The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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First edition cover

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is the first English novel by Vladimir Nabokov, written from late 1938 to early 1939, and published in 1941 by New Directions Publishers.

Composition[edit]

Nabokov's first major work in English was composed in Paris while the author sat in the bathroom, his valise set across a bidet as a writing desk.[1] Nabokov retreated into the washroom to write.

Plot summary[edit]

The narrator, V., is absorbed in the composition of his first literary work, a biography of his half-brother the famous Russian-born English novelist, Sebastian Knight (1899–1936). In the course of his quest he tracks down Sebastian's acquaintances from Cambridge, and interviews friends and acquaintances, including friends Helen Pratt and P.G. Sheldon, the poet Alexis Pan, and the painter Roy Carswell.

In the course of his biography V. also reviews Sebastian's books (see below) and attempts to refute the views of the "misleading" biography by Knight's former secretary Mr. Goodman, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. Goodman maintains that Knight was too aloof and cut off from real life.

V. concludes that, after a long-running romantic relationship with Clare Bishop, Sebastian's final years were addled by a love affair with another woman—a Russian whom he presumably met at a hotel in Blauberg, where Sebastian spent time recuperating from heart ailments in June 1929. V. leaves for Blauberg, where, with the help of an unpredictable private detective, he acquires a list of the names of four women who were staying at the hotel during the same time period as Sebastian: Mademoiselle Lidya Bohemsky, of Paris; Madame de Rechnoy, also of Paris; Helene Grinstein, of Berlin; and Helene von Graun, who, despite her German name, spoke Russian and also lived in Paris.

V. is intent on tracking down each of the women to interview them. After dismissing the possibility of Helene Grinstein, his search leads him to Paris, and the list narrows to two candidates: Mme de Rechnoy and Mme von Graun. V. first suspects Mme de Rechnoy of being the mystery woman based on a compelling description from her ex-husband, Pahl Palich Rechnoy. Mme de Rechnoy has left her husband and can not be located, leaving V. unsatisfied.

However, after meeting Mme von Graun's friend, Mme Nina Lecerf, and hearing stories of von Graun's unflattering affair with a Russian, V. becomes convinced that Helene von Graun is the woman in question. Nina invites V. to visit her in the country, where Helene will be staying with the Lecerfs. V. accepts, and, worried that he will miss his prey, writes a brief letter to Helene announcing his intention to meet her there.

At the country house V. finds that Helene von Graun has not yet arrived. He mentions his letter to Nina, which angers her. Through a series of subtle exchanges, V. learns that it is Nina Lecerf herself, and not Helene von Graun, who was Sebastian's final romance. Nina was, in fact, the Mme de Rechnoy who V. had originally suspected, but never met.

The final chapters of the narration deal with The Doubtful Asphodel, Sebastian's final novel, which is centered on a dying man and his slow decay. V.'s description of then novel reveals similarities and coincidence not only with Sebastian's life, but with V.'s own investigative adventures. V. tries to account for Sebastian's final years, including a last, cryptic letter from Sebastian asking V. to visit him at a hospital in France. As V. makes the trip to France, his ties to his own life become increasingly visible for their tenuousness: his employer strains his ability to travel, he struggles to remember necessary details such as the hospital name, he even lacks sufficient money to travel efficiently. V. finally arrives at the hospital and listens to his sleeping brother's breathing from a separate room, only to discover that the sleeping man is not his brother, but an English man. Sebastian Knight had died the night before.

The novel concludes with a philosophical reconciliation of Sebastian's life, and a final implication that V. himself is Sebastian Knight, or at least an incarnation of his soul.

Allusions[edit]

Nina’s and V. differing attitudes and expectations of the situation make it an interesting quest to analyse the motivations behind their use of language. The intentional change of V.’s behaviour and Nina’s up and down mood result in speech behaviour that is expressed through different emotional attitudes not the least visible in their body language. While the expectations of each other are disguised by Nina’s betrayal, V.’s final coming of age about Nina finishes an emotional tension that built up constantly. The situative context and history between the two persons in a drama like combination has its literary predecessors in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, mark the homonym of Sebastian’s second name Knight, Shakespeare’s Viola and Sebastian appear with Nabokov as V. and Sebastian. On Chekhov’s influence, Nina’s lap dog has already been mentioned.

Comments[edit]

The reader does not learn the first and last names of the narrator; Nabokov later writes to his biographer Andrew Field that "V stands for Victor." Three interpretations have been proposed regarding the relationship between the narrator and his subject - that V and SK are meant to be distinct persons, that SK invented V, and that V invented SK - and all of them seem possible.[2]

There are chess themes abound, as seen in names (Knight, Bishop), direct descriptions, references to black and white, and "moves" made by people. (Nina) Rechnoy's name is an anagram of "chernoy" (Russian for "black") and her birthname is Toorovetz (Russian "tura" for rook). When V encounters her husband Pavel Rechnoy, the latter is playing a chess game with his cousin; V therefore refer to the two men as "Black" and "White". The hospital where SK dies is located in the fictitious French town "Saint Damier" (damier is French for checkerboard). Themes and aspects of SK's books are worked into V's narration.

Through biographical research and SK's books, V comes to trace, understand and repeat the "moves" (in the chess sense) made by his sibling. As an academic project transformed into what Charles Kinbote would call "the monstrous semblance of a novel," Sebastian Knight operates as a kind of trial run of the author's later novel Pale Fire.

The novel contains biographical aspects that later are seen in Speak, Memory, including the birth and upbringing in St. Petersburg, the flight from revolutionary Russia, the untimely death of the father, living as an expatriate in England/ France, a visit to a Swiss governess, and the change from writing in Russian to English. And just as V has a complex relationship with his brother, Nabokov has also a complicated relationship to his brother Sergey.

Books by Sebastian Knight[edit]

The narrator discusses the following (fictitious) works by SK:

  • The Prismatic Bezel, Sebastian's first novel, "a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale" reflected in V's search for SK's Russian lover.
  • Success, Sebastian's second novel, traces "the exact way in which two lines of life were made to come into contact" (forming a "V", like V's narration)
  • Lost Property, Sebastian's memoir. "A counting of the things and souls lost" on SK's "literary journey of discovery", a counting reflected in V's narration.
  • "The Funny Mountain", a short story
  • "Albinos in Black", a short story
  • "The Back of the Moon", - this short story includes a Mr. Siller whose likeness resurfaces in V's narration as Mr. Silbermann,
  • The Doubtful Asphodel, this book is about "A man is dying, and he is the hero of the tale . . . The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying, and drawing up a ghostly knee"(175) and may be seen as a reflection on V's book.

Quotes[edit]

  • "The only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition" (Lost Property,page 83). (page 105)
  • Also see wikiquote's Nabokov entry.

Critical response[edit]

Nabokov's friend, correspondent, and sometime antagonist Edmund Wilson called Sebastian Knight his favorite among the author's works.[3] A new reading by Gerard de Vries "The True Life of Sebastian Knight," presenting Colonel Samain in the role usually attributed to Nina Rechnoy, is published by Zembla, the official site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov–Wilson Letters, 1940–1971, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. p. 57. (Nabokov writes Wilson on October 21, 1941, "I am very happy that you liked that little book. As I think I told you, I wrote it five years ago, in Paris, on the implement called bidet as a writing desk — because we lived in one room and I had to use our small bathroom as a study. There is another fishy "as" in that sentence. You are quite write about the slips. There are many clumsy expressions and foreignish mannerisms that I noticed myself when reading the book again after five years had passed; but if I started correcting them I would rewrite the whole thing.")
  2. ^ Julian W. Connolly. "From Biography to Autobiography and Back: The Fictionalization of The Narrated Self in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight". Retrieved July 21, 2010. 
  3. ^ Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov–Wilson Letters, 1940–1971, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. p. 25.

References[edit]

  • An archive devoted to Nabokov's works
  • Rimmon, Shlomith: "Problems of Voice in Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight". – In: Phyllis A. Roth (Edt.): Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, 109-129,G.K. Hall & Col., Boston, 1984.