The Fledgling Fictionalist
by Michael H. Begnal
page three of three

With all due respect to the personal life of Vladimir Nabokov, the text is fair game, and the novel has one branch of its roots in the autobiographical. Some twenty-five years after the publication of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov, in Speak, Memory, linked the understanding of a fiction to the solving of a chess problem: "competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world).15 There are so many parallels between the details of what happens in Sebastian Knight and what Nabokov has to say about his early life in Speak, Memory that it is impossible for a reader to ignore them.16 Just as V. plundered Knight's novels for his own, Nabokov looted Sebastian Knight for Speak, Memory. Something more is going on here than the construction of an artistic chess problem. Sebastian Knight is Nabokov's acceptance of the loss of his Russian heritage, as well as his coming to grips with his own convoluted relationship with his brother Sergey.

Speak, Memory reflects back on Sebastian Knight, and in a curious reversal of form, illuminates it, as a novel which in great part encompasses bits and pieces of Nabokov's own life. One book throws light on another. To begin with some specifics: in 1919, the Nabokov family stayed briefly in London at 6 Elm Park Gardens.17 Sebastian lives in a: "small flat in London at 36 Oak Park Gardens" (36). On a wall of Sebastian's sitting room is: "an enlarged snapshot of a Chinese stripped to the waist, in the act of being vigourously beheaded" (41). Commenting on the character of Germans, Nabokov recalls a young university student he knew in Berlin, who showed him a series of photographs: "that depicted the successiv e stages of a routine execution in China; he commented, very expertly, on the splendour of the lethal sword and on the spirit of perfect cooperation between headsman and victim" (SM, 278). V. traces Sebastian to the hotel at Blauberg ("Blue Mountain"), while Nabokov recalls his mother reading to him: "a shamelessly allegorical story, 'Beyond the Blue Mountains,' dealing with two pairs of little travellers--good Clover and Cowslip, bad Buttercup and Daisy--[which] contained enough exciting details to make one forget its 'message'" (SM, 82). V. told Mr. Silbermann that he too was a traveler: "'Oh, in the past I suppose'" (127), but there are no complications in the nostalgic world of childhood.

Nabokov's German, great-great grandmother was: "Antoinette Theodora Graun (d. 1859), who was the granddaughter of Carl Heinrich Graun, the composer" (SM, 54). One of the candidates for the role of Sebastian's last mistress is Helene von Graun. "That was a real German name. But the manager was positive that several times during her stay she had sung songs in Russian" (132). V. describes Sebastian's mother's leaving of their father in this way: "she left husband and child as suddenly as a rain-drop starts to slide tipwards down a syringa leaf. That upward jerk of the forsaken leaf, which had been heavy with its bright burden, must have caused my father fierce pain" (9). Nabokov will extend the very same image to describe, in brilliant prose, the birth of his first poem:

Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief--the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes (SM, 217).
The same image captures the poles of grief and happiness.

Moving closer to home, Nabokov recalls his flight into exile: "I remember trying to concentrate, as we were zigzagging out of the bay, on a game of chess with my father--one of the knights had lost its head, and a poker chip replaced a missing rook" (SM, 251). What can this be but a redoing of the chess game in Paul Rechnoy's apartment? If the biography and the autobiography are firmly tied together by Nabokov's memories of the past, the central mystery of Sebastian and Sergey is more deeply disguised. Both V. and Nabokov visit their elderly governess in Lausanne, and both miss: "the water-colour view of Chillon Castle" (21), which had hung in her room in Russia. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov wonders if: "My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction?" She was: "something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart" (SM, 117). (Sergey perished in a Nazi concentration camp, but perhaps he can be salvaged in a fiction.) But the author will keep his distance from the world, issuing a denial of any possible connection. "I have oftened noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly p laced it. . . .the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own" (SM, 95).

Whether we accept this disclaimer or not, the brief sketch of Sergey, which Nabokov could not bring himself to do in Conclusive Evidence (1951), is linked in Speak, Memory with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. "That twisted quest for Sebastian Knight (1940), with its gloriettes and self-mate combinations, is really nothing in comparison to the task I balked in the first version of this memoir and am faced with now" (SM, 257). What Nabokov has avoided is his own obvious guilt over the fact that Sergey was homosexual, and that it was Vladimir who betrayed the secret. "A page from his diary that I found on his desk and read, and in stupid wonder showed to my tutor, who promptly showed it to my father, abruptly provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on his part" (SM, 257). It is possible that Nabokov, in retrospect, is admitting his transgression when V. says: "I believe that granting 'sex' a special situation when tackling a human problem, or worse still, letting the 'sexual idea,' if such a thing exists, pervade and 'explain' all the rest is a grave error of reasoning" (105). If only Nabokov had known that earlier.

As a child, V. finds the key to Sebastian's desk drawer, but he discovers only a harmless collection of romantic poems (17), and later he is scrupulous about burning Sebastian's loveletters unread. This fictional righting of a wrong is something, but not quite enough, as Nabokov seems to realize when he calls Sergey: "one of those lives that hopelessly claim a belated something--compassion, understanding, no matter what--which the mere recognition of such a want can neither replace nor redeem" (SM, 258). While I would not go so far as to insist that Sergey is Sebastian, the similarities continue.

That Sergey stuttered very badly may be reflected in Sebastian's stuttering manner of composition: "'As he a heavy A heavy sleeper, Roger Rogerson, old Rogerson bought old Rogers bought, so afraid Being a heavy sleeper, old Rogers was so afraid of missing to-morrows'" (39). (Brian Boyd mentions: "Sergey's difficulties [his terrible stutter, his shyness, his early hatred of his mother].")18 Just as V. and Sebastian become one at the end of the novel, Nabokov adds this comment to one of the autobiography's photographs: "My brother Sergey and I, aged one and two respectively (and looking like the same infant, wigless and wigged)" (SM, 129). Though Sergey is now but: "A mere shadow in the background of my richest and most detailed recollections" (SM, 257), his ghostly presence will return in V.'s novel behind: "the shadow of a place" (68), "the shadow of a hand" (119).

Nabokov does not describe Sergey very much, beyond dropping one telling affectation that leads directly to Sebastian Knight. At school, Sergey: "wore the regulation black uniform to which, at fifteen, he added an illegal touch: mouse-gray spats" (SM, 257). It is V.'s invented Mr. Silbermann, as we have seen, who speaks of: "'Braht, millee braht--dear brodder'" (128), and it is he who duplicates Sergey. "He sighed and looked down at the toes of his small black boots adorned by old mouse-grey spats" (132). (It is possible that in Nabokov's train of association, Sergey equals mouse-grey equals homosexual. Andrew Field remembers Nabokov describing his uncle Ruka, another homosexual: "there was usually a carnation in the buttonhole of his dove-gray, mouse-gray or silver-gray summer suit."19 It is also well known that artistic representations of the death of Saint Sebastian, his arms tied back and his body pierced by arrows, are often related to the iconography of homosexuality. Whether or not Nabokov was aware of this is debatable.)

Silbermann tells V. about the time he scored a fantastic goal in a soccer game. He says the feat, aided by the wind, was: "'A robinsonnada--a marrvellous trick '" (127), which makes little sense until we learn that another Nabokov governess, a Miss Robinson, performed for the boys the marvelous trick of creating a color spectrum out of maple leaves (SM, 97). When V., in his dream, sees the many tiny hands drop out of Sebastian's glove, they look: "like the front paws of a mouse" (189). There is no one-to-one correspondence here, but, as Sebastian Knight wrote, it is the combinations that matter. As V. puts Sebastian to rest, Nabokov is putting his past to rest in the only way he knows how--through the fabrication of a fiction. Though Sergey may now reside on the other side of the moon, he still has a presence in the pages of Sebastian Knight.

Michael H. Begnal is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. His books include Dreamscheme: Narrative and Voice in Finnegans Wake. He can be reached by email at


15. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1966), p. 290. Further references will be drawn from this edition, will be designated "SM," and will be included in the text.

16. Several people have mentioned a few of the similarities in the two works (for example, that both V.'s and Nabokov's mothers have tied their husband's wedding rings to their own with black thread), but all have been curiously averse to pursing the implications. H. Grabes alludes to some autobiographical elements (p. 13), as does Charles Nicol, who quickly dismisses the question. "What V. says of Sebastian's works, that it is futile to trace their autobiographical aspects, applied equally to Nabokov's own," "The Mirrors of Sebastian Knight," p. 91. Closer to the point, Donald E. Morton says that: "Sergey's life may have been the partial basis for Sebastian Knight," but there he drops the matter, p. 43. Most strange is Dabney Stuart, who mistakenly thinks that Sergey was the older brother. He hints darkly at a secret, but then dances righteously away. "There is another direction one might follow here, if one is so inclined I will point down the thorny path, as it were, but I don't propose to linger there very long myself before abandoning it," pp. 16-17. In regard to the "I am Sebastian" quote, John Burt Foster says: "This assertion dissolves the Anglo-Russian/Franco-Russian complementarity of the two half-brothers, leaving an Anglo/Franco/Russian composite that mirrors Nabokov's own situation, that of the émigré who now writes in English after moving toward France in the earlier 1930s," Nabokov's Art of Memory and European Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 165. On this language problem, see Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 49-50.

17. Andrew Field, The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Crown Publishers, 1986), p. 61.

18. Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, p. 43.

19. Ibid., p. 69.

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