|The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
by Vladimir Nabokov
8/15/98 8:53:25 AM 8/28/98 4:00:12 AM
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
This was an extremely complex book. The first few chapters held me at a distance, since we learned about Sebastian Knight from the narratorís voice telling us what he learned from other people. At first this seemed an odd constraint. I was always aware of the layers in the story. There was the reader, who seemed like a character almost, because the narrator seemed to be whispering in my ear, then there was Nabakov the writer, then there was the narrator who thought himself an amateur writer who was the half-brother to someone the narrator thought was a genius writer. Gradually I was drawn into being the reader, who was being told the real story. Once in a while I jerked myself to the present and thought, ďHey, heís making this whole thing up, this isnít the realanything.Ē But that happened mostly in the beginning.
The descriptions of the mechanics of Sebastianís books I thought were wonderful, but I wondered how others would react to them, since not everyone enjoys picking apart books. But when the book itself began displaying the characteristics in Sebastianís books, I was charmed.
The whole thing took off for me when the narrator began looking for Sebastianís secret lover. I think this is where Nabokov allowed his narrator to become Sebastian. It was a mystery where the characters were not who they appeared to be, and there were side characters who evolved into important characters. I had to reread sections to be sure I had understood what was taking place. But everything fit perfectly. Then the ending. That train ride he took made me breathless. It was so realistic and felt reminiscent of times when Iíve been in a terrible hurry and needed to get someplace fast but itís just taking forever and a day. I donít know if Iíve ever really been in that situation, but it sure feels like I have now. His waiting at Sebastianís ďdeathbedĒ and the emotional results he derived from it were powerfully real.
If any of you were put off at the beginning by how you were not getting involved with the characters, keep reading. That is part of the genius of the book, I think, although certainly a risky tack for an author to take. One of the images that came to mind when I had finished was of a hologram. You can see all the elements of the whole in any small piece of the whole. It doesnít quite fit, but thereís that quality about it.
This will be one of those books that stays with me a while.
Sherry in Milwaukee
8/16/98 10:32:16 AM 8/29/98 4:00:10 AM
Well Sher, I logged on this morning to post something as promised, only to find your (once again) brilliant thoughts of the book. You zipped through this one in a hurry!
Anyhow, I look back at my notebook to see I've read four and a fraction books since I finished Sebastian, so expect some muddled thoughts from me!
The thing that kept cracking me up in the narrative was the number of times the narrator would say, this is not a book about me, and then proceed to tell you something else about himself. That's the thing really, that is striking: after completing the book, you do know as much or more about the brother as about Sebstian. I know a lot about Sebastian's books, and a little about Sebastian, but I feel like I know more about his brother. I guess I'd say the title of the book seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek. It's really The Search for the Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
I enjoyed the latter parts of the book most, too. The search for the lover, and the description of the train ride were wonderful, and sort of felt like the first thing I could really sink into. Up to that point things were so vague I just felt like we were adrift.
8/16/98 1:03:14 PM 8/29/98 4:00:10 AM
The part I thought was really funny, was the brother's feelings about the other biographer. I couldn't help but compare Nabokov's thoughts on what it takes to ""sell"" books then to what it takes to ""sell"" books and ideas now, sort of the way the movie Network is not even an exaggerated parody any more, it seems to be about right.
Sherry in Milwaukee
8/16/98 8:23:47 PM 8/29/98 4:00:10 AM
Sherry and Tonya,
I read the whole book, but I didn't really like it.
Tonya, I felt like you did about the narrator. He kept saying that he didn't want to talk about himself and then he did, of course. Sebastian seemed like a very cold person who ignored his brother and dumped the girlfriend who really loved him.
I felt that the last train ride was like that nightmare that everyone has. You know the one I mean. You are trying to get to a class in school and you can't find it. When you finally do arrive, the class is either over or almost over.
This is not a book that ""grabbed"" me.
8/17/98 3:09:55 PM 8/30/98 4:00:05 AM
This is the first novel I have read by Nabokov and I was not disappointed. His command of the English language is there and also a clarity. Sometimes he would pull off a description that was so clear, regarding something specific, subtle, even obscure that at the completion of it I imagined Nabokov striking a crystal glass next to him with his fingernail elicting a vibrant note of approval. For example, Sebastian's explanation of how the creative aspects of his mind interfered with his everyday life in Ch. 7 (pp. 65-66, Vintage.)
Knowing what little I do about Nabokov's life, it seems that he gave the fictional Sebastian Knight similar biographical data to Nabakov's own life: born in St. Petersburg in 1899, studied as a young man at Cambridge, lived in Paris and Germany and became a successful novelist. This caused me to ask who was the more representative of Nabokov: the narrator or Sebastian Knight? It seems that the two characters are fictional personifications of two different aspects of Nabokov: Sebastian being the creative, isolated, socially challenged-- is that the 90's term?:-)-- temperamental, dysfunctional artist-with-words, whereas, the narrator is the rational, clear-eyed biographer, critic and scholar. Both could apply to Nabokov who spanned the literary spectrum of school teacher, biographer, translator, critic and novelist. Who was Nabokov like, does anyone know?
So involved was the fictionalization of Sebastian Knight that Nabokov even invented text and criticism from Sebastian's novels. I wonder if these books and passages were fragments from never completed Nabokov's novels.
The passages about the mysterious Madame Lecerf, her vampirical seductiveness and her inversion of the King Midas touch, were the most involving to me. Did Nabokov have a disastrous love affair with a beautiful femme fatale? Disastrous love is not an unfamiliar theme to him (Lolita.)
Although the book didn't knock me over, I was glad to have read it. Nabokov has a voice of quality, poise and cultivation and from this grounding he reaches remarkably deep into the human heart and mind.
8/18/98 1:34:31 AM 8/30/98 4:00:05 AM
It's been my opinion for a long time that you can't over-recommend Nabokov! I've read and even re-read many of his books; how or why I never read this one I don't know. It was in the shelves.
Your post was wonderful! I think just by reading it I come to like the novel more!
8/18/98 7:30:40 AM 8/31/98 4:00:06 AM
This is my first Nabokov read, too. It always makes me feel better to find that someone else is just now venturing into a well appreciated author. I'm only about 60 pages into it and trying to read your posts without reading plot spoilers. Thus far, I am struck by the incredible irony. And, of course, there is the clarity of the language. It's interesting that someone who uses so many words could so often strike meanings exactly. Another writer would achieve only clutter.
8/18/98 5:23:37 PM 8/31/98 4:00:07 AM
Iím so glad you joined us in reading Sebastian. Your being able to participate in our discussions is one of the best things about Constant Reader being here on the web. I agree with you about Nabakovís language skills and his getting descriptions of both scenes and ideas just right. I can just see (and hear) that crystal glasspinging in my mind. A symphony of pings.
You had the idea that maybe the quotations and synopses of Sebastianís work were Nabokov works that never made it into print. I tend to think he thought up Sís books just for this. Everything fit into place so well; it was so finished.
What did you think of the narrator when he kept saying that he wasn't really a writer, that his brother was the writer? At first I thought the styles were so similar that the narrator just must be overly-humble (or that Nabokov didn't want to intentionally write anything bad to justify the narrator's humility). Now I'm not sure of that at all, that it tied in with the theme of the narrator becoming Sebastian.
8/18/98 10:19:09 PM 8/31/98 4:00:07 AM
I just finished this book tonight and it's going to take awhile to digest it.
The part I found most interesting and touching was the description of Sebastian's loneliness as a creative artist. Sebastian was different from everyone else and there was no way he was ever going to be able to blend into the crowd, as he tried rather pathetically to do in England. I loved Nabokov's description of him as a ""colour-blind chameleon."" In fact, I think that the whole of Chapter 7 is brilliant. Much to my regret, I am not in the least bit creative, but I am deeply interested in the psychology of the artists who create the books I love. Sebastian, who I think in this respect very closely resembles his creator, is painfully hyper-sensitive and hyper-aware: ""... in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day. Most brains have their Sundays, mine was even refused a half-holiday. This state of constant wakefulness was extremely painful, not only in itself, but in its direct results."" Sebastian learns to accept his failure as a social being and take pleasure in his rich inner life instead. I am not like Sebastian, but I like the psychological insights this character gave me into another way of being.
I think it was very relevant to Sebastian's story that he was dying from the time he was young man. The phrase referring to his heart attacks as ""dress rehearsals of death"" was very telling. This makes it a very melancholy tale and I am sure it will not be to everybody's taste.
I was a bit disappointed in the ending, although of course I knew that Nabokov could never really explain the meaning of life in a single word. As Sherry pointed out, however, it was interesting how he wove the plots of Knight's ""fiction"" into the plot of the main story. The tantalizing thought that the real meaning of life will finally be revealed is in THE DOUBTFUL ASPHODEL (whatever does that title mean, by the way??), the brother's dream, and in his final deathbed visit. I liked, I think, that ironic touch at the end when the brother gained such a sense of peace and contentment at the bedside of a stranger, but I did not find this idea of him becoming Sebastian in the least bit satisfying or reasonable. Am I the only one who reacted this way?
Robert, I don't know if Nabokov had an unhappy love affair that was the basis for the totally inappropriate Nina (""Had she been condemned to spend a whole day shut up in a library, she would have been found dead about noon.""). I do know that he was very happily married to his wife Vera, whom he met at the age of 24. From what I have read of her, she quite closely resembled Clare in this novel. She was the perfect literary helpmate who dedicated herself to Nabokov and his art. There was an interesting article in the February 10, 1997 NEW YORKER about their rather symbiotic relationship. If anyone would like a copy, drop me your address. I saved it because this author fascinates me so much. His memoir, SPEAK MEMORY, is one of my favorite books.
8/20/98 8:51:04 PM 9/2/98 4:00:10 AM
I loved that quote you picked out about Nina dropping dead in the library. I think that we all know people like that. I, too, was wondering about the title, THE DOUBTFUL ASPHODEL. The only meaning here in my little Webster's is the plant definition. How can an asphodel be doubtful? I enjoyed reading your thoughts, because the book just didn't ""grab"" me, but I did finish it.
8/20/98 10:24:51 PM 9/2/98 4:00:10 AM
That was the definition in my dictionary too. Gardening is one of my hobbies and I had never heard of an asphodel. The dictionary says it is a plant from southern Europe or ""any of various other plants, as the daffodil."" Somehow, I am missing something here. If it means daffodil, that would be a symbol of spring, and maybe by a stretch of ""hope"". The ""doubtful hope"" ?? I think that's pushing it. Anybody else have any ideas?
Nabokov strikes me as an author who wrote for himself (and maybe his wife, Vera), rather than his readers. Why else would he delight in using these obscure, but for him perfect, words? A few new words/phrases I encountered in this book were ""aleatory"" (dependent on a contingent event),""arrased"" eavesdropper (""arras"" is a rich tapestry), ""elenctic"" ones (this one didn't even make the dictionary). When I read these words in Nabokov's writings, I just smile to myself. I wouldn't have so much patience with another writer. It is hard for me to express why Nabokov's writing touches me. It is sad, without being maudlin, and I enjoy his cleverness and the unexpected twists in his stories. I think the sadness derives from the fact that his characters don't fit in, however much they want to. For example, he had a lot of fun with Pnin's fracturing of the English language in the book by that name. In this book, Sebastian longs to be an Englishman. But in spite of his attempts to use the right slang and clothing, his Russian accent will never let him blend in. As a long time exile from his native country Nabokov must have experienced a sense of alienation and loneliness that he expressed in his writing. However, after reading his description of the creative artist in this book, I am now convinced that he would have experienced most of these same feelings even if had not been forced to live abroad. Being an outsider, with all the pain that entails, seems necessary to the creative process.
Well, Jane, thanks for participating in the discussion, even if you did not much like the book. I am always interested in different opinions. We are reading Francois Mauriac's THE DESERT OF LOVE, which might just be up your ally, if you have time to join us on Classics Corner next month.Gerard Hopkins translated it from the French. Do you know if Hopkins is any good?
8/21/98 1:35:08 PM 9/3/98 4:00:05 AM
2. In Greek poetry and mythology, the flowers of Hades and the dead, sacred to Persephone.
8/21/98 7:14:12 PM 9/3/98 4:00:05 AM
The bit about ""asphodel"" was from the American Heritage dictionary. Got to thinking about it afterwards and can now tell you that there is no entry in The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature or in Moses Hadas' Ancilla to Classical Reading. But thanks for stirring me up so that I re-acquainted myself with the books lurking on the shelves; further bulletins if I find anything when I check the upstairs books.
About Nabokov and his writing:
V.S. Pritchett speaks of "" . . .his delight in mischief, prejudice, and the cheerfully perverse."" This about N's lectures. Further, quoting N: ""We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called 'real life' in novels. Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction.""
That last sentence is, IMHO, cheerfully perverse.
But, on the other hand: ""Art has a way of transcending the boundaries of reason . . ""
The critic Edmund Wilson, writing in 1944, said, ""Mr. Nabokov is himself a poet who has developed a complicated imagery and a novelist of the non-realistic sort, . . .""
And: ""The reader is also annoyed by the frequent self indulgence of the author in poses, perversities, and vanities . . .""
And: "". . . a species of witticism to which Mr. Nabokov is much addicted and which tends, also, a little to disfigure his book. His puns are particularly awful.""
But he says the book in question, on Gogol, ""must be henceforth read by anybody who has any serious interest in finding out about Russian culture.""
If memory serves (an oxymoron?), Wilson and Navokov became great friends and later had a fierce falling out over the translation of Pushkin.
8/21/98 11:07:02 PM 9/3/98 4:00:06 AM
Thanks for the information about asphodel and the quotes about Nabokov -- very enjoyable.
I am reading The Odyssey for Classics Corner, and coincidentally this afternoon I came to the part where Odysseus visits the underworld to seek advice from the ghost of Tiresias. There are two references to fields of asphodels! So you are definitely right about this. Sebastian Knight's book is about dying and the meaning of life, so it fits, although I still think that the pairing of ""doubtful"" with a flower symbolizing death is rather odd.
When Classics Corner read DEAD SOULS by Gogol last winter, I bought Nabokov's book on Gogol. To be quite honest I enjoyed Nabokov's book more than DEAD SOULS. My guess is that Gogol doesn't translate well. Gogol seems to have a lot of those awful puns that Wilson mentioned. Maybe that is why Nabokov loved him so much.
8/22/98 7:31:54 AM 9/6/98 4:00:04 AMSome of the fun of tracking down Nabokov's references must come from the inexplicable joy there is in knowing something really obscure.
I think of Nabokov's interest in butterflies and his delight in collecting two unattractive species which were differentiated only by a small spot on the wings. Elsewhere, I remember his saying that it was impossible to understand Anna Karenina without a full understanding of the structure of 19th century Russian railroad cars.
Perhaps it's all a high flown version of Trivial Pursuit.
8/22/98 10:53:14 AM 9/6/98 4:00:05 AM
I think it is really clear that Nabokov enjoyed and practiced ""pulling the reader's leg.""
(And where does that phrase come from?)
8/22/98 11:10:04 AM 9/6/98 4:00:05 AM
I am about halfway through Sebastian Knight, and I am loving it! I'm not going to read all these notes until I finish, but a big, whopping thank-you to whoever suggested this novel! Yesterday, at one point, I found myself proclaiming out loud (to an empty room), ""Dang, Vlad, you are so right!"" The other Nabokov novel I've read is Pnin, which I also enjoyed very much, but S.K. strikes me as a kinder, more compassionate book.
8/22/98 10:46:06 PM 9/6/98 4:00:06 AM
Hey, Susan, I'm so glad you are joining us on this one, especially since it was my suggestion. - G -
8/25/98 2:09:08 PM 9/7/98 4:00:10 AM
I finished Sebastian Knight today and have lots of conflicting feelings...and have throughout the reading of the book. Nabokov's language is perfect, of course. I would read anything that he's written for that reason alone. I found myself underlining little phrases frequently because of that little ""ping"" that Robert described. Even though Sebastian was not a loving type of character, his description of monogamy in the farewell letter (I had the feeling that he could only express it in a farewell letter) to Claire was perfect:
""Or can one imagine a tremendous Turk loving every one of his four hundred wives as I love you? For if I say 'two' I have started to count and there is no end to it. There is only one real number: One. And, love, apparently, is the best exponent of this singularity.""
Have you ever heard it said better?
The distance from the characters, however, was very hard for me. And, also, the fact that I didn't really care much about them was bothersome. Late in the book, I did start becoming more involved with the brother. And, the book definitely became more engaging during the hunt for Madame LaCerf and the train ride.
I guess the other thing that bothers me about the book is that I felt a bit manipulated by Nabakov. The worst example of this was ending a chapter with the sentence ""Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?"" And, then, beginning the next one with ""The stranger who uttered these words now approached--Oh, how I sometimes yearn for the easy swing of a well-oiled novel."" That is all so self-conscious. It makes me want to throw the book against the wall.
And, did anyone understand why Mr. Goodman wore a black mask during his interview?!? I was lost there. I did love the character of Goodman though. At first, I thought he might be getting the Sebastian character more accurately than his brother did, but, as the story unfolded, he became more and more perfectly one of those people who want to be close to genius but can't help being eaten up by their jealousy.
And, once again, I loved reading the discussion here. I was looking forward to reading the introduction (in a '59 New Directions edition by Conrad Brenner) but it was practically unreadable, making everyone's thoughts here even more precious.
8/25/98 7:19:49 PM 9/7/98 4:00:10 AM
So, after taking four months to read Losing Battles, I read Sebastian Knight in a week! I did enjoy the novel very much. Reading Nabokov is a bit like reading Faulkner; thereís an aspect to it much like puzzle solving that I like. Barb, my (library) copy of the book also has the intro by Conrad Brenner, who says, ďIn Nabokovís art, the author is God...Ē True, isnít it? Nabokov also involves the reader to a bigger extent than most authors usually do, and somehow the reader becomes part of the story, too. Ann, I also liked the parts about the solitariness of the artistís life; those struck me as quite poignant. And, Robert, I know just what you mean about that crystal ping sensation. One passage that struck me that way was the line ďWell did he know that to flaunt oneís contempt for a moral code was but smuggled smugness and prejudice turned inside out.Ē Sheesh, my cheeks turned red with that one! I felt a hundred conversations with my family (with me pontificating from some allegedly high moral ground) coming back to haunt me, for one thing.
Question: What was the narratorís purpose in tracking down Sebastianís ďrealĒ story? What did he gain or lose? Talk amongst yourselves. But, really, Iím curious, because I canít quite figure it out myself.
Has anyone read Pale Fire?
8/25/98 9:18:09 PM 9/7/98 4:00:10 AM
I really enjoyed your comments. In fact I had just been thinking that we hadn't seen much of you here on the web, when voila, you surfaced --- the power of positive thinking.
I haven't read PALE FIRE, but I would like to. What was the brother's purpose in tracking down the real Sebastian Knight? Interesting question. Sebastian seems to have been his last surviving relative, someone he hero worshiped as a child, albeit Sebastian always kept him at a distance. When someone important to you dies, I think it is natural not to want to let them go. The brother doesn't really want to deal with death's finality and all his missed opportunities to have a real relationship with his brother. That's why he tries to find out as much about his brother as possible. At least, that's the way I see it, although I am interested in what others think.
8/26/98 9:22:15 AM 9/9/98 4:00:07 AM
that certainly makes a lot of sense about not wanting to let someone go and about the narrator's missed opportunity.
When I was reading Sebastian Knight, I was also reminded of Calvin Trillin's book called something like Remembering Denny. Although it's nonfiction, the book shares something with Nabokov's. Trillin had a good friend a Yale who became a successful something or another (businessman? I forget) but killed himself when he was only in his forties. Trillin and other acquaintances couldn't understand why their friend would do such a thing, so Trillin started re-tracing Denny's life--and writing a book about it--to see if he could figure out any clues. And basically he discovered he didn't know this friend at all; I don't even think that Trillin knew his friend was gay. On the one hand it was ridiculous--the amount of narcissism on Trillin's part (""oh, why didn't I know""), etc.-- but on the other hand it was compelling in an odd way.
In the long run, the book said more about Calvin Trillin, I think, than his friend. So, I keep wondering what Nabokov's says about the narrator because, really, the story is of the narrator's quest. Hmmm.
8/27/98 12:11:26 AM 9/9/98 4:00:07 AM
I finished Sebastian on the first day of my trip up north. I liked it a lot. First for the writing, the aforementioned ""ping"" of of certain oh-so-apt phrases, and second for the challenge of its intricate construction.
I think that perhaps the reason that several of you felt distanced or unconnected emotionally to the characters was that this book was not, at bottom, about characters. It was about writing. Did you notice that not long after the narrator's description of how a novel is put together that we could see how he was using that kind of structure himself? To me, this book was really an intellectual puzzle about writing, or rather, a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. Sort of like the Pet Milk cow in a can with a cow in a can with a cow in a can.
About 3/4 of the way through the book, I became convinced that the narrator was Sebastian himself, playing another one of those writer's tricks on us. Do you think I'm right?
8/27/98 7:37:24 AM 9/9/98 4:00:08 AM
Absolutely excellent point, Ruth. I think you're right. And, it fits with what little I know about Nabokov. I'm also famous around here in my negative feelings about puzzles and games, a little chink left out of my brain, I think, which would account for my exasperation.
And, yes, wouldn't that explain why the brother was melding with Sebastian in the end...an alternate part of his self seeking understanding?
8/27/98 7:48:53 AM 9/9/98 4:00:09 AM
I enjoyed when the book started becoming the book the narrator was describing too. It was like a puzzle. I like puzzles, so that makes sense. Have you read all the notes yet?
8/27/98 1:47:19 PM 9/9/98 4:00:09 AM
But aren't writers always playing tricks on us? The novel is always a fabrication--and yet if it's good, it's the truth, too. An emotional truth. To some extent, Nabokov wants to have it both ways: a trick and a story. The end was the only part that made me mad--mainly because he seemed to be saying that yes, he was pulling our leg. But perhaps we are Sebastian Knight, too.
Susan, being postmodern or metaphysical or something --g--
8/27/98 10:15:58 PM 9/9/98 4:00:09 AM
Somewhere lurking around in my brain is this idea and if it gets articulated in this post then it's newborn because I can't catch the idea yet myself.
Both the brothers in SEBASTIAN KNIGHT are personifications of Nabokov as though the fictionalization process gravitated aspects of the author to different poles, as if filings (personality traits) slid across a polarized field to land in one magnetic (-) camp or the other (+), Sebastian or his brother. So, Nabokov could better look at himself, with fictional flourishes to boot.
It seems the division roughly follows the left brain, right brain split. Years ago I attended a lecture by John Eccles, the Nobel Prize winner who developed the left /right brain theory. He, with others, discovered the different functions of the two hemispheres by studying patients whose brain hemispheres had been disconnected from each other (usually from a tumor in the corpus collosum-- the area of the brain which connects the two halves.) These patients exhibited unusual behavior patterns from which Eccles et al deduced that the left brain (usually) was the speech center, and the center for rational thinking. The right brain was the center for creative cognition. This is, of course, a great simplification but essentially the concept. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the theory.
So, if you will excuse my excessive theorizing, the narrator, the younger brother exemplifies left brain dominance: the biographer, the one who gets the facts straight. Sebastian was right brain dominant: the novelist, the one who will walk out into oncoming traffic while plucking the perfect remark out of the air. And Nabokov seems to span the spectrum.
Don't ask me in which half of the brain these remarks originated, if in fact they passed through my brain at all.
I will, however, comment on something else that John Eccles also said in his lecture that really impressed me and has even less to do with TRSK than the above comments. Eccles stated before an empirically pickled audience that he in no way could account for the mind of humanity through his thorough study of the human brain. He went as far as to posit a mind/brain duality theory. This in front of students of science! Oh, the outrage. There were harrumphs and denunciations all week from other professors. I've never seen more ruffled lab coats. However, I felt it was a point well taken. What do you think?
PS Welcome back Ruth
8/27/98 10:29:24 PM 9/9/98 4:00:10 AM
I don't much like puzzles either, Barb, primarily because I am not good at them. Unlike most of you, however, I empathized strongly both with the brother (if indeed he existed - G -) and with Sebastian Knight. But then I felt the same way about Pnin, who broke my heart a little. I find a real poignancy in Nabokov's characters which may not be there for all readers. There is an inner core of loneliness in them that strikes me as sad, but also very human. Then, of course, there is the sheer depth of Nabokov's intellect and his mastery of language, both of which impress me no end.
I liked your interpretation, Ruth. I think you are right that Nabokov at least wants to suggest that possibility. Otherwise, it is difficult for me to make any sense of that ending. And Susan, good point about Nabokov wanting to have it both ways. He does make the reader think, and I really enjoy that.
8/27/98 11:22:05 PM 9/9/98 4:00:10 AM
Ann, Pnin broke my heart, too. He was such a bumblesome old soul, wasnít he?
When I read Nabokov, I accept that he breaks a lot of rules, especially when it comes to his narrators, who know more than they possibly couldknow. If a lesser writer were to do this, I would toss the book aside. But I, too, find these characters really touching and accept this world (that N. creates) for however Nabokov wants to paint it. The charactersí vulnerability and loneliness are poignant; I really liked the description of Sebastianís enjoyment of his adopted city, London, and the walks he took. Plus I could just picture the Paris scenes, too. I know that the Paris-between-the-wars thing has its heinous side, but it hooks me in every time.
Robert, I enjoyed your right/brain left brain comments. The right/left, narrator/Sebastian breakdown sounds about right. Writers, whatever their ostensible subject, are usuallywriting about themselves.
I certainly am grateful to C.R. for these Nabokov experiences. If I had started out with Lolita, which I still havenít read, I probably would have been completely turned off. Now Pale Fire is looking pretty good. Maybe thatís next!
8/28/98 11:51:15 AM 9/10/98 4:00:05 AM
Interesting idea, Robt. I've read a little of the right-brain/left-brain stuff. Got interested in it from Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain with which you're probably familiar.
Now, I have an idea which is just this minute bubbling to the surface. Don't you think your hypothesis and mine would dovetail nicely?
Ruth, glad to be back
8/28/98 11:53:57 AM 9/10/98 4:00:05 AM
I've had Pale Fire languishing in my bookcase ever since I bought it at a garage sale lo these 20 years ago. After reading these last two Nabakov's, I'm taking PF down and adding it to the TBR tower.
8/28/98 1:57:17 PM 9/10/98 4:00:05 AM
A friend of mine who is a writer for television highly recommends PALE FIRE. Says it's very, very funny. He also recommends William Gaddis' A FROLIC OF HIS OWN as another very funny book. I bought Gaddis' book but PALE FIRE is not far behind.
Robt, who hopes there's not a CR TBR cop who checks up on whether or not you've read everything you say you will!
8/28/98 11:24:15 PM 9/10/98 4:00:05 AM
I read the Gaddis book several years ago, and found it a riot. There are many, many scenes from that book that pop into my head at random times, and still bring a smile.
8/30/98 4:13:02 PM 9/12/98 4:00:04 AM
I've enjoyed this discussion very much. I've just re-read all 27 messages so far, and I quote below extracts taken from the various messages that I want to talk about :
Barb : ""I guess the other thing that bothers me about the book is that I felt a bit manipulated by Nabakov.""
Ruth : ""I think that perhaps the reason that several of you felt distanced or unconnected emotionally to the characters was that this book was not, at bottom,about characters. It was about writing.""
""To me,this book was really an intellectual puzzle about writing, or rather, a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle.
Sherry : ""I enjoyed when the book started becoming the book the narrator was describing too. It was like a puzzle. I like puzzles, so that makes sense.
Susan : But aren't writers always playing tricks on us? The novel is always a fabrication--and yet if it's good, it's
the truth, too. An emotional truth. To some extent, Nabokov wants to have it both ways: a trick and a story. The end was the only part that made me mad--mainly because he seemed to be saying that yes, he was pulling our leg.""
I gave up reading Sebastian Knight after 20 pages for reasons pretty much set forth in the quotes above. I can best sum up my reaction by saying that I wasn't about to play mouse to Nabokov's cat. Or to put it another way, Nabakov was writing his book to amuse himself by feeling superior to the reader. I think good authors must amuse or engross themselves or they are dull. But they must also amuse or engross the reader and they should not do that at the reader's expense. I like to think of the authors I like as friends and I can't imagine liking Nabokov face to face.
The other part of this problem is the place of the narrator in the narrative. The narrator is not in the classic narrative. He is the story teller and the story teller is at the campfire side and not on the plains of Troy. Time moves on: ""Call me Ishmael."" We now accept the fact that the story teller is telling what he observed himself or even his story. Look at the mystery stories today. But it is the next step that I am not prepared to take or accept: the narrator is talking to me out of the story. I embrace authors who talk to me, Montaigne, etc. Straight talk. I admire ""dexterity"" and I admire wit and agility with words, but if I want a magic show, I want it straight. I resent (as you can see) being razzle-dazzled.
Pres, who hopes he has not offended anyone.
8/30/98 5:18:52 PM 9/12/98 4:00:04 AM
Pres, to each his own. All I can say is that I did not feel manipulated or as if I was playing mouse to Nabakov's cat. I felt as if Nabakov was winking to me, pulling aside the curtain and letting me see the mechanics of what he was doing while he was doing it, making me an accomplice, so to speak.
As far as your note offending anyone here--what fun would it be if we all agreed?
8/30/98 5:51:41 PM 9/12/98 4:00:05 AM
Ruth and Pres,
I don't think that anyone would ever be offended on CONSTANT READER by disagreement. The only time I have seen anger on our board is when someone makes personal attacks against other posters. We all love a good discussion, and I for one, Pres, am happy to find someone who was not in love with this book. I disliked it for reasons other than yours, and I think that I have already stated mine.
8/30/98 11:27:00 PM 9/12/98 4:00:05 AM
You certainly didn't offend me. Rather, I enjoyed your post quite a bit. Although I liked the book I was somewhat put off by Nabokov's distance or formality with the reader. Perhaps that is an unavoidable aspect of Nabokov since his original language is Russian and his culture is European. He certainly lacks the immediate rapport that J.D. Salinger achieves with me. Nabokov is three times removed, it seems. I admired his writing ability from the start, however, it was well into the book before I began to care about the characters to any real extent. I can see how the book is not to everyone's liking. The book lingers in my mind, however, and it has a pleasant aftertaste.
8/31/98 7:10:35 PM 9/13/98 4:00:02 AM
It would certainly be terribly boring if we all liked the same books, so I hope you always feel free to express your opinion. I am somewhat surprised, however, that you developed such an intense dislike of this book after a mere 20 pages. Have you perhaps had an unpleasant reading experience with Nabokov before?
Nabokov's mastery of English has always dazzled me, although he did have the advantage of English governesses and nurses as a young child. His mother also read to him in English. In fact, in SPEAK MEMORY he says that he learned to read English before he learned to read Russian. Like most members of the Russian nobility, he also spoke fluent French. His youth was very privileged and he looks back upon his childhood and his family with a great deal of affection and nostalgia in his memoirs.
In certain respects, I guess he was a snobbish intellectual, which is what puts some readers off. However, there was also a softer, more vulnerable side to him, which I see in his characters. But then, different strokes---
At least we're getting some good discussion in on this book. -G-
9/1/98 8:05:09 AM 9/14/98 4:00:04 AM
You can find a recording on the Internet of Nabokov giving a public reading at http://www.92ndsty.org/frameaud.html
He has the world's strangest accent -- one part Cambridge, one part Leningrad.
For those who remember my diatribe against James Dickey's son, there is also a reading on the site by Dickey in which he takes a shot at his son for being a boring little kid.
Could I have been wrong in criticizing Christopher Dickey? Naw. He probably was boring.
However, if you think your kid is going to write, you probably ought to make an extra effort to be nice to him.
9/1/98 7:05:47 PM 9/14/98 4:00:04 AM
Wow, Jim, what a wonderful site. Thanks for the address. Nabokov sounds --- perfectly dreadful. His voice drones and is quite pompous. I checked out some of the other articles on the page and read with interest that Nabokov was well aware of his shortcomings as a speaker. He said public speaking was difficult because his thoughts went in too many directions at once. He felt the need to write things down in order to be articulate.
I see what you mean about his accent. He was obviously fluent, but he could never have passed for a native speaker. There is a part in THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT which speaks of Knight's frustration with not being able to blend in with the native English speakers. I wonder if it was based on personal experience:
""...one little detail strikes me as especially pathetic. It appears that Sebastian's English though fluent and idiomatic, was decidedly that of a foreigner. His ""r""s, when beginning a word, rolled and rasped, he made queer mistakes, saying, for instance, ""I have seized a cold"" of ""that fellow is sympathetic"" - merely meaning that he was a nice chap. He misplaced the accent in such words as ""interesting"" or ""laboratory."" He mispronounced names like ""Socrates"" or ""Desdemona."" Once corrected, he would never repeat the mistake, but the very fact of his not being quite sure about certain words distressed him enormously and he used to blush a bright pink when, owing to a chance verbal flaw, some utterance of his would not be quite understood by an obtuse listener. In those days, he wrote far better than he spoke, but still there was something vaguely un-English about his poems."" (pp. 48-49, Chapter 5)
Coincidentally, I heard young Dickey promoting his book on the radio recently and he didn't seem boring. He is a foreign journalist. He said towards the end of his life his father actually tried to read some of what he had written, in an attempt to understand him. What do you think of Dickey, Sr. as a poet?
By the way, Dmitri Nabokov has translated and edited his father's books, so maybe his Dad did all right in the parenthood department. On the other hand, maybe Dmitri just needed a job.
9/1/98 10:01:36 PM 9/14/98 4:00:05 AM
I love James Dickey's poetry, which probably accounts for my irritation with his son for lambasting his father. Oh well, great poets are supposed to have done worse things. There's Ezra Pound and the Nazis, Ted Hughes daring to be unfaithful to Sylvia Plath, and even poor old Robert Frost being mean to his family.
While I'm not about to take up for Ezra Pound, I keep suspecting that successful people often are cut up just because they're successful, not because they're any worse than the rest of us.
9/2/98 11:49:54 AM 9/15/98 4:00:05 AM
Reading through ""The Genius & Mrs. Genius"" by Stacy Schiff about Vlad & Vera Nabokov from the 2/10/97 NYer which was kindly sent to me by Ann, I see lots of verifications to various reactions to SEBASTIAN KNIGHT within this ongoing discussion. Ruth's comments about Nabokov's puzzle within a puzzle is echoed throughout the article. It seems he enjoyed this kind of game playing both in his novels and in his real life: ""And in life itself Nabokov was in many ways his own fictional counterpart. As one of his favorite publishers warned, 'It is a false idea to imagine a real Nabokov.' He invented himself, was constantly impersonating himself, was as much in life as on the page a performer performing, a conjuror conjuring. And the magician's act, as it developed over the years, required an assistant.""
Vera Nabokov was his accomplice in creating a character which was an amalgamation of the two of them. Evidently, she was the left brain to his right, and they functioned as two hemispheres of a single identity. ""From a list of things Nabokov bragged about never having learned to do-- type, drive, speak German, retrieve a lost object, answer the phone, fold maps, fold umbrellas, give the time of day to a philistine-- it is easy to deduce what Mrs. Nabokov spent her life doing."" They were physically inseparable; she even attended all his lectures with him and graded the exams. She wrote most of his correspondence and typed and sent all of it, as well as handled all business. ""The Nabokovs developed for dealing with the world a routine that could leave a correspondent feeling as the books can: humbled by a knotty, magnificent inside joke.""
The article mentions Clare from SEBASTIAN KNIGHT as being a fictional analog of Vera. However, Vera also had the beauty and features of Madame LeCerf: fine-boned, alabaster skin, an arresting presence. I can't help but speculate that Nabokov's fictional process created an alter-ego of himself-- Sebastian Knight-- who had the misfortune of somehow losing his help mate (Clare) to be undone by Madame LeCerf (a woman who is the inverse of Vera except for her appearance.)
Nabokov was a blessed man to have Vera! ""She did all she could to see to it that her husband existed not in time, only in art, and thus spared him the fate of so many of his characters [like Sebastian Knight], imprisoned by their various passions. The genius went into the work, not into the life.""
9/3/98 1:20:45 AM 9/15/98 4:00:06 AM
Thanks for your extensive and interesting post, Robt. I remember reading that article when it came out, but it's nice to have my memory refreshed after I've had the experience of reading Sebastian.
9/3/98 4:55:44 PM 9/16/98 4:00:10 AM
I'm glad you found the article interesting. Incidentally, I was reading some interviews with Nabokov on the internet site that Jim mentioned, and I found that he was a Salinger fan. So you have something in common.
I finished reading the introduction by Conrad Brenner to SEBASTIAN KNIGHT (New Directions paperback) last night and I found it almost incomprehensible. That in itself would be enough to put people off this book.
I am so impressionable that I usually hold off reading posts or introductions until I have read the book. That way I can make up my own mind.
9/9/98 9:49:24 AM 9/22/98 4:00:05 AM
Hello again everyone,
I'm so glad to see people interested in _Sebastian K._, even if it's with some irritation or puzzlement.
This remains one of my two or three favorite books, so I'd like to say a little in its defense.
First, since a lot of posters connected their feelings about the book to their feelings about the author (I'm not gonna touch the question of whether or not this is a good idea), about VVN himself: I like to think that there were at least three of him.
As a personality, he's always just a little bit aloof from us, as though he were working on an incorrigibly different wavelength. NOT necessarily a better or higher one (V., the narrator of the novel, says of his half-brother Sebastian that he was a ""sphere among circles""); it's just that he was always an exile of one sort or another.
The first Nabokov, the Russian-writing emigre, was mostly singing love songs, elegies to a vanished world--that of the patrician Russia of his his childhood. There is a somber and bittersweet note to even the gayest of the books he wrote in Europe.
The third Nabokov, he of ""The Vane Sisters,"" _Transparent Things_ or _Look at the Harlequins!_, and somewhat of _Pale Fire_ and _Ada_, is the cat-and-mouse player, the conjuror, the trickster. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is all too often cold, cerebral, sterile.
The real difficulty is to infuse the puzzle with a heart, and this is what VVN does at his best. One can ignore all the wrenchings of time and place in _Ada_ and find its sweetness, you can find quite a bit of heart in John Shade's poem, and the comic tone of _Pale Fire_ and _Lolita_ is certainly not sterile or aloof.
The reason I like _Sebastian Knight_ is that it was written by a second Nabokov or a transitional one. It was his first in English, and the tenderness with which he uses this new tool makes for some of his best and prettiest prose. He wrote the book, it seems to me, after he stopped singing dirges for a lost Russia but before he got into doing tortuous literary acrostics.
It's got enough emotion and enough mystery and enough sophistication, but it doesn't have too much of any of these things.
I'll get into the substance of the book in a later post.
-Patrick Nolan, sitting in lovely Washington, DC
9/9/98 12:42:31 PM 9/22/98 4:00:06 AM
A very nice, well thought out, message.
9/9/98 2:27:01 PM 9/22/98 4:00:06 AM
Thanks for your post. I'd love to hear more.
9/9/98 5:02:50 PM 9/22/98 4:00:06 AM
Thank you, Patrick, for that enlightening note. I'd love to hear more. I actually came to my experience of Sebastian Knight with positive expectations. I've become more and more interested in Nabokov in recent years. The book has stayed with me mentally and I loved the language. The puzzler, trickster part of him is what is difficult for me. I feel like I begin to hold myself aloof which is not what I want in a book.
9/10/98 1:11:24 AM 9/22/98 4:00:06 AM
Back in 1995 I made a point of reading all 20 selections from our first reading list, both as a way of lending a bit more depth and breadth to my admittedly narrow literary experience, and to make sure that every book nominated would get some minimal measure of discussion. Vladimir Nabokov was represented on that list by Pnin, and when I'd finished with my self-imposed assignment he stood out as an author I particularly wanted to read more of. Therefore, although I've only read a handful of the ""official"" C.R. entries since we completed List #1, I wanted to make a point of getting to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight before the conversation had died down -- and I guess I just about made it.
In the mostly random comments that follow, I'll be referring from time to time to Vladimir Nabokov - The American Years by Brian Boyd, a massive biography I took out of the library in search of illumination on both the above VN works. I've also been dipping into this book here and there and ahve become even more firmly convinced that this is a man whose work and life I'll definitely be studying more deeply in the future.
Before undertaking to read Pnin, I knew that VN's work had a reputation for being difficult, and I was highly pleased to find that I enjoyed reading his prose so much. (Perhaps thinking, Well, I'm more cultured than I gave myself credit for.) Not long after we'd finished with Pnin on C.R., I read Boyd's very involved discussion of the novel and was quite amazed, or perhaps dismayed, at how much stuff was going on under the surface that I hadn't even suspected. (Just one example: VN created the comic/tragic character of Professor Pnin as a reaction against what he believed to be Cervantes' cruel treatment of the hero of Don Quixote. After reading the notes posted above, I must admit the same thing happened with Sebastian Knight, but it doesn't bother me. Though I'm not fond of literary game-playing in general (not only am I no good at solving this sort of puzzles, most of the time I even fail to detect them), I enjoy VN's prose so much that I can forgive him these manipulations.
Sebastian Knight was VN's first book in English, and Boyd reports that he was ""apprehensive that his English might betray him"" and that he was ""still very much a Russian writer and to relinquish his language was agony."" In that way he resembles his unnamed narrator, who remarks a number of times about the uncertainty he feels in undertaking his first book. But I gather that this and other similarities between VN and his narrator ought not lead one to suspect autobiography in disguise. About those who would read such meanings into his writing VN said in an interview, ""People tend to underestimate the power of my imagination and my capacity for evolving serial selves in my writing.""
Ann (I think it was; I'm writing this offline) noted that it seemed to her that VN was an author who wrote to please himself, and this is absolutely correct -- he said so, in just so many words. There are lots of writers who claim to be indifferent about what critics think of their work; in VN we have what I think is a rare example of one who really was.
In skimming through Boyd's biography I came on a curious parallel in VN's later life to Goodman's botched The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, scathingly denounced by RLSK's narrator. In the late 60's and early 70's he cooperated extensively with Andrew Field in that writer's research for what eventually was published as VN: His Life in Art. (Nabokov decided that it was best to do so while he was still alive to correct any errors.) The book's manuscript turned out to be thoroughly riddled with mistakes, large and small, and though VN spent countless hours in detecting and correcting them, Field proved so stubborn about making changes that most of them remained in the book when it was published. For VN, a bitter example of life belatedly imitating art!
(Coincidentally, I was browsing through Field's book in a used book store recently and noted that he'd come to the same conclusion about RLSK as has been discussed here -- that VN may have intended it as one more of Sebastian Knight's literary puzzles; his own fictional ""autobiography."" Obviously Field is a better critic than a biographer.)
I could, and should, go on further, but at the moment I need to do some homework to prepare for our discussion of my own suggestion for the current reading list: Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. We're due to take it up on September 15th, and I'll do my best to be there to start things going.
9/10/98 4:34:25 PM 9/23/98 4:00:07 AM
Allen, it's perfectly in character for there to be additional levels to the onion--that the correspondences within _RLSK_ should breed correspondences outside its covers.
I have read analyses of the book that trace every possible interleaving of V. and Sebastian, and that dissect to the point of absurdity V.'s statement ""I am Sebastian.""
Whether or not Nabokov meant for us to conclude that V.'s narrative of Sebastian's life is just Sebastian wearing yet another mask, I doubt it improves the novel any to identify the ""author"" of the book as a still-living Sebastian Knight.
Far more interesting to me are the parallels between V.'s quest to understand his brother and Sebastian's novels. Consider the episodic nature of V.'s attempt to find out the identity of the woman who smashed Sebastian's life.
Did it need, plotwise, to take this shape? Not really. But that it has a conspicuously yarn-like shape points us to look at relationships between the episodes of V.'s search and the different phases of S.'s fictions. Reversals, mistaken identities, sudden unmaskings, and doddering old dei ex machina appear in both sets of stories; it's possible (but by no means necessary) to map them one-to-one.
I think the point here is sufficient to make _RLSK_ a great book, even without the further puzzle of the book's authorship. The nested frame-narrative structure underscores a link between epistemology and art: to seek the truth is to find beauty.
9/16/98 12:19:15 AM 10/4/98 4:00:05 AM
Tuesday's NY Times' Arts section has an article about Nabokov, ""Toasting (and Analyzing) Nabokov at Cornell."" It is about a 3 day Nabokov festival described as ""a cornucopia of Nabokoviana with more than 30 scholars....presenting papers."" The article talks about VN's idiosyncrasies, influence and legacy.
I wonder if the papers presented at Cornell are on the internet?
9/16/98 11:01:05 AM 10/5/98 4:00:04 AM
The program for the Nabokov Festival at Cornell is posted on the Net but I can't find the text of the actual papers presented. Nothing was presented on Sebastian Knight. However, Stacy Schiff who wrote the NYer article on Vera Nabokov presented a paper called: ""Toward a Real Life of Vera Nabokov.""
9/16/98 7:50:21 PM 10/5/98 4:00:04 AM
I'd like to see that Schiff paper on Vera, wouldn't you, Robert? I almost gave into the temptation to buy LOLITA this weekend, but I resisted.
9/16/98 8:32:03 PM 10/5/98 4:00:04 AM
Yes I would like to read the Schiff paper about Vera. I wonder if it amplifies her article. (I bet it does.) The whole conference sounded first class.
9/20/98 4:48:22 PM 10/9/98 4:00:04 AM
There's a nice portrait of Vera in Martin Amis's collection of journalism, _Visiting Mrs. Nabokov_, BTW.
9/21/98 7:24:58 PM 10/10/98 4:00:11 AM
Nabokov's study of Gogol ('One of the most exhilarating, engaging, and original works written by one author about another')""
from Joyce Carol Oates review of Sight Readings: American Fictions by Elizabeth Hardwick. Review in the New York Review of Books, September 24, 1998.
9/29/98 6:54:27 PM 10/18/98 4:00:07 AM
a few months back THE NEW YORKER presented simply an outstanding article on NABOKOV....I MUST find it and you definitely must take a peek..... does anyone remember the date???? i shall go off and search.... i'd love to send it to you ROBERT... it is a classic!
gail..hp.. apr in sunless san francisco!
9/29/98 7:47:15 PM 10/18/98 4:00:07 AM
I sent Robt a copy of the New Yorker article on the relationship between Nabokov and his wife Vera (""The Genius and Mrs. Genius, February 10, 1997). Is that the one you were thinking of, or did you have another one in mind?
It is hard for me to express why Nabokov's writing touches me. It is sad, without being maudlin, and I enjoy his cleverness and the unexpected twists in his stories. I think the sadness derives from the fact that his characters don't fit in, however much they want to. For example, he had a lot of fun with Pnin's fracturing of the English language in the book by that name. In this book, Sebastian longs to be an Englishman. But in spite of his attempts to use the right slang and clothing, his Russian accent will never let him blend in.
Nabokov also involves the reader to a bigger extent than most authors usually do, and somehow the reader becomes part of the story, too. Ann, I also liked the parts about the solitariness of the artistís life; those struck me as quite poignant.
I felt as if Nabakov was winking to me, pulling aside the curtain and letting me see the mechanics of what he was doing while he was doing it, making me an accomplice, so to speak.