Loustalot: The Nabokov Family Trainer
by A. Sklepikov
(with photos by the author and Elena Kuznetsova)

That "wonderful rubbery Frenchman" from Speak, Memory (corresponding to Drugie berega's "udivitel'no guttaperchevyi frantsuz"), turned out to have had, after all, a rigid and durable skeleton. Like its immortalized owner, the skeleton of Monsieur Loustalot, the Nabokovs' boxing and fencing coach, was granted a long life - perhaps even an eternity in terms of our earthly reality. Moreover, that skeleton can still be seen in the anatomical museum of the Lesgaft State Sports Academy facing on St. Petersburg's Moyka Canal at 35 Dekabristov (formerly Ofitserskaya Street). The Academy lies only some 500 meters west of the Nabokov family home at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street.

Here are the milestones of his life and some additional details of interest to the inquisitive: Ernesto Loustalot was born on January 5, 1859, in Bordeaux, son of a sailor who was boxing champion of the French navy and an outstanding swimmer. At four, the boy began swimming lessons; at five--boxing. At twenty, Loustalot set a record for the 100-meter backstroke. Soon after, he astounded the public by diving from a height of 35 meters, and subsequently, with another plunge, fully clothed, from 42 m. Loustalot finished L'Ecole Militaire de l'éducation physique in Joinville-le-Pont (near Paris) with the golden medal and for eight years taught boxing, swimming, fencing and gymnastics there. As a sportsman, Loustalot had some really imposing achievements--even for a time when the world wasn't yet so sports crazy: he was the French gymnastics champion, the French and English boxing champion of Europe, and among the world's five best fencers.

At the beginning of 1897 he was invited to teach sports in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, where, as we know from Speak, Memory, V. D. Nabokov lectured on criminal law starting in 1896. It was here that he most probably made the acquaintance of the famous sportsman whom he later engaged to come to the house and give lessons to himself and his older sons. With their entry to the private Tenishev School, the boy's home lessons ceased, but according to Aleksey Zver'ev's new Nabokov biography, Loustalot also taught at their school. He continued coming to the house to give fencing and boxing instruction to the father.

Loustalot did much for the popularization and development of sports in Russia. He was the initiator of the first public boxing match that took place on March 25, 1898, in the Mihailovskii Manège in St. Petersburg, where he boxed against his pupil, a certain Vains. He was among the first sportsmen to introduce the English and the French boxing styles in Russia where he trained several first-rate Russian boxers. He was also the very first (every Russian book on the theme notes that fact) to introduce water polo in Russia.

Russia became his second homeland. He enjoyed a great respect and popularity and became russified with the years, so that a Russian patronymic was added to his name: Ernest Ivanovich. (His family name is variously spelled Lustalo and Lustallo in Russian sources.) After the Revolution, he refused to leave Russia and from 1919 on worked as a teacher of physical training and sports in the Higher School for Naval Officers in the famous Admiralty building. The son of a sailor, he was pleased to put on the uniform of a naval officer at sixty.

Loustalot died on March 9, 1931, in the street, while going to his work. He bequeathed his body to the Lesgaft Institute of Physical Training for scientific study, perhaps thinking his remains might yield useful information for athletes even after his death.

Lustalot's ten-year-old pupil earned the admiration of his classmates by bloodying the nose of the class' biggest bully with a straight left learned from the little Frenchman. Vladimir Nabokov could hardly have known of his trainer's death, let alone that his skeleton had been preserved, when he wrote the story ("Lebeda", 1932; Orache in the English translation). The tale's young hero takes Sunday gymnastics and boxing lessons with Monsieur "Mascara," who comes on weekdays to give his father fencing and boxing lessons. Monsieur "Mascara" is described as "a diminutive elderly Frenchman made of gutta-percha and black bristle." One morning leaving for school, the boy hears "the crepitations of steel and the scraping of soles" in the library cum gym. He stops by to see his father who doffs his mask to greet his son. At school he accidentally learns that his father is to fight a duel and spends the day in high anxiety imagining various (largely literary) scenarios. Only the next day when he learns the affair has been honorably concluded does he dissolve into tears of relief.

As we can see, little has changed in the fencing master's appearance a score of years later, when he, too, like the boy's father in the story, takes off his mask (if only that of a fictional character's name) to come before us under his real name in the first English (Conclusive Evidence) and the subsequent Russian (Drugie berega) version of Nabokov's memoir.

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