Nabokov wrote his first English-language novel—after writing eight in Russian—while living in Paris during the winter of 1938–’39. New Directions published it in 1941 upon the advice of Delmore Schwartz. Although the writer whose real life it promises to tell is said to have lived from December 1899 to January 1939, the dramatic action of the novel takes place in only the few months following his death.
Nabokov was sufficiently worried about the “fragility” of his English to ask friends to check the manuscript and galleys. And in the novel’s opening pages, he confronts the worries head on, repeating a “nasty dig” that a “celebrated old critic” aimed at Sebastian Knight after his death: “Poor Knight! he really had two periods, the first—a dull man writing broken English, the second—a broken man writing dull English.”
Whether Nabokov himself was a dull man I cannot say (I rather doubt he was an hombre interesante, in Ortega’s sense), but it is certainly not true that the English of his first English-language novel is broken. Bookish, fastidious, and slightly archaic; awkward and labored in places; never relaxed and not yet masterful. But appropriate to the subject, and at times beautifully elevated. The prose shows a gangly and knob-kneed family resemblance to the matchless style of Lolita and Ada.
But in its theme The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is as interesting as anything Nabokov ever wrote. A parody of a detective story (a genre that Nabokov claimed to detest), the novel purports to be the account of his six-years-younger brother’s search for “the real man behind the author,” the Russian-born English novelist who wrote The Prismatic Bezel, Success, The Funny Mountain, Albinos in Black, The Back of the Moon, and The Doubtful Asphodel. (Not quite forty years after Sebastian Knight’s death, the author of Success reappeared in England under the name of Martin Amis.)
The brother, who never gives his own name (“I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible,” he says), and who is greeted by Sebastian simply as V (“V stands for Victor,” says a note in the Library of America edition, helpfully passing on a false lead that Nabokov had given Andrew Field), pursues his shade from childhood memories to the French provincial hospital in which Sebastian dies. The book’s narrator learns much about his brother, “but he himself escaped me.” At one point he comes across an author’s query that Knight had placed in the newspaper:
The heart of the novel consists of four chambers: loving summaries of Sebastian’s own books, including copious quotations from them, which enable Nabokov to develop a philosophy of literature without seeming to do so; a voluble attack upon an earlier biography, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, “slapdash and very misleading,” written by Knight’s former secretary, which gives Nabokov the chance to mock certain tendencies in literary scholarship and criticism; and the quest for the truth about his love affairs with two different women—Clare, to whom Sebastian was “sort of married” for six years, and the Russian woman for whom he left her, even though she made him miserable.
It is in the latter two parts of the book that Nabokov’s theme most clearly emerges. The narrator tracks both women down—the sound of their voices is necessary, absolutely necessary, to animate the past—but neither encounter turns out as he expects. He imagines beseeching Clare to tell him everything she can remember about his brother: “For the sake of little things which will wander away and perish if you refuse to let me have them for my book about him.” When he confronts her on the street outside her home, though, she is pregnant with another man’s child, walking slowly and heavily, and he is unable to ask her anything about Sebastian. “I knew that I was forbidden even to make myself known to her,” not for any reason having to do with his brother or his book, but “solely on account of her stately concentration.”
The Russian lover whom his brother met at an Alsatian resort is more difficult to locate. With the help of a detective whom he meets by chance on the train, he traces her to Paris—or at least a woman who could be her. She is not home when our narrator calls upon her, but Madame Lecerf, a friend who is staying with her, willingly answers his questions. She describes an affair with a “very intellectual” man whom she permitted to make love to her, because she found it “entertaining to see that kind of refined, distant, brainy fellow suddenly go on fall fours and wag his tail.” When she attempted to chuck him over, he called her all manner of names. Madame Lecerf explains what happened in the sequel:
And in other words, there is a very real possibility that our narrator is Sebastian himself, or Sebastian is our narrator’s invention, for the sake of a “fictitious biography” in which he disguises a confession as something else entirely. “It always distressed me,” Sebastian wrote in his novel Lost Property, according to our narrator, “that people in restaurants never notice the animated mysteries, who bring them their food and check their overcoats and push doors open for them.” But the same may be true even for those who are intimate: they may forever remain “animated mysteries” to each other. And the greatest sin is for a man to be so preoccupied with his own sensations and ideas that he fails to understand those of others.
It is for precisely this reason that Madame Lecerf dislikes fiction: “I think writing a book about people you know is so much more honest than making a hash of them and then presenting it as your own invention!” Our narrator promises to falsify nothing about his brother, but falsifying him—making a hash of him—may be inevitable. If he is indeed a separate person. That is, an “animated mystery.”
How then is the mystery of human personality to be respected? Nabokov offers two clues. First, throughout his novel his people are curious and concerned about the smallest details of life, the “darlings of oblivion,” which are so easily lost. Perhaps the best that literature can do is to preserve them. Second, a stranger whom our narrator meets in a Paris hotel admits that he does not particularly like Sebastian Knight’s fiction: “Knight seemed to him to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.” Perhaps that is the key to other people, though. And the best that can be done is to puzzle out the rules.
At all events, I am conscious of having just described Nabokov’s philosophy of literature, which The Real Life of Sebastian Knight magically conjures up and then gives the “comedy of flesh.”