NABOKV-L post 0027461, Thu, 17 Aug 2017 12:19:41 +0300

chess problem in Speak,
Memory; osskomina & vypolziny in TRLSK; Great Beaver & Ferz
Bretwit in Pale Fire
My previous post (“shaving, Beirut, old Zembla's fields, empires of rhyme,
Indies of calculus & Count Komarovski in Pale Fire”) is incomplete and
should be continued as follows:

In Speak, Memory VN describes his Staunton chessmen and compares a small
crimson crown on the brow of the king’s knight to the round mark on a happy
Hindu’s forehead:

My Staunton chessmen (a twenty-year-old set given to me by my father’s
Englished brother, Konstantin), splendidly massive pieces, of tawny or black
wood, up to four and a quarter inches tall, displayed their shiny contours
as if conscious of the part they played. Alas, if examined closely, some of
the men were seen to be chipped (after traveling in their box through the
fifty or sixty lodgings I had changed during those years); but the top of
the king’s rook and the brow of the king’s knight still showed a small
crimson crown painted upon them, recalling the round mark on a happy Hindu’
s forehead. (Chapter Fourteen, 3)

Describing his best chess problem, VN mentions the false scent in which a
pawn becomes a knight:

The false scent, the irresistible “try” is: Pawn to b8, becoming a knight,
with three beautiful mates following in answer to disclosed checks by Black;
but Black can defeat the whole brilliant affair by not checking White and
making instead a modest dilatory move elsewhere on the board. (ibid.)

In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the narrator
(Sebastian’s half-brother V.) is a black pawn (on b7) at the beginning that
becomes a knight (on a1) at the end. The characters of TRLSK include Mr.
Goodman, Sebastian’s biographer. The narrator compares Mr. Goodman’s face
to a cow’s udder:

'My name,' she said, 'is Helen Pratt. I have overheard as much of your
conversation as I could stand and there is a little thing I want to ask you.
Clare Bishop is a great friend of mine. There's something she wants to find
out. Could I talk to you one of these days?'
I said yes, most certainly, and we fixed the time.
'I knew Mr Knight quite well,' she added, looking at me with bright round
'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 Six)

One of Sebastian Knight’s books is entitled Lost Property. Dobro being
Russian for “goods, property,” the name Goodman brings to mind the Russian
saying ne ubit’ bobra, ne nazhit’ dobra (one cannot make a fortune without
killing a beaver). A tall bearded man, Kinbote was nicknamed the Great

One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a
magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my
friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket,
whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to
something the secretary had asked: "I guess Mr Shade has already left with
the Great Beaver." Of course, I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a
rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me,
but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a
pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling
Gerald Emerald's bow-tie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by
him. (Foreword)

Kinbote’s Foreword to Pale Fire is dated Oct. 19, 1959. On this day (the
Lyceum anniversary) Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits
suicide. There is a hope that, after Kinbote’s death, Botkin (Shade’s,
Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) Botkin will be “full” again. In
TRLSK the narrator quotes a passage from Lost Property:

“All things belong to the same order of things, for such is the oneness of
human perception, the oneness of individuality, the oneness of matter,
whatever matter may be. The only real number is one, the rest are mere
repetition” (ibid.,
page 83). (Chapter 11)

The title of Mr Goodman’s book, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, brings to
mind VN’s play in blank verse Tragediya gospodina Morna (“The Tragedy of
Mr Morn,” 1924) which, in turn, reminds one of Gumilyov’s play Krasota
Morni (“The Beauty of Morni,” 1921). In his poem Ya vezhliv s zhizn’yu
sovremennoyu… (“I’m polite with modern life…” 1913) Gumilyov says that
he is not geroy tragicheskiy (a tragic hero):

Но нет, я не герой трагический,
Я ироничнее и суше,
Я злюсь, как идол металлический
Среди фарфоровых игрушек.

Yet I'm no tragic hero - way too rough,
Ironic, jaded, dryly chiding,
An iron idol that's consumed with wrath
Amongst the statuettes of china.

The (imperfect) rhyme sushe (more dryly) \xa8C igrushek (toys) brings to mind
the rhyme igrushek \xa8C lyagushek (frogs) in Derzhavin’s poem “In Praise of
the Mosquito” (see the quote in my previous post).

At the end of TRLSK the narrator says that, despite Sebastian’s death, the
hero remains:

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)

Sebastian dies in a sanatorium in St Damier. Damier is French for
“chessboard.” In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Oswin Bretwit, a retired
diplomat whose surname means in Zemblan “Chess Intelligence.” In Paris
Gradus (Shade’s murderer) offers to Oswin Bretwit the correspondence
between Oswin’s grand-uncle Zule and his cousin Ferz:

The scripta in question were two hundred and thirteen long letters which had
passed some seventy years ago between Zule Bretwit, Oswin's grand-uncle,
Mayor of Odevalla, and a cousin of his Ferz Bretwit, Mayor of Aros. (note to
Line 286)

Ferz’ is Russian for “chess queen.” In a letter of the first part of
January \xa8C February 14, 1825, to Katenin Griboedov (the future Russian envoy
in Teheran) compares Sofia (a character in Griboedov’s play “Woe from
Wit,” 1824) to ferz’:

Кто-то со злости выдумал об нём, что он сум
асшедший, никто не поверил, и все повторяю
т, голос общего недоброхотства и до него д
оходит, притом и нелюбовь к нему той девуш
ки, для которой единственно он явился в Мо
скву, ему совершенно объясняется, он ей и
всем наплевал в глаза и был таков. Ферзь т
оже разочарована насчёт своего сахара ме

Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin).
Lastochka (“The Swallow,” 1792-94) is a poem by Derzhavin. In the poem’s
closing lines (written after the death of ‘Plenira,’ the poet’s first
wife) Derzhavin compares his soul to the swallow:

Душа моя! гостья ты мира:
Не ты ли перната сия? ―
Воспой же бессмертие, лира!
Восстану, восстану и я, ―
Восстану, ― и в бездне эфира
Увижу ль тебя я, Пленира?

Explaining his comedy to Katenin, Griboedov says that Chatski (the main
character in “Woe from Wit”) ey i vsem napleval v glaza (spat in the eyes
of Sofia and everybody). In his poem Shade says that we should spit into the
eyes of our executioners (see the quote in my previous post). In the same
letter to Katenin Griboedov compares himself to Molière and discusses Moli
ère’s characters:

Да! и я коли не имею таланта Мольера, то по
крайней мере чистосердечнее его; портрет
ы, и только портреты, входят в состав коме
дии и трагедии, в них, однако, есть черты, с
войственные многим другим лицам, а иные в
сему роду человеческому настолько, наско
лько каждый человек похож на всех своих д
вуногих собратий. Карикатур ненавижу, в м
оей картине ни одной не найдёшь. Вот моя п
оэтика; ты волен просветить меня, и, коли л
учше что выдумаешь, я позаймусь от тебя с
благодарностию. Вообще я ни перед кем не т
аился и сколько раз повторяю (свидетельст
вуюсь Жандром, Шаховским, Гречем, Булгари
ным еtс., еtс., еtс.), что тебе обязан зрелост
ию, объёмом и даже оригинальностию моего
дарования, если оно есть во мне. Одно приб
авлю о характерах Мольера: ?Мещанин во дво
рянстве?, ?Мнимый больной? ― портреты, и пр
евосходные; ?Скупец? ― антропос собственн
ой фабрики, и несносен.

In a letter of May 16, 1835, to Pushkin Katenin paraphrases the words of
Boileau (the author of Epistle II A M. Molière):

Своя Семья мила, в Аристофане целая идея,
и будь всё как второй акт, вышла бы в своем
роде хорошая комедия; князь не тщательный
художник и не великий поэт, но вопреки

Il est bien des degrés du médiocre au pire

сиречь до Кукольника; и какими стихами, с
тех пор как они взбунтовались противу все
х правил, они пишут!

In L’Art Poétique (Chant IV) Boileau says: Il n'est point de degré du mé
diocre au pire (he is not a degree from mediocre to worst). Gradus is
Russian for “degree.”

In a letter to his brother Sebastian mentions osskomina (a word used in the
phrase nabit’ oskominu, “set the teeth on edge”) and vypolziny (shed
snake-skins or pupae shed by insects):

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)

Sebastian’s vypolziny bring to mind the opening and closing lines of
Gumilyov’s poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1921):

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.

Крикну я... но разве кто поможет,

Чтоб моя душа не умерла?

Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,

Мы меняем души, не тела.

I will cry out... but who can prevent

My soul from dying?

Only snakes shed their skin

We change souls, not bodies.

In one of his last articles, “Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya”
(“Without Divinity, without Inspiration,” 1921), Alexander Blok criticizes
Gumilyov and the acmeists who, according to Blok, deliberately hush up what
is most significant and precious in them, the soul:

Когда отбросишь все эти горькие шутки, ст
ановится грустно; ибо Н. Гумилёв 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 essay Blok mentions oskomina (one of Blok’s favorite words that also
occurs in his diaries):

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)

Blok borrowed the title of his article from Pushkin’s poem a K***
(“To***,” 1825):

Я помню чудное мгновенье:

Передо мной явилась ты,

Как мимолетное виденье,

Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной

В тревогах шумной суеты,

Звучал мне долго голос нежный,

И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежной

Рассеял прежние мечты,

И я забыл твой голос нежный,

Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья

Тянулись тихо дни мои

Без божества, без вдохновенья,

Без слёз, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:

И вот опять явилась ты,

Как мимолетное виденье,

Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьётся в упоенье,

И для него воскресли вновь

И божество, и вдохновенье,

И жизнь, и слёзы, и любовь.

I still recall the wondrous moment

When you appeared before my eyes,

Just like a fleeting apparition,

Just like pure beauty's distillation.

When'er I languished in the throes of hopeless grief

Amid the troubles of life's vanity,

Your sweet voice lingered on in me,

Your dear face came to me in dreams.

Years passed. The raging, gusty storms

Dispersed my former reveries,

And I forgot your tender voice,

Your features so divine.

In exile, in confinement's gloom,

My uneventful days wore on,

Without divinity, without inspiration

Without tears, without life, without love.

My soul awakened once again:

And once again you came to me,

Just like a fleeting apparition

Just like pure beauty's distillation.

My heart again resounds in rapture,

Within it once again arise

Feelings of awe and inspiration,

Of life itself, of tears, and love.

The repetition of words and even of whole lines in Pushkin’s poem brings to
mind “sure returns of expected rhymes” mentioned by Pope in Essay on
Criticism. This seems to suggest that the first line of Shade’s poem should
be repeated again at the end and that the rhyme slain-windowpane should also

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane. (ll. 1000-1001)

Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1914) is a poem by Blok. According to G. Ivanov,
when he asked Blok “does a sonnet need a coda,” Blok replied that he did
not know what a coda is. Line 1001 of Shade’s poem is its coda.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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