The commentators of VN’s work agree that the title of VN’s novel “Invitation to a Beheading” (1935) can be traced back to Baudelaire’s poem L'invitation au voyage (1855). But the novel’s original Russian title, Priglashenie na kazn’ (Invitation to an Execution), seems to have a different origin:


В старом замке трясётся за шкафом скелет
и капрал заряжает свой старый мушкет,
куртизанке амур шепчет про короля;
на весёлую казнь приглашают меня.


In the old castle a skeleton shivers behind the closet

and a corporal loads his old musket.

To a courtesan a cupid whispers about the king.

They invite me to a merry execution.


Although I failed to identify the author of the above lines, I suspect that they were written before 1935 and that VN knew them. They are quoted at the end of Alexey Oliferuk’s documentary Gatchina. Svershilos’ (“Gatchina. Consummatum Est,” 2017): A town 45 km south of St. Petersburg, Gatchina was the residence of the Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (in 1796-1801 Paul I, the Emperor of Russia) and of Alexander III (reigned in 1881-94). Christ’s words as he was dying on the Cross, consummatum est (“it is finished” in Latin Vulgate), are visible on Salvatore Tonci’s “Portrait of Paul I of Russia as Grand Master of the Order of Malta” (1801). The artist finished the portrait of “the Russian Hamlet” (as Paul I was sometimes called) after his model’s death. In lines 65-88 of his ode Vol’nost’ (“Liberty,” 1817) Pushkin describes the assassination of Paul I on the night of March 11, 1801. In his poem May 26, 1828 Pushkin calls life dar naprasnyi, dar sluchaynyi (vain gift, chance gift) and wonders why it is sentenced to death (na kazn’ osuzhdena) by secret fate:


Дар напрасный, дар случайный,
Жизнь, зачем ты мне дана?
Иль зачем судьбою тайной
Ты на казнь осуждена?


Кто меня враждебной властью
Из ничтожества воззвал,
Душу мне наполнил страстью,
Ум сомненьем взволновал?..


Цели нет передо мною:
Сердце пусто, празден ум,
И томит меня тоскою
Однозвучный жизни шум.


A gift in vain, a gift by chance,

O Life, why have you been given to me?

And why have you been sentenced to death

By inscrutable fate?


Who has called me forth from nothingness

By his hostile power,

And filled my soul with suffering

And my mind with anguishing doubt?...


There is no goal before me:

My heart is empty, my mind lies idle,

And the monotonous din of life

torments me with anguish.


VN interrupted his work on Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) to write Priglashenie na kazn’. The main character in Priglashenie na kazn’ is Cincinnatus С. In a letter of Feb. 18, 1889, to Leontiev-Shcheglov (a fellow writer who nicknamed Chekhov Potyomkin) Chekhov says that he is not Potyomkin, but Cincinnatus:


Голова моя занята мыслями о лете и даче. Денно и нощно мечтаю о хуторе. Я не Потёмкин, а Цинцинат. Лежанье на сене и пойманный на удочку окунь удовлетворяют моё чувство гораздо осязательнее, чем рецензии и аплодирующая галерея. Я, очевидно, урод и плебей.


In Pushkin’s Table-Talk (1835-36) there are several anecdotes about Prince Potyomkin (a favorite of the Empress Catherine II, mother of Paul I). Btw., the name Potyomkin comes from potyomki (darkness) and brings to mind the saying chuzhaya dusha – potyomki (you cannot read in another’s soul). Cincinnatus was sentenced to death because others (all of whom are transparent to each other) cannot see through him.


Alexey Sklyarenko

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