev and a Disciple 

Serge Diaghilev: An Intimate Biography
By Serge Lifar New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 413 pages, $5
The Russian Renaissance is a curiously lovely thing to look back at over one's shoulder, blending as it does priceless artistic magic with a touch of eerie futility and the pathos of its impending doom. Starting some fifty years ago with a revolt against the Russian "Victorian" era, it came to an end twenty-five years later; and the utilitarian and didactic tendencies of the sixties and seventies that had retreated for a short time, like a wave that leaves the wet sand aglow with painted pebbles, came rolling back with far greater force.

Among the many names connected with the Russian Renaissance, that of Diaghilev deserves honorable mention. Although not a creative genius in the precise sense of the term, his perfect taste in art, allied to a fascinating personality and to fiery energy in the promotion of what was finest in art, gives him a prominent place in the history of Russian culture. For this reason, Mr. Lifar's book is worth reading.

The book consists of two parts, the first dealing with the bare facts of Diaghilev's life--and for serious students of the Russian ballet, it will be quite sufficient to dip into these first 246 pages, where compilation prevails over original effort. True, there is too much of the good thing, and I for one have never been able to stomach these minute details of a biographee's infancy. But there is worse: Mr. Lifar's style is so pompous and long winded that it runs away with him. Such expressions as divine, sublime, quest for the Holy City, memory of a distant heaven, applied to an irascible gentleman in top-hat and silk muffler, who happened to possess a wonderful flair in the matter of dancing, may be put down to the devotion of a pupil to his master; but I refuse to be solemnly told that "childish memories persisted in Diaghilev all through his life," and that "in Benois' decor for the 'Gotterdammerung' [with which Diaghilev was not directly connected] it is as though some tiny corner of the Perm province haunts him [Diaghilev].

His real achievement was that he knocked into shape and then showed the world that exquisite combination of movement, color and sound, the Russian ballet. His portly appearance was so "gentlemanly and aristocratic" that people turned back to look at him. The habit he had of smashing crockery and hotel furniture when slightly annoyed was partly responsible, perhaps, for the foreign conception of the Russian ego as exported abroad. His morals were frankly abnormal. He could be charming when he chose to smile. He bullied his dancers, blandly betrayed his friends and vilely insulted women. In later years he developed a mania for book-collecting, which Mr. Lifar deplores, but which seems to have been the most lovable trait in the man's character.

The second part of the book is devoted to what the author considers to be Diaghilev's best find: Serge Lifar. The meticulous noting of petty intrigues, the settling of private feuds, and a smirking, pretty-pretty, love-in-the-mystical note, hardly make pleasant reading, while the "intimate" details of the author's relations with Diaghilev (depicted, for instance, as an enormously fat old man clad in an old-fashioned nightgown and imitating for Mr. Lifar's benefit ballet steps in a double-bed hotel room) are revolting not merely in themselves, but also by reason of the clumsiness of Mr. Lifar's pen. Under these circumstances, the translator's task must have been arduous in the extreme, and no wonder his version lacks distinction--though on the whole it is a trifle less trite than the original Russian text. Still, I do not think that he ought to have been so misled by the elephantine shape of the word "compendious" as to use it in the sense of "large"; on the other hand, it is not his fault, but the author's, if certain other phrases come to grief. It is Mr. Lifar himself who says of a first-night success: "I was inundated with flowers, objects, fruit and letters."
By Vladimir Nabokov
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