The Fledgling Fictionalist
We follow the gentle old chess player Schwarz, who sits down on a chair in a room in a house, to teach an orphan boy the moves of the knight; we meet the fat Bohemian woman with that grey streak showing in the fast colour of her cheaply dyed hair; we listen to a pale wretch noisily denouncing the policy of oppression to an attentive plain-clothesman in an ill-famed public house. The lovely tall primadonna steps in her haste into a puddle, and her silver shoes are ruined. An old man sobs and is soothed by a soft-lipped girl in mourning. Professor Nussbaum, a Swiss scientist, shoots his young mistress and himself dead in a hotel-room at half past three in the morning (175).
Schwarz, of course, surfaces in V.'s narrative as Black, the chess player in Paul Rechnoy's apartment (142), and the latter, swilling cognac with V. (144), is probably the "pale wretch" who harangues a detective (Silbermann?) In a local tavern. The "soft-lipped girl in mourning" is V.'s Helene Grinstein, supposedly interviewed after a funeral in Berlin (135), and "the fat Bohemian woman" becomes V.'s Lidya Bohemsky, the first name on his list of possible suspects (153). "The lovely tall primadonna" is a composite of V.'s Helene von Graun, who: "scrambled out of the car right into a puddle" (170), and Clare Bishop, who V. imagines in the midst of one of Sebastian's nonsensical practical jokes as having: "'phoned for a taxi and her new silver shoes glittered" (103). The suicidal lovers were mentioned earlier to V. by the hotelkeeper at Blauberg (124).7
In V.'s own defense, the reader should remember that this fabulist had issued a caution early in the work which many of us have ignored or overlooked: "don't be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present. Beware of the most honest broker. Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale" (52). V. has no choice but to invent if he is to recapture the life of his brother, and this shape could have no finer model for emulation than Sebastian's novels themselves. In his last chapter, V. will again allude to: "all those books that I knew as well as if I had written them myself" (203). In point of fact, V. has rewritten them. The search for Knight's femme fatale, which lifts characters from The Doubtful Asphodel, is also modeled directly on The Prismatic Bezel, which is actually a parody of detective fiction in which the murderer is revealed to have been no murderer at all. But, while Sebastian: "used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion" (91), V. will have to struggle for this sort of literary sophistication. While Knight was not disturbed by outright bad writing, "what annoyed him was the second rate, not the third or N-th rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral" (92). It is not that V. is immoral, but simply that he is somewhat incompetent. He is not, in the artistic sense, up to a metafictionist murder story like The Voyeur, and so he must settle for a redoing of Arthur Conan Doyle. (If my thesis here seems overly complicated, let us remember that Nabokov himself once said: "art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex."8)
V.'s investigation begins with an awkwardly planted series of clues that should make the reader suspicious of the story's reality from the first. When Paul Rechnoy, Nina's first husband, appears at the door of his apartment: "He held a chessman--a black knight--in his hand" (142). Sebastian would never be so obvious. Paul's recollection of Nina points back in a self-conscious way to V.'s novel writing course:
"Her idea of life was drinking cocktails and eating a large supper at four o'clock in the morning, and dancing the shimmy or whatever it was called, and inspecting brothels because that was fashionable among Paris snobs, and buying expensive clothes, and raising hell in hotels when she thought the maid had stolen her small change which she afterwards found in the bathroom . . . Oh, and all the rest of it,--you may find her in any cheap novel, she's a type, a type" (146).Indeed she is, as detail piles upon detail to encompass the stereotypical portrait of a flapper out of the Roaring 20's, and V. seems guilty enough about his expertise to allow his own characters to comment upon the problem. Rechnoy's present wife is slightly contemptuous of Nina's reality: "'I told Varvara Mitrofanna about her, and she said it was merely a bad dream after seeing a bad cinema film'" (147). More concerning dreams later, but V. himself will agree about Nina: "Books mean nothing to a woman of her kind; her own life seems to her to contain the thrills of a hundred novels" (174). Most telling, Nina Rechnoy will soon get the chance to condemn her own creator: "'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'" (152).
Still V. pushes doggedly on, dropping details into his narrative so that he can tie them all together at the end. In "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," the only tale in which Conan Doyle allowed Sherlock Holmes to speak in the first person, the detective chafes at the constrictions of plot construction: "Alas, that I should have to show my hand so when I tell my own story! It was by concealing such links in the chain that Watson was enabled to produce his meretricious finales."9 V. bumbles as a Watson out of his element, questioning a porter as he searches for Lidya Bohemsky: "'A handsome dark woman?' I suggested, using an old Sherlock Holmes strategem" (153) and receiving in answer an erroneous affirmative. (One might recall Shirley Holmes, the benevolent camp director in Lolita, and her son Charley who deflowered the nymphet. When asked about his affinity for the conventions of the detective story, Nabokov answered that: "My boyhood passion for the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories may yield some twisted clue."10)
V.'s ending certainly is meretricious, in the sense of flashy or showy, as he establishes the fact that Madame Lecerf, Nina's assumed name and the deer in the chase, is actually Russian by whispering in her native tongue that there is a spider on her neck, causing her to recoil in panic. (Indeed, Nina plays a kind of Irene Adler to V.'s Sherlock when he says: "it may amuse the reader [and, who knows, Sebastian's ghost too] if I say that for a moment I thought of making love to that woman" (168). It is also possible that Adler's adventure "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a second-hand source for the "fat Bohemian woman Lidya Bohemsky.") What leads him to the insight that Lecerf is Rechnoy is his tying together two distant pieces of information--Paul's mentioning that his cousin Black is able to write his name upside down, and Lecerf's romantic aside: "'I kissed a man because he could write his name upside down'" (171). Two plus two equals four, and if we shake the name Rechnoy upside down, we get "chernoy," a variation on the Russian word for "black," thus aligning Nina with Schwarz, Black, Bishop, Knight, and demonstrating that this is all an artificial chess problem of V.'s design. He plants the clues, and then he solves his own mystery. Things are so obvious, that V. does not have the nerve to finish his Watsonian peroration: "'it was very clever of you to make me believe you were talking about your friend when all the time you were talking about yourself. This little hoax would have gone on for quite a long time if fate had not pushed your elbow, and now you've spilled the curds and whey'" (173).
The "curds and whey" hints at another level or motivation for V.'s fictionalizing. Though Nina Rechnoy, even with the spider, is certainly not a very apt parallel to Miss Muffet, V.'s remark underlines the nursery rhyme and fairytale quality of his narrative. In some ways the search for Nina is the story of a Cinderella, turned inside out,11 with the discovery of a mistress rather than a princess, but there is yet another source for V.'s turning to childhood for a literary model. In 1936, he traveled to Lausanne to interview their Swiss governess, unnamed, who retained only an idealized version of her time in Russia and of Sebastian as a model child. However, on learning that V. has become his brother's biographer, she implores him: "'Write that book, that beautiful book,' she cried as I was leaving, 'make it a fairy-tale with Sebastian for prince. The enchanted prince'" (23). Like Humbert, Kinbote, and Van Veen to come, V. will revivify fairyland. As V. leaves Rechnoy's apartment, he sets up the introductory motif: "'Once upon a time,' Uncle Black was saying" (148), and the same thing occurs when Nina betrays herself: "'Once upon a time,' she said softly, 'I kissed a man just because he could write his name upside down'" (171). When V. left the governess, he was disturbed that: "She had not asked one single thing about Sebastian's later life, not a single question about the way he had died, nothing" (23). These things are unimportant, the facts do not really matter, if Sebastian is to become an enchanted prince, and V. is thus set free from reality to write his tale.
All that remains is for V. to narrate Sebastian's death scene, and he does so by relying upon the ironic theme of mistake or mistaken identity which Knight had manipulated so well in his novels, and apparently even in his own life. In Lost Property, Sebastian, or his character, goes to Roquebrune ("Brown Rook") to visit the house in which his mother had died, can almost see her shade gliding up the steps to the cottage, and then finds out later that he had been in the wrong town. In the same novel, after a plane crash, undelivered letters are found scattered across a field. In one addressed to a jilted lover is a discussion of business matters: in the other, addressed to the firm of a Mr. Mortimer, is the letter of farewell, which contains the sentence: "'Life with you was lovely--and when I say lovely, I mean doves and lilies, and velvet, and that soft pink "v" in the middle'" (112). (Later, V. will bestow upon Nina Rechnoy: "queer velvety eyes" .) V. borrows this last incident from Lost Property to introduce his recreation of Sebastian's final hours when he opens a telegram: "simply expecting some business news,' and finds the message: "'Sevastian's [sic] state hopeless comme immediately Starov'" (190). V. says that: "the 'v' in Sebastian's name was a transcription of its Russian spelling" (191), but the strange spelling also stands out as a flag for the reader. V. has placed his own "v" almost in the middle, as the names of the two brothers fuse.
V. has been adamant throughout the biography that he himself will remain behind the stage curtains: "As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible. I have tried not to allude (though a hint now and then might have made the background of my research somewhat clearer) to the circumstances of my own life" (141). He insists upon anonymity: "let me repeat that I am loath to trouble these pages with any kind of matter relating personally to me" (168). He protests too much, but V. must now interject himself into the tale, since, in all likelihood, he was never summoned to the deathbed at all. His journey to St. Damier ("chessboard" in French) is a dream, a fiction, a nightmare, in which time is elongated and the traveler will never reach his destination. As he says on the train en route to the hospital: "The dark, rocking compartment, chock-full of sprawling dummies, seemed to me a section of the dream I had had" (192).
He cannot remember the doctor's name or the location of the hospital, and the climax of the narrative is the absurd mistake of V.'s spending the night at the bedside of some other dying Englishman, a Mr. Kegan. His plight is similar to that of Kafka's Country Doctor, and, as he had admitted earlier: "I sometimes cannot help believing that it had gradually grown into a dream, that quest, using the pattern of reality for the weaving of its own fancies" (137). Here V. must finally confront himself, and he does so under the aegis of Sebastian, reliving Sebastian's mistaken return to his mother's house. He has taken a cure from Sebastian's notebook of clippings which referred: "to incongruous or dream-absurd incidents which had occurred in the most trivial places and conditions. Mixed metaphors too, I perceived, met with his approval, as he probably considered them to belong to the same faintly nightmare category" (39). All of V.'s fiction is a mixed metaphor in which parts mix and come together, as finally do Sebastian and V. V. as creator has become his own character; as the bestower of the black mask, he will also become its wearer. "Try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian's mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off [a mixed metaphor]. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows" (205).
This final intermingling of Sebastian and V. is underlined more decisively if the reader undertakes an explication of the dream V. experiences just before receiving the supposed telegram from Starov. Without examining every one of its details, and eschewing, of course, any Freudian technique, it is clear that V.'s dream is yet another view of his assumed role of novel writer and biographer. He begins by telling us that: "I dreamt I was sitting in a large dim room which my dream had hastily furnished with odds and ends collected in different houses I vaguely knew" (187). This dream is his novel, and the "odds and ends" of furniture are the snippets from Sebastian's fictions which V. has pirated. While Sebastian is drinking tea: "My mother came back for a moment to fetch the thimble she had forgotten" (189), recalling the thimble that Black had substituted for a pawn in V.'s rendition of his meeting with Paul Rechnoy (143), and the allusion is reinforced by the dream's servant: "the girl in black" (189). Most significant is the bizarre detail of Sebastian' s wearing a black glove on his left hand, which has apparently been amputated. When Sebastian finally removes the glove, V. is shocked to see a number of tiny, pink hands spill out onto the floor. Just as V. gave Mr. Goodman a black mask to disguise his identity, here he gives Sebastian a black glove to disguise the question of authorship. In picking up the tiny hands that are revealed, V. is picking up the role of the writer,12 acknowledging it, and the fact that they are pink hearkens back to the soft and pink "v" in the middle of "velvet" which united the brothers many pages before (112). V. is admitting his continuation of the narrative which Sebastian was unable to complete, and the hands which Sebastian drops thus become V.'s own. Of the secret which the dream Sebastian is seeking to impart, but which V. says he cannot remember, there is more to come.
Even with all his initial ineptitude, V. has certainly accomplished a great deal.13 He has somehow adapted Sebastian's methods of composition to create, along with a living picture of himself, a reflection of Sebastian which he can incorporate into his consciousness. As was noted, V. had realized that Sebastian: "used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion" (91), and it is just such a technique as this that V. has brought finally to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Beginning as a physical and emotional exile from his brother, V. has achieved oneness by superimposing the characters and incidents he has imagined to arrive at a composite that is more real emotionally than the "real." He has accomplished in his book, after several missteps, what Sebastian set out to do in The Prismatic Bezel: "the heroes of the book are what can be loosely called 'methods of composition.' It is as if a painter said: look, here I'm going to show you not the painting of a landscape, but the painting of different ways of painting a certain landscape, and I trust their harmonious fusion will disclose the landscape as I intend you to see it" (95). Discussing The Doubtful Asphodel, the critic V. had concluded that: "It is not the parts that matter, it is their combinations" (176). By fashioning the parts and placing them in combination, V. has arrived at a landscape in which he and Sebastian have interlocking roles. V. is writing about different ways of writing about his brother which ultimately fuse into a vision of an understandable and meaningful Sebastian.14
Another comment V. makes about The Doubtful Asphodel might serve equally well to describe both of these mysterious siblings: "A man is dying, and he is the hero of the tale; but whereas the lives of other people in the book seem perfectly realistic (or at least realistic in a Knightian sense), the reader is kept ignorant as to who the dying man is. . . . The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying, and drawing up a ghostly knee" (175). In reverse, the two men in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight are moving toward life, at least artistic life, in V.'s writing, so that ultimately they will emerge as more viable, more "realistic," than the ghostly personages which V. has conjured up to surround them. There is no reality to Nina, to Mr. Black, or to Mr. Kegan, beyond that which V. and the reader will allow. Of utmost importance is the connection, the correspondence, which this new fictional biography has achieved, or what comes as V.'s greatest discovery is that truth does not necessarily equate with fact. What Sebastian may have actually done has little bearing upon what V. realizes his brother has been, and what he has meant to him. This is the mysterious message from V.'s dream of Sebastian examined earlier. "Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being--not a constant state--that any soul may be yours, i f you find and follow its undulations" (204). As Sebastian's love lettes went up in flames, V. was able to make out but one sentence: "'thy manner always to find'" (38). Now he has found that manner of being at last. V. and Sebastian are united in their loneliness, their exile from country and from language, and in their devotion to their artistic craft. In this sense, V. does not become Sebastian, since he and Sebastian had always been the same thing all along. In knowing Sebastian, he has come to know himself.
It is this insight which will allow V. to say: "Thus--I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and going" (205). In farewell, like a Prospero drowning his magical book, V. admits that it was all makebelieve, a fairytale, and that he no longer need s his fictional characters. They can be revealed in all their artificiality:
They move round Sebastian--round me who am acting Sebastian,--and the old conjuror waits in the wings with his hidden rabbit; and Nina sits on a table in the brightest corner of the stage, with a wineglass of fuchsined water, under a painted palm. And then the masquerade draws to a close. The bald little prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. (205).V. has finally acquired the confidence which no longer makes it necessary for him to hide behind his own scenario. In getting to know his own fictional characters, V. has come to know Sebastian Knight on a deeper level. Sebastian's story has existed simultaneously within V.'s own, and life not only imitates art--it becomes art. As Clare Bishop remarked earlier: "'A title . . . must convey the colour of the book,--not its subject'" (72), and this is just what happens within The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. V. has not recaptured Sebastian; he has demonstrated him.
7. These parallels have been noticed before, though not every critic agrees on which identification is which. See, for example, Dabney Stuart, p. 23, Shlomith Rimmon, p. 114, Laurie Clancy, The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), p. 89, and Vladimir E. Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 157.
8. Strong Opinions, p. 33.
9. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1964), p. 54.
10. Strong Opinions, p. 174.
11. On the Cinderella theme, see Charles Nicol, "Pnin's History," Novel, 4 (Spring, 1971), 197-208.
12. Julia Bader suggests that with the incident Nabokov is: "representing the sinister manipulative capacity of the artist," and she continues: "the manipulative little hands hint at Sebastian's possible authorship of his own biography," pp. 27-28. Andrew Field calls V.: "one of those little hands of Sebastian," and thus, for him, the dream substantiates Sebastian's authorship," Nabokov: His Life in Art, p. 28.
13. V.'s problems with narration have caused Donald E. Morton to conclude that: "This dissolution robs a perilously hollow novel of its concreteness, just when that concreteness is beginning to gel," Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1974), p. 52. Lucy Maddox is dismayed: "V. . . . is a humorless, dull character, and it is impossible to distinguish either the pattern of reality he comments on or the final pattern of his commentary. We do, ultimately, hold a dead book in our hands," p. 49.
14. Charles Nicol has noted V.'s affinity with The Doubtful Asphodel: "Through his total immersion in the novel, he has become its author," "The Mirrors of Sebastian Knight," Nabokov: The Man and His Work, ed. L. S. Dembo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 93.
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