Vladimir Nabokov

Some thoughts on Gennady Barabtarlo 's "See Under Sebastian"

By MARYROSS, 27 May, 2020

I would like to say how much I appreciate the new feature, “Classics From the Nabokovian.” It’s hard to be “up” on everything that’s been written on Nabokov, even though we have this great resource here. I really enjoyed   Gennady Barabtarlo's "See under Sebastian," The Nabokovian 1990.24: 24-28.


I have a few further thoughts on Barabtarlo’s brilliant anagram discovery of “Knight is absent” for “Sebastian Knight.”


He writes that the anagram has “only the indefinite article left on the emptied rack,” that is, the letter “a.” He later finds the “a” in LATH, “in the phrase that may be relevant to this note: “…or the chess set (in Pawn Takes Queen) with a missing Knight ‘replaced by some sort of counter, a little orphan from another, unknown, game?’”


It seems to me that there are some pregnant implications and insights that either have not been fully developed here or perhaps they were simply meant to be implied and I merely feel the need to concretize them. So, this is not a criticism, but a few remarks meant to extend these insights.


I don’t see why the left-over “a” should not very well be used as “A knight is absent.” It would still make sense for Sebastian in the particular, as well as for a generic chess knight, but Barabtarlo clearly sees it as an incomplete anagram: “The superfluous a in the anagram is so minuscule a fault that it only underscores VN’s awesome glossal power…”


He begins by questioning the alternate Russian spelling of “Sevastian” as Knight’s christened name, which implies that the “v” is important. I’m not sure if he was also implying that it suggests Sebastian’s brother “V” is being substituted, and thus subsumed into the name. In this way, “V” becomes one with Sebastian. “V” in fact is a bit of a cipher as a personality. “V” is clearly the “counter,” the unknown “orphan” in this game of chess. In LATH Nabokov is clearly dropping relevant clues to TRLSK, with perhaps “V” as pawn besting Nina as Queen, by refusing her seductions. Likely the pawn is promoted to knight upon this event.


An anagram for “Sevastian Knight” is “Knight is savant” (plus this time a superfluous “e”). When V. feels he has merged with his brother, he has a classic mystical experience of Oneness. The fact that it was not really his brother, but a stranger, only amplifies the meaning of mystical oneness and brotherly love. This mystical state is often referred to as “ultimate knowledge” and a “savant” is a person of knowledge.





Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 9 months ago

In TRLSK Sebastian's half-brother V. mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan who translated La Belle Dame Sans Merci (Keats's ballad that was translated into Russian by VN) into Russian:


It appears that Sebastian had developed a friendship with the futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa, a weird couple who rented a cottage close to our country estate near Luga. He was a noisy robust little man with a gleam of real talent concealed in the messy obscurity of his verse. But because he did his best to shock people with his monstrous mass of otiose words (he was the inventor of the 'submental grunt' as he called it), his main output seems now so nugatory, so false, so old-fashioned (super-modern things have a queer knack of dating much faster than others) that his true value is only remembered by a few scholars who admire the magnificent translations of English poems made by him at the very outset of his literary career – one of these at least being a very miracle of verbal transfusion: his Russian rendering of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. (chapter 3)


In the opening stanza of his ballad Keats mentions the knight, the lake and the birds:


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.


In TRLSK Nina Lecerf (alias Mme de Rechnoy) is La Belle Dame Sans Merci who has Sebastian in thrall. The name Rechnoy means "of the river" and hints at Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov's play Chayka ("The Seagull," 1896). The action in it takes place in Sorin's country house at the lakeside. The name Sorin brings to mind Sirin, VN's Russian nom de plume. Sirin is a bird of Russian fairy tales.


In his sonnet The Grave of Keats (1881) Oscar Wilde compares Keats (who, like Chekhov, died of tuberculosis) to Saint Sebastian (an early Christian saint and martyr):


RID of the world's injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God's veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water----it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.


Keats is the author of Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818), a narrative poem adapted from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron (IV, 5). In LATH Isabel (Bel) is the name of Vadim's daughter. In his review of Vadim’s stuff the poet Basilevski mistranslated the first line of Keats’s Endymion (1818), “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” According to Vadim, Basilevski defined Keats as "a pre-Wildean aesthete in the beginning of the Industrial Era."


The inscription on Keats's tombstone reads: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." In Khlebnikov's poem Pen pan ("Master of Foams," 1915) the author's name is whispered by air. The surname Khlebnikov comes from khlebnik (obs, baker), a word that comes from khleb (bread). Nina Lecerf tells V. that the woman who attracted Sebastian is “good as good bread” (bonne comme le bon pain, a French idiom):


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 second-hand.
'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)


Latin for "bread" is panis. In his poem Pen pan Khlebnikov (an ornithologist's son) mentions svist proletevshikh kopytok (the piping of sandgrouses that flew by). The scientific name of a sandgrouse is Syrrhaptes paradoxus.


Btw., Sebastian's simple Russian surname (mispronounced by Mr. Goodman) seems to be Shishkov. It comes from shishka (cone), but there is also shish (nothing) in it.


3 years 9 months ago

I have assumed VN chose "Shishkov" as a homophone for "scheissekopf." I think that is probably why Mr. Goodman smiled under his mask as he "mispronounced" the name: "Or should I call him Mr…' and smiling under his mask Mr. Goodman tried to pronounce our simple Russian name." That would explain the name in his poetry hoax and short story,  "Vasily Shishkov."

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 9 months ago

In reply to by MARYROSS

No, Shishkov is a respectable name (that occurs in Chapter Eight of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and elsewhere). Mr. Goodman pronounces it "Siskov" (which is even more insulting than, say, "Sakespir"). Byron spelt the name of Count Musin-Pushkin 'Mouskin-Pouskin.'

Sorry Sam


3 years 9 months ago

I know it was VN's great-great- grandmother's name. I think it would not be beyond VN to suggest the pun, while impishly inserting himself into the novel.