Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027318, Mon, 6 Mar 2017 12:09:59 +0300

good bread & The Farce of Mr Goodman in TRLSK
According to Nina Lecerf (a character in VN’s novel The Real Life of
Sebastian Knight, 1941), the woman who attracted Sebastian is “good as good

We were silent for quite a long time. Alas, I had no more doubts, though the
picture of Sebastian was atrocious – but then, too, I had got it

'Yes,' I said, 'I shall see her at all costs. And this for two reasons.
Firstly, because I want to ask her a certain question – one question only.
And secondly '

'Yes?' said Madame Lecerf sipping her cold tea. 'Secondly?'

'Secondly, I am at a loss to imagine how such a woman could attract my
brother; so I want to see her with my own eyes.'

'Do you mean to say,' asked Madame Lecerf, 'that you think she is a
dreadful, dangerous woman? Une femme fatale? Because, you know, that's not
so. She's good as good bread.' (chapter 16)

In the first stanza of his poem Shestoe chuvstvo (“The Sixth Sense,” 1920)
Gumilyov mentions dobryi khleb (the good bread) and zhenshchina, kotoroyu
dano, sperva izmuchivshis’, nam nasladit’sya (the woman who at first
tortures and then delights us):

Прекрасно в нас влюблённое вино
И добрый хлеб, что в печь для нас садится,
И женщина, которою дано,
Сперва измучившись, нам насладиться.

Fine is the wine enamored of us,

and the good bread baked for our sake,

and the woman who delights us

when she's finished her tweaking games.

(transl. Burton Raffel)

Eventually V. (the narrator in TRLSK, Sebastian’s half-brother) finds out
that the woman who played a fatal role in Sebastian’s life was Nina Lecerf
(alias Mme de Rechnoy) herself. Her name hints at Nina Zarechnyi, a
character in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896). In his essay on
Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov
says that one of Chekhov’s most remarkable works is his play “The Seagull:”

Одним из самых характерных для Чехова, а потому и замечательных его
произведений должна считаться его драма “Чайка”. В ней с наибольшей полнотой
получило своё выражение истинное отношение художника к жизни. (VIII)

According to Shestov, in “The Seagull” the artist’s real attitude to life
was expressed most fully. In his essay Shestov points out that in Chekhov’s
story Palata № 6 (“Ward No. 6,” 1892) the doctor dies beautifully, in his
last minutes he sees a herd of deer, etc.:

И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати
прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо
оленей и т. п. (VI)

The name Lecerf has cerf (Fr., deer) in it.

In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov compares his story “Ward
No. 6” to a sweet lemonade that lacks alcohol:

Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное
лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нем нет спирта. В наших произведениях
нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даете

You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you,
after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in
it. That is just what is lacking in our productions—the alcohol which could
intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well.

In the opening line of Gumilyov’s poem “The Sixth Sense” vino (the wine) is

Shestov is the author of Dobro v uchenii gr. Tolstogo i Nitsshe (“The Good
in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche,” 1889) and Dostoevskiy i
Nitsshe (“Doestoevski and Nietzsche,” 1902). The latter work is subtitled
filosofiya tragedii (“the Philosophy of Tragedy”). The characters of TRLSK
include Mr Goodman, the author of The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. According
to V., this book’s title should have been The Farce of Mr Goodman:

Mr Goodman has never been a regular literary agent. He has only bet on
books. He does not rightfully belong to that intelligent, honest and
hard-working profession. We will leave it at that; but I have not yet done
with The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight or rather – The Farce of Mr Goodman.
(chapter 7)

In a letter of Sept. 15, 1903, to Maria Alekseev-Lilin (Stanislavski’s wife)
Chekhov says that his new play (“The Cherry Orchard,” 1904) is not a drama,
but a comedy that sometimes even looks like a farce:

Вышла у меня не драма, а комедия, местами даже фарс, и я боюсь, как бы мне
не досталось от Владимира Ивановича.

Chekhov died on July 15, 1904, in Badenweiler (a German spa). His last words
were davno ya ne pil shampanskogo (“it’s a long time since I drank
champagne”). Btw., July is the sixth month of the year.

Incidentally, in VN’s play Izobretenie Val’sa (“The Waltz Invention,” 1938)
the Minister of War mentions prostoy khleb dobrykh sovetov (“the simple
bread of good advices”):

Полковник. Не мне вам говорить, что вы незаменимы.

Министр. Вместо медовых пряников лести вы бы лучше кормили меня простым
хлебом добрых советов. О, скоро одиннадцать. Кажется, никаких дел больше
нет... (Act One)

The action in “The Waltz Invention” (a play that sometimes looks like a
farce) seems to take place in a dream that Lyubov’ (a character in VN’s play
“The Event,” 1938, the wife of the portrait painter Troshcheykin) dreams in
the “sleep of death” after committing suicide on her dead son’s fifth
birthday (two days after her mother’s fiftieth birthday). The name and
patronymic of Lyubov’s mother, Antonina Pavlovna, hints at Chekhov, and the
name and patronymic of her husband, Aleksey Maksimovich, hints at Gorky. In
a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov calls his correspondent and
editor gor’kiy p’yanitsa (“a hard drinker”).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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