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  Philologica 6 (1999/2000)  


(Some Comments on Nabokov’s “The Gift”. 1—2)




This article comments on four fragments from the third chapter of Nabokov’s novel. They tell the story of a young Russian writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (Fedor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyncev) who lives in Berlin and one day buys from a news-stand an issue of a certain Soviet “chess magazine” called 8 × 8. A lover of chess composition, he looks through the relevant section of the magazine and dislikes it as a whole. He is irritated by the “exercises of the young Soviet composers”, although he recognizes that they are “conscientious” (however, one of them contains a gross lapse: Black has nine pawns). Godunov-Cherdyntsev appraises extremely highly a few compositions: “the end-games by an old Russian master” he regards as “of genius”, while “a four-mover by an American master” is “charming”. Turning the pages of the magazine, the writer constantly comes across a “small article”, Chernyshevski <= Chernyshevskij> and Chess, supplied with a portrait of his hero. At first Godunov-Cherdyntsev regarded the “small article” as a curiosity which does not deserve even a fleeting acquaintance. Nevertheless, turning the pages on another occasion, he “ran his eyes over the extract from Chernyshevski’s youthful diary” which suddenly awoke in him a keen interest in the personality of the author of the diary. The magazine now had a “sentimental value” which gave the first impetus to his future work on the biography of Chernyshevskij (The Gift, trans. by M. Scammel and V. Nabokov).

When we read the fragments quoted above, five questions arise.

1) The first (and main) question is whether a Soviet chess magazine really existed which published an article about Chernyshevskij and chess, and if so, how accurate is the account of this article in Nabokov’s novel?

2) What is the name of the “old Russian master” and why does Nabokov (or, in effect, his alter ego in the novel), who was usually so miserly in praising his contemporaries, endow the work of this master with the unusual modifier “of genius”?

3) Who are the “young Soviet composers” and what is so irritating about their compositions?

4) Who is the “American master”, and which of his works does Godunov-Cherdyntsev enjoy?

5) Did any chess problems appear in print in which one side has “nine pawns”, and if so, what is their sense or nonsense?

Answers to only the first two questions have been found so far.

In the magazine, 64: Chess and Draughts in a Workers’ Club (1928, no. 13/14, 2—3) , a “small article” by A. A. Novikov has been found, which is accurately described in the novel. In addition to the parallels between the fictional and the real title of the chess magazine (“64” = “8 × 8”), the relevance of this source is confirmed by the following:

  • the titles of the articles (cf. : “Chernyshevski and Chess” — “Chess in the Life and Work of Chernyshevskij”);
  • the identical nature of their content (most of the space is taken up by quotations from the newly recently “youthful diary” of Chernyshevskij);
  • the identical nature of their design (a “two-column” layout);
  • the identical nature of the illustration (a portrait of the “thin-bearded old man, glowering over his spectacles”).

In this way, the text has been discovered which inspired the main character to create The Life of Chernyshevski which formed the celebrated fourth chapter of The Gift. And inasmuch as Nabokov’s work on the novel began with this chapter, so, to use an entomological metaphor in the manner of Nabokov himself, we can suggest the following “metamorphosis”: the egg is found, from which came the caterpillar (The Life of Chernyshevski), which finally turned into the imago (The Gift).

It was not difficult to identify the “old Russian master”. Without doubt, it is A. A. Troickij (Troitsky, Troitzki, 1866—1942), who became world-famous as a chess composer as early as the end of the nineteenth century. The influence of Troickij was reinforced when a collection of his chess studies was published in 1924 in Berlin (where Nabokov lived at the time). In the same issue of the magazine 64, where the Chernyshevskij article appeared, one of Troickij’s compositions was also published (p. 22). However, its content bears little resemblance to Nabokov’s description, and we cannot say which composition he actually meant. The answer to this question, as well as questions 3, 4 and 5 listed above, will become the subject of another article.



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