According to Sebastian’s half-brother V. (the narrator in VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941), there is an occult resemblance between a man and the date of his death:


I have managed to reconstruct more or less the last year of Sebastian's life: 1935. He died in the very beginning of 1936, and as I look at this figure I cannot help thinking that there is an occult resemblance between a man and the date of his death. Sebastian Knight d. 1936.... This date to me seems the reflection of that name in a pool of rippling water. There is something about the curves of the last three numerals that recalls the sinuous outlines of Sebastian's personality.... (chapter 19)


Sebastian Knight, who was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, died at the age of thirty-six. VN began writing TRLSK in December of 1938. On November 19, 1938, Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose pseudonym comes from shest’, “six”) died in Paris. Shestov, who was born in 1866, died at the age of seventy-two. 72 = 36 × 2 = 12 × 6 = 8 × 8 + 8. In VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) Fyodor decides to write a book on Chernyshevski after reading an article in the Soviet chess magazine 8 × 8:


А как-то через несколько дней ему под руку попался всё тот же шахматный журнальчик, он перелистал его, ища недостроенных мест, и, когда оказалось, что всё уже сделано, пробежал глазами отрывок в два столбца из юношеского
дневника Чернышевского; пробежал, улыбнулся и стал сызнова читать с интересом. Забавно-обстоятельный слог, кропотливо вкрапленные наречия, страсть к точке с запятой, застревание мысли в предложении и неловкие попытки её оттуда извлечь (причём она сразу застревала в другом месте, и автору приходилось опять возиться с занозой), долбящий, бубнящий звук слов, ходом коня передвигающийся смысл в мелочном толковании своих мельчайших действий, прилипчивая нелепость этих действий (словно у человека руки были в столярном клее, и обе были левые), серьёзность, вялость, честность, бедность, -- всё это так понравилось Федору Константиновичу, его так поразило и развеселило допущение, что автор, с таким умственным и словесным стилем, мог как-либо повлиять на литературную судьбу России, что на другое же утро он выписал себе в государственной библиотеке полное собрание сочинений Чернышевского. По мере того, как он читал, удивление его росло, и в этом чувстве было своего рода блаженство.


But a few days later he happened to come across that same copy of 8 × 8; he leafed through it, looking for unfinished bits, and when all the problems turned out to be solved, he ran his eyes over the two-column extract from Chernyshevski’s youthful diary; he glanced through it, smiled, and began to read it over with interest. The drolly circumstantial style, the meticulously inserted adverbs, the passion for semicolons, the bogging down of thought in midsentence and the clumsy attempts to extricate it (whereupon it got stuck at once elsewhere, and the author had to start worrying it out all over again), the drubbing-in, rubbing-in tone of each word, the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions, the viscid ineptitude of these actions (as if some workshop glue had got onto the man’s hands, and both were left), the seriousness, the limpness, the honesty, the poverty—all this pleased Fyodor so much, he was so amazed and tickled by the fact that an author with such a mental and verbal style was considered to have influenced the literary destiny of Russia, that on the very next morning he signed out the complete works of Chernyshevski from the state library. And as he read, his astonishment grew, and this feeling contained a peculiar kind of bliss. (Chapter Three)


Note “the knight-moves of sense in the trivial commentary on his minutest actions.”


The name Chernyshevski comes from chyornyi (black). Shestov’s real name was Schwarzmann. Schwarz is German for “black.” The characters of TRLSK include Uncle Black (as V. calls Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy’s cousin). When V. visits Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy, the latter is playing chess with his cousin:


The door at which I rang was opened by a lean, tall, shock-headed man in his shirtsleeves and with a brass stud at his collarless throat. He held a chessman – a black knight – in his hand. I greeted him in Russian.

'Come in, come in,' he said cheerfully, as if he had been expecting me.

'My name is so-and-so,' I said.

'And mine,' he cried, 'is Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy' – and he guffawed heartily as if it were a good joke. 'If you please,' he said, pointing with the chessman to an open door.

I was ushered into a modest room with a sewing machine standing in one corner and a faint smell of ribbon-and-linen in the air. A heavily built man was sitting sideways at a table on which an oilcloth chessboard was spread, with pieces too large for the squares. He looked at them askance while the empty cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth looked the other way. A pretty little boy of four or five was kneeling on the floor, surrounded by tiny motor cars. Pahl Pahlich chucked the black knight on to the table and its head came off. Black carefully screwed it on again.

'Sit down,' said Pahl Pahlich. 'This is my cousin,' he added. Black bowed. I sat down on the third (and last) chair. The child came up to me and silently showed me a new red-and-blue pencil. (Chapter 15)


Uncle Black is apparently a former racing motorist who works as a taxi driver in Paris:


The child, finding that I had been sufficiently interested in his pictures, wandered off to his uncle, who at once took him on his knee and proceeded to draw with incredible rapidity and very beautifully a racing car.

'You are an artist,' I said – to say something.

Pahl Pahlich, who was rinsing glasses in the tiny kitchen, laughed and shouted over his shoulder: 'Oh, he's an all-round genius. He can play the violin standing upon his head, and he can multiply one telephone number by another in three seconds, and he can write his name upside down in his ordinary hand.'

'And he can drive a taxi,' said the child, dangling its thin, dirty little legs. (ibid.)


In his memoir essay “Chekhov” (1914) Bunin quotes Chekhov’s words that in Perm all cabmen resemble Dobrolyubov:


- А кстати: вы знаете, что в Перми все извозчики похожи на Добролюбова?

- Вы не любите Добролюбова?

- Нет, люблю. Это же порядочные были люди. Не то что Скабичевский, который писал, что я умру под забором от пьянства, так как у меня "искры божьей нет".


A radical critic, Dobrolyubov is a character in Fyodor’s “Life of Chernyshevski” (Chapter Four of “The Gift”). Dobro being Russian for “good” (a noun), the name Dobrolyubov brings to mind Mr. Goodman, the author of The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight.

According to V., Mr. Goodman’s face looks like a cow’s udder:


'I knew Mr Knight quite well,' she [Helen Pratt] added, looking at me with bright round eyes.
'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 6)


In his poem Shekspir (“Shakespeare,” 1924) VN compares Falstaff’s face to an udder with pasted-on mustache:


Надменно-чужд тревоге театральной,

ты отстранил легко и беспечально

в сухой венок свивающийся лавр

и скрыл навек чудовищный свой гений

под маскою, но гул твоих видений

остался нам: венецианский мавр

и скорбь его; лицо Фальстафа - вымя

с наклеенными усиками; Лир



Haughty, aloof from theatre’s alarums,
you easily, regretlessly relinquished
the laurels twinning into a dry wreath,
concealing for all time your monstrous genius
beneath a mask; and yet, your phantasm’s echoes
still vibrate for us; your Venetian Moor,
his anguish; Falstaff’s visage, like an udder
with pasted-on mustache; the raging Lear..


The name Sebastian Knight hints at Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In TRLSK V. managed to find out that on the morning of Sebastian’s birth the temperature was twelve degrees below zero:


Therefore I am able to state that the morning of Sebastian's birth was a fine windless one, with twelve degrees (Reaumur) below zero… this is all, however, that the good lady found worth setting down. (chapter 1)


Sebastian Knight was born in St. Petersburg (VN’s home city). In Pushkin’s poem Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) the action takes place during the disastrous St. Petersburg flood of 1824 and the hero addresses Falconet’s equestrian monument of Peter I with the words:


Dobro, stroitel' chudotvornyi!

(All right, you wondrous builder!)


The cover of the first edition of VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1930) shows the Bronze Horseman. The name Luzhin comes from luzha (pool). The date of Sebastian’s death seems to his brother the reflection of Sebastian’s name in a pool of rippling water.


In his memoir essay on Chekhov Bunin mentions Shakespeare:


Говоря о Толстом, он как-то сказал:

- Чем я особенно в нём восхищаюсь, так это его презрением ко всем нам, прочим писателям, или, лучше сказать, не презрением, а тем, что он всех нас, прочих писателей, считает совершенно за ничто. Вот он иногда хвалит Мопассана, Куприна, Семёнова, меня... Отчего хвалит? Оттого, что он смотрит на нас как на детей. Наши повести, рассказы, романы для него детские игры, и поэтому он, в сущности, одними глазами глядит и на Мопассана и на Семенова. Вот Шекспир - другое дело. Это уже взрослый и раздражает его, что пишет не по-толстовски...


According to Chekhov (whose words Bunin quotes), Tolstoy (for whom all other writers are children) is annoyed by Shakespeare because he is grown-up and dares to write not like Tolstoy. Tolstoy (1928) is a poem by VN that ends strikingly like VN’s poem Shakespeare:


И он ушёл, разборчивый творец,

на голоса прозрачные деливший

гул бытия, ему понятный гул...

Однажды он со станции случайной

в неведомую сторону свернул,

и дальше — ночь, безмолвие и тайна...


And he is gone, meticulous creator

who into lucid voices separated

the din of being, a din he understood…

One day, from a chance railroad station, he

turned off toward the unknown and left for good;

beyond lies night, silence, and mystery…

In his essay Bunin
points out that one of the best articles on Chekhov was written by Shestov who calls Chekhov “a merciless talent:”


Одна из самых лучших статей о нём принадлежит Шестову, который называет его беспощаднейшим талантом.


Shestov’s essay on Chekhov is entitled Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905). In his poem Gorit zvezda, drozhit efir (“The star shines, the ether shivers…” 1921) Khodasevich says that he creates from nothing (i ya tvoryu iz nichego) God’s seas, deserts, mountains and then destroys them, like a child:


Горит звезда, дрожит эфир,

Таится ночь в пролеты арок.

Как не любить весь этот мир,

Невероятный Твой подарок?


Ты дал мне пять неверных чувств,

Ты дал мне время и пространство,

Играет в мареве искусств

Моей души непостоянство.


И я творю из ничего

Твои моря, пустыни, горы,

Всю славу солнца Твоего,

Так ослепляющего взоры.


И разрушаю вдруг шутя

Всю эту пышную нелепость,

Как рушит малое дитя

Из карт построенную крепость.


In Khodasevich’s poem Sorrentinskie fotografii (“The Sorrento Photographs,” 1926) the Bronze Horseman is reflected upside down (in TRLSK Uncle Black can write his name upside down in his ordinary hand) in the gulf of Naples, as it was once reflected in the Neva:


И отражён кастелламарской

Зеленоватою волной,

Огромный страж России царской

Вниз опрокинут головой.

Так отражался он Невой,

Зловещий, огненный и мрачный,

Таким явился предо мной -

Ошибка плёнки неудачной.


As in “The Luzhin Defense,” in TRLSK VN turns Falconet’s equestrian monument of Peter I into a black knight (chessman).


Alexey Sklyarenko

Google Search
the archive
the Editors
NOJ Zembla Nabokv-L
Subscription options AdaOnline NSJ Ada Annotations L-Soft Search the archive VN Bibliography Blog

All private editorial communications are read by both co-editors.