The Fledgling Fictionalist
by Michael H. Begnal

"Dear Sweetie Face, I know in my heart of hearts that everything will be OK. Trust me!"
(Finnegans Wake, 206.6-8)


Rarely in his English novels does Vladimir Nabokov employ the third-person, omniscient point of view. His narrators are all biographers. His biographers are all novelists enmeshed in the first person, in the "I." The Real Life of Sebastian Knight offers us a character designated only as V., a minor businessman in Marseilles, half-brother of a famous novelist recently deceased, who for unknown reasons, since they were never close, seeks to rescue Sebastian's reputation. V. tells us that the main reason he is writing this novel is to refute a previous biography, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight (which incidentally does not mention V.), composed by a Mr. Goodman. But the immediate problem is just what to write about.

Sebastian, it seems, had led a singularly uneventful existence. Born on December 31, 1899, dead in January, 1936, Sebastian fled the Russian Revolution in 1918 , graduated from Cambridge in 1923, had a mistress named Clare Bishop whom he rejected in 1929, and had another mistress named Nina Rechnoy who abandoned him in 1935. Other than this, there is virtually nothing to whet a biographer's appetite--no bullfights or Nobel Prizes, no bouts with alcohol or journeys around the world--nothing. But in the course of his life, Sebastian did publish four novels and three short stories, and it is these that, in several important ways, will provide the focus and impetus for his stepbrother's investigation.

It seems that in his own book V. is seeking to rehabilitate Sebastian from Goodman's charge that Knight failed ultimately as an artist because he was cut off from life. Goodman says that Sebastian: "'was so enamoured of the burlesque side of things and so incapable of caring for their serious core that he managed, without being by nature either callous or cynical, to make fun of intimate emotions.'"1 Roy Carswell, who painted a portrait of the artist in 1933, depicts an obviously egocentric alienation. In the painting, the eyes and the face: "convey the impression that they are mirrored Narcissus-like in clear water. . . . Thus Sebastian peers into a pool at himself"' (119). Without his being completely aware of it, V. piles up data that only substantiates his brother's emotional aloofness and exile. Nina Rechnoy will recall that: "'He was the kind of man, you know, who thinks all modern books are trashy, and all modern young people fools, merely because he is much too preoccupied with his own sensations and ideas to undertand those of others'" (159). The brother of Natasha Rosanov, Sebastian's adolescent sweetheart, says: "'But you know, your brother . . . how shall I put it? . . . your brother was not very popular at school'" (140). The evidence coalesces quite clearly. The repetition of the "you know's" in these interviews is telling, since V. does know that Sebastian often behaved in a blatantly insensitive way but simply cannot bring himself to accept it.

Yet the so-called facts continue to mount, and many of them come from V.'s own recollections. V.'s mother, and Sebastian's stepmother, says wistfully: "'I've a lways felt . . . that I never really knew Sebastian. . . . I cannot help thinking that he will always remain an enigma, --though the Lord knows how hard I have tried to be kind to the boy;" (30-31). After her funeral, Sebastian: "was very kind and helpful in a distant vague way, as if he was thinking of something else all the time" (31). When V. in Paris bumps into Sebastian and Clare, Knight gets away as quickly as he can, but not before calling Clare a little fool when she is almost hit by a bicycle. When the affair ends because of another woman, Clare is coldly dismissed with the reminder that she still has several of her lover's books, if we can believe a fictional letter in Sebastian's novel Lost Property. Not very sensitive behavior. More damning is the bulk of V.'s own memories of their childhood together. He remembers that as boys Sebastian had no time for him: "with a shove of his shoulder he pushes me away, still not turning, still as silent and distant, as always in regard to me" (16). "Sebastian's image does not appear as a part of my boyhood" (18), he says, and indeed the brothers have seen each other briefly only four times between 1918 and 1936. (When later I attempt to link Sebastian to Nabokov's younger brother Sergey, it might be useful to recall Brian Boyd's comment: " Looking back after Sergey had died a courageous death in a German concentration camp, Vladimir racked himself with thoughts of insufficient fraternal affection: 'there was not even any friendship between us, and . . . it is with a strange feeling that I realize I could describe my whole youth in detail without recalling him once."2) V. notes: "Sebastian's constant aloofness, which, although I loved him dearly, never allowed my affection either recognition or food" (18).

One might then wonder why V. would feel compelled to write a book about such a brother at all, but the simple fact remains that V. loves Sebastian, or is obsessed with him, just the same. Completely alone, an exile from his native land, speaking a foreign language, V. is seeking to make a connection with someone or something which will give his life validity. In a way, his life can only make sense if his brother's did, only if he can establish a resonance of feeling and significance that will allow him to transcend his alienation. Knight explains in Lost Property how he arranged a series of English things in his mind to solidify his relationship to his adopted country: "'a picture in Punch or a purple passage in Hamlet, all went to form a definite harmony, where I, too, had the shadow of a place'" (68). V., striving for his own shadow of a place, must write the new biography because: "to readers of Goodman's book I am bound to appear non-exis ent--a bogus relative, a garrulous imposter" (6). In defining Sebastian, he will define himself. In clarifying Sebastian's existence, he will clarify his own.

While Sebastian dealt with alienation in the private world of his novels, V. will create a public Knight in the biography, which deals as well with the isolation of the two of them. Rummaging through the papers that Sebastian left behind, V. comes upon a series of photographs of a mysterious Mr. H., and the reason for their existence lies in an advertisement in an old newspaper. "'Author writing fictitious biography requires photos of gentleman...' . . . That was a book Sebastian never wrote" (40). V. will write just such a book, and he himself will supply the verbal pictures of Sebastian that the fictional biography will require. Though it may be true that Sebastian's personal life was almost literally a blank, V. will make one up for him.

In describing the method for his researches, V. declares: "I want to be scientifically precise" (65), a statement any Nabokov reader must view warily, and V. begins a round of interviews to dredge up material. He speaks, during the course of February and March of 1936, with five people: Sebastian's unnamed friend at C ambridge, Mr. Goodman, Helen Pratt, P. G. Sheldon, and Roy Carswell. Unfortunately, V. has discovered little that he did not know already, but, piqued by Carswell's mention of an unknown woman Sebastian met at Blauberg in 1929, he decides that he must learn her identity. "'I must find that woman. She is the missing link in his evolution, and I must obtain her--it's a scientific necessity'" (120 ). Yet it is not so easy for this scientist to locate Sebastian's women. V. is unable to speak with Clare Bishop before she dies, despite the intensity of his desire to do so: "so passionate was my longing to meet her, just to see and to watch the shadow of the name I would mention flit across her face" (75).

Carswell had tried to include the second woman in his painting: "'I wanted to hint at a woman somewhere behind him or over him,--the shadow of a hand, perhaps'" (119), but finally he could not bring it off. Shadows predominate here, along with the need for "the shadow of a place," but the scientist V. pushes on. (Is it purely coincidence that, in Strong Opinions, Nabokov decides that: "the present body of my occasional English prose, shorn of its long Russian shadow, seems to reflect an altogether more agreeable person than the 'V. Sirin'"?3)

The quest for knowledge runs full tilt into a brick wall at the Hotel Beaumont in Blauberg. Despite numerous entreaties, the hotelkeeper remains adamant that the guest register for 1929 is confidential material that is not to be released to anyone. V. is totally distraught. "My failure was absurd, horrible, excruciating" (124). Though it remains a bit unclear as to why this woman's name is so essential to V.'s enterprise (after all, he is the one who burned her letters unopened in a very unscientific way, earlier in the novel), he is convinced that he can no longer go on that he cannot write: "A book with a blind spot. An unfinished picture,--uncoloured limbs of the martyr with the arrows in his side" (125 ). And here it all would end, had not V., without notifying the reader, switched from being the scientific biographer to the somewhat inept novelist.

Earlier we were told that V. has prepared for his project by taking: "a 'be-an-author' course buoyantly advertised in an English magazine" (34), but he modestly admits that he was a hopeless pupil. Apparently, he could never rise to the level of melodrama demanded. "From the very start I had been hypnotised by the perfect glory of a short story which he [the teacher] sent me as a sample of what his pupils could do and sell. It contained among other things a wicked Chinaman who snarled, a brave girl with hazel eyes and a big quiet fellow whose knuckles turned white when someone really annoyed him" (35). (Shades of Sax Rohmer!) With his preparation, V. will create the totally fictional second half of the novel. He will simply make things up. Since Sebastian and his doings are hidden from "real life," V. will have to discover them in his own artistic imagination.4

To keep the plot, and his biography, going, V. begins to plunder his characters out of Sebastian's fiction. Several commentators have noted that Mr. Silbermann, the mysterious detective whom V. so fortunately meets on the train when leaving Blauberg, is the alter-ego of Mr. Siller in Knight's "The Back of the Moon."5 V. had called Siller: "the final representative of the 'research theme,' which I have discussed" (104), and it is Silbermann's researching of the names of the women who stayed at Blauberg in 1929 that allows V. to continue. He is a narrational necessity. Yet these commentators have failed to see that V. is indeed now writing his own fiction, consciously using the raw material of what Sebastian has already published. Silbermann is not simply a reflection of Siller; he is a character that V. needs, and an entity that V. wishes us to accept as a legitimate part of fictional reality. Yet Silbermann is a construct and a mirror of whom we should be suspicious from the very first.

The physical similarities between the two characters are obvious--both are bald, with large noses and prominent Adam's apples. Of the few Russian phrases that Silbermann recalls, the most startling is: "'millee braht--dear brodder'" (128), a neat coincidence. He counsels V. to give up the search because: "'You can't see de odder side of de moon'" (132) . In a situation like this, V.'s machinery begins to creak a bit, and certainly Nabokov expects that the reader will get the hint. Silbermann, taking his leave, does not add up his expenses to present a final bill for his services. As a mirror, a comic reversal from the other side of the moon, he subtracts his expenses from the original total, so that he ends up owing V. two francs, pays, and disappears. The entire transaction is a reflection of the plot of Sebastian's detective novel The Prismatic Bezel, in which a certain G. Abeson, art dealer, is revealed in reverse to be Old Nosebag. In this novel, which V. knows well, the detective wonders: "'Ullo,' he says, 'ow about Hart?'" (94), and Silbermann replies thirty-five pages later: "'Harrt,--dat's bad'" (129). The reader might agree that this is bad art, indeed, but it is fascinating to watch V. struggle with his scenario.

The emergence of V. as novelist here in Chapter Thirteen has been foreshadowed clearly from the beginning. Though V. states early on that he will never fictionalize his brother's life: "if I should try this with Sebastian the result would be one of those 'biographies romancées' which are by far the worst kind of literature yet invented" (2), he goes right ahead and does it anyway.

So let the door be closed leaving but a thin line of taut light underneath, let that lamp go out too in the neighboring room where Sebastian has gone to bed; let the beautiful olivaceous house on the Neva embankment fade out gradually in the gray-blue frosty night, with gently falling snowflakes lingering in the moon-white blaze of the tall street lamp (20).
This sounds something like a writing exercise in description, but V. simply cannot help himself.6 When his interview with Knight's Cambridge schoolmate goes from dull to duller, V. concocts a long scenario of what Sebastian might have contemplated in his solitude, only to admit finally: "oh, how much I would give for such a memory coming to him!" (50). V. has been honing his erstwhile novelistic skills as his book progresses, and over and over again he will make up what should or what might have been.

Soon, V. begins to muster some of the tricks and techniques to which he must have been introduced in his writing course, like the cliffhanger. As Chapter Five ends, the reader is struck alert by an unexpected twist: "'Sebastian Knight?' said a sudden voice in the mist, 'Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?'" (51). But we soon realize, as Chapter Six begins, that we have been hoodwinked. "The stranger who uttered these words now approached--Oh, how I sometimes yearn for the easy swing of a well-oiled novel! . . . But alas, nothing of the kind really happened" (52). This is cheating, of the most blatant kind, to arouse interest, and V. is not loathe to lay the trap several different times. After the brothers' meeting in Paris in 1929, V. is stymied in retrospect by his lack of information: "When he returned to London . . . No, the thread of the narrative breaks off and I must ask others to tie up the threads again" (109). When, as we shall see, Madame Lecerf is "revealed" to be Nina Rechnoy, V. berates her in high dudgeon, until he catches himself overwriting his own novel: "No, I did not say a word of all this. I just bowed myself out of the garden" (173).

What we are witnessing here is an author who wishes to refine himself out of existence, but who, instead, keeps tripping over his own stage props. When V. writes of his talk with Mr. Goodman, he is afraid that his rendition of the encounter might cause him to be sued for libel, as Sebastian almost was over several of his statements in The Prismatic Bezel, originally titled Cock Robin Hits Back. Thus, Mr. Goodman is novelistically supplied with a black mask to cover his features. Unfortunately, V. stumbles clumsily over his own device: "Mr. Goodman with finger and thumb stroked his face. . . I mean the face under his mask" (57). What had begun as scientific reporting here ends as a muddle of artificiality: "After shaking hands with me most cordially, he returned the black mask which I pocketed, as I supposed it might come in usefully on some other occasion" (59). A novelist's task is not an easy one, but in these earlier scenes V. is preparing for the tour de force ending which can deceive even the most skillful reader.

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Notes

1. Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New York: New Directions, 1959), p. 20. Further references will be drawn from this edition and included in the text.

2. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 70.

3. Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. iii.

4. The problem of who is telling the story has led to controversy. Dabney Stuart names Sebastian: "For the narrator, the person whose perspective we are left with at the novel's end, is Sebastian himself," Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), p. 37. Andrew Field agrees: "Is it possible that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is not a biography at all, but a fictional autobiography, another of Knight's own novels? It is more than possible," Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 27. Brian Boyd sits in this same camp: "Sebastian seems to have invented V. and his entire quest for Sebastian Knight," Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, p. 499. For Julia Bader: "The question arises whether V. is the writer of both the narrative and the alleged novels of Sebastian, or whether Sebastian has created a letter written by a fictitious V.," Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 23. H. Grabes finds that V. becomes Sebastian: "when he attempts to enhance his resemblance to Sebastian to the point of complete identity, thus turning his biography into an autobiography," Fictitious Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov's English Novels (The Hague: Mouton, 1977), p. 16. Shlomith Rimmon feels that we cannot resolve the doubleness of the narrator, and are not supposed to, "Problems of Voice in Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Phyllis A. Roth (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), p. 127, while Anthony Olcott sees no problem at all: "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is not, however, an obvious exercise with an unreliable narrator, as is, for example, Pale Fire," "The Author's Special Intention: A Study of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," A Book of Things about Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Carl R. Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ardis Press, 1974), p. 115.

5. Many have detected the double appearance of Mr. Silbermann, but few have tried to explain it. See Anthony Olcott, pp. 110-111, and Dabney Stuart, who says: "Silbermann is Sebastian is the narrator is Silbermann, and so on," p. 12.

6. Lucy Maddox sees what V. is doing, but she does not pursue the implications for V. as novel writer: "V. cannot rest content with an unfinished picture, and because he needs to collect those images the dying man saw, he begins to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of Sebastian's life with images of his own creation." Nabokov's Novels in English (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983), p. 41.


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