In my recent post “osskomina, vypolziny, Dr Starov & St. Damier in TRLSK” I compared Sebastian Knight’s letter to his brother (written at the sanatorium in St Damier) to castling made after a long meditation. Actually, it should be compared to castling long. The notation for castling long (castling with the queenside rook) is 0-0-0 and brings to mind Olga Olegovna Orlova, an old Russian lady who showed to V. (Sebastian’s half-brother, the narrator and main character in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) the diary she had kept in the past:


Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December 1899, in the former capital of my country. An old Russian lady who has for some obscure reason begged me not to divulge her name, happened to show me in Paris the diary she had kept in the past. So uneventful had those years been (apparently) that the collecting of daily details (which is always a poor method of self-preservation) barely surpassed a short description of the day's weather; and it is curious to note in this respect that the personal diaries of sovereigns – no matter what troubles beset their realms – are mainly concerned with the same subject. Luck being what it is when left alone, here I was offered something which I might never have hunted down had it been a chosen quarry. 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. On second thought I cannot see any real necessity of complying with her anonymity. That she will ever read this book seems wildly improbable. Her name was and is Olga Olegovna Orlova – an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold. (Chapter 1)


Olga (1920) is a poem by Gumilyov. The surname Orlova comes from oryol (eagle). In the penultimate stanza of his poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1921) Gumilyov mentions the eagle:


Предо мной предстанет, мне неведом,

Путник, скрыв лицо; но всё пойму,

Видя льва, стремящегося следом,

И орла, летящего к нему.


Крикну я... но разве кто поможет,

Чтоб моя душа не умерла?

Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,

Мы меняем души, не тела.


An unknown traveler will appear before me,

Hiding his face; but I'll understand all

When I see the lion following his tracks,

And the eagle flying toward him.


I will cry out...but who can prevent

My soul from dying?

Only snakes shed their skin

We change souls, not bodies.


In his letter to V. Sebastian mentioned his vypolziny (shed snake-skins):


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)


According to Sebastian, up to the word “life” his letter to V. (that was begun almost a week ago) had been destined to quite a different person. It seems that, before turning towards V., Sebastian’s letter “had been destined” to the woman he loved. In the final part of his poem Moi chitateli (“My Readers,” 1921) Gumilyov mentions zhenshchina s prekrasnym litsom, edinstvenno dorogim vo vselennoy (the woman with a beautiful face, the only dear in the universe):


И когда женщина с прекрасным лицом,
Единственно дорогим во вселенной,
Скажет: я не люблю вас,
Я учу их, как улыбнуться,
И уйти и не возвращаться больше.
А когда придёт их последний час,
Ровный, красный туман застелит взоры,
Я научу их сразу припомнить
Всю жестокую, милую жизнь,
Всю родную, странную землю,
И, представ перед ликом Бога
С простыми и мудрыми словами,
Ждать спокойно Его суда.


And when a beautiful woman,
the only woman in their world,
says: Not you, I don’t love you,
I teach them to smile
and leave and never come back.
And in their last hour,
when a red mist spreads across their eyes,
I’ll teach them how to remember
all their cruel, lovely lives, all
at once, and their country, loved and
strange, and how to stand in God’s
presence and speak simple, wise words,
and wait, calm, for His Judgment.

(transl. Burton Raffel)


In the poem’s penultimate part Gumilyov mentions soderzhimoe vyedennogo yaytsa (the contents of an eaten egg, cf. “an egg-like alliteration” mentioned by V.):


Я не оскорбляю их неврастенией,
Не унижаю душевной теплотой,
Не надоедаю многозначительными намеками
На содержимое выеденного яйца,
Но когда вокруг свищут пули
Когда волны ломают борта,
Я учу их, как не бояться,
Не бояться и делать что надо.


They’re not insulted with sick nerves, in my poems,
not embarrassed by my heartfelt feelings,
not bored with pregnant hints
about what’s left in an egg when it’s eaten:
but when bullets whistle,
when waves crack in ships,
I teach them not to be afraid,
not to be afraid, and to do what must be done.


In his essay “Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya” (“Without Divinity, without Inspiration,” 1921) Alexander Blok criticizes Gumilyov and the acmeists because in their verses they hush up what is most significant and precious in them, the soul:


Когда отбросишь все эти горькие шутки, становится грустно; ибо Н. Гумилев и некоторые другие "акмеисты", несомненно даровитые, топят самих себя в холодном болоте бездушных теорий и всяческого формализма; они спят непробудным сном без сновидений; они не имеют и не желают иметь тени представления о русской жизни и о жизни мира вообще; в своей поэзии (а следовательно, и в себе самих) они замалчивают самое главное, единственно ценное: душу. (3)


In his essay Blok mentions oskomina (the word used by Sebastian in his letter to V.):


Мы привыкли к окрошке, ботвинье и блинам, и французская травка с уксусом в виде отдельного блюда может понравиться лишь гурманам. Так и "чистая поэзия" лишь на минуту возбуждает интерес и споры среди "специалистов"; споры эти потухают так же быстро, как вспыхнули, и после них остаётся одна оскомина; а "большая публика", никакого участия в этом не принимающая и не обязанная принимать, а требующая только настоящих, живых художественных произведений, верхним чутьём догадывается, что в литературе не совсем благополучно, и начинает относиться к литературе новейшей совсем иначе, чем к литературе старой. (1)


The title of Blok’s essay was borrowed from Pushkin’s poem K*** (“To***,” 1825). The patronymic Olegovna seems to hint at Pushkin’s Pesn’ o veshchem Olege (“The Song of Wise Oleg,” 1822), a poem whose hero is bitten by a snake. At the end of Pushkin’s poem Prince Igor (who ruled in Kiev after Oleg’s death) and his wife Olga are mentioned:


Князь Игорь и Ольга на холме сидят;
Дружина пирует у брега;
Бойцы поминают минувшие дни
И битвы, где вместе рубились они.


Prince Igor and Olga they sit on the mound;
The war-men the death song are singing:
And they talk of old times, of the days of their pride,
And the fights where together they struck side by side.

(transl. T. B. Shaw)


In Pushkin’s poem a sorcerer predicts to Oleg that he will die because of his horse:


«Твой конь не боится опасных трудов;
Он, чуя господскую волю,
То смирный стоит под стрелами врагов,
То мчится по бранному полю.
И холод и сеча ему ничего...
Но примешь ты смерть от коня своего».


"Thy steed fears not labour, nor danger, nor pain,
His lord's lightest accent he heareth,
Now still, though the arrows fall round him like rain,
Now o'er the red field he careereth;
He fears not the winter, he fears not to bleed, —
Yet thy death-wound shall come from thy good battle-steed!"


In Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) Pushkin famously compares Russia to the horse in Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter I:


А в сём коне какой огонь!
Куда ты скачешь, гордый конь,
И где опустишь ты копыта?
О мощный властелин судьбы!
Не так ли ты над самой бездной
На высоте, уздой железной
Россию поднял на дыбы? (Part Two)


In the second stanza of his poem “Memory” Gumilyov compares memory to a giantess who leads life like a horse by the reins:


Память, ты рукою великанши

Жизнь ведёшь, как под уздцы коня,

Ты расскажешь мне о тех, что раньше

В этом теле жили до меня.


Memory, with the hand of a giantess

You lead life like a horse by the reins,

You will tell me about those who lived

In this body before it was mine.


Russian for “horse,” kon’ also means “knight” (a chessman).


Alexey Sklyarenko

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