The True Life of Sebastian Knight
by Gerard de Vries

“Would I ever get to Sebastian?”

I

In Speak, Memory Nabokov says how “inordinately hard” he finds it to speak about his brother Sergey (257). In the next sentence he notes that the writing of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was incomparably less demanding, and Nabokov concludes his short biographical sketch by saying that Sergey is entitled to more compassion and understanding than he received. This version of Nabokov’s autobiography was published in 1966, Sergey died in a German concentration camp on January 10, 1945 and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was finished before Nabokov left Europe for the United States in the spring of 1940.

To whom is this call for compassion addressed?

As almost all the attention of their parents was devoted to Vladimir, Sergey’s youth was much less fortunate. For this, Nabokov could not blame himself (though he seems to have made no efforts to amend this). Sergey’s homosexuality did little to make his life easier. Nabokov could have felt guilty because of the injurious way he used to talk about homosexuals.

In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Nabokov made no attempt to suggest a close fraternity between Sebastian and his half-brother V. On the contrary, the lack of congeniality is more noticeable than that between Vladimir and Sergey. Nor does Nabokov propose a belated understanding as the inner knowledge that V. claims about his brother, proves to be totally misleading. Indeed, as almost all the information V. collects is second hand, anyone less prejudiced in sexual matters than V. could better have written Sebastian’s life , as the main theme which separates the brothers is the homosexuality of one of them. The evidence for this reading will be presented by following the chapters of Nabokov’s novel.

II

Chapter 2: Sebastian visits Roquebrune and mistakenly thinks that he has found the place where his mother died. He makes a remarkable observation: “[a]n old man, naked as far down as I could see, peered at me from the balcony, but otherwise there was no one about.” One would expect that a very young man (Sebastian has just left Cambridge) would avert his eyes at seeing such a person, and, when later reporting the remembered event, would omit his nakedness.

Chapter 3: Seventeen-year-old Sebastian leaves his family to accompany the futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa on a journey to the East. The reason why “remained a complete mystery.” Sebastian’s stepmother thought that “perhaps he had been ensnared by Larissa,” which is unlikely as Larissa was “violently in love with her freak of a husband.” The more likely explanation is therefore that Sebastian was beguiled by Alexis. Pan deserves admiration for his Russian translation of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” who also keeps a “knight” without the victim’s awareness “in thrall.” And Pan deserves attention because he used to appear on stage “dressed in a morning coat, perfectly correct but for its being embroidered with huge lotus flowers.”

During his Cambridge years Sebastian visits his stepmother in Paris, wearing “a canary yellow jumper under his tweed coat.” In Speak, Memory Nabokov recounts the attires of Cambridge students, noting that “[w]hat I suppose might be termed the gay set” “wore old pumps, very light flannel trousers, a bright-yellow ‘jumper,’ and the coat of a good suit” (260).

Chapter 4: V. visits Sebastian’s London flat and “dislodge[s] the two bundles of letters on which Sebastian has scribbled: to be destroyed,” one “a medley of notepaper criss-crossed in a bold feminine scrawl,” which V. identifies as the handwriting of Clare Bishop, Sebastian’s partner from 1924 until 1929. When V. is burning these bundles, one sheet of the second bundle comes loose. It “curved backwards under the torturing flame, and before the crumpling blackness had crept over it, a few words appeared in full radiance, then swooned and all was over.” The words were in Russian. And, according to V., they were written by a woman. There is no need to question whether V. was able to ascertain the gender of the writer of only a few words which were very briefly visible on a crumpling sheet, aflame and on the verge of turning black. Of course he was not, but the possibility of Sebastian’s preserving letters from someone else than a woman simply can not enter V.’s mind.
This is also clear when V. discovers photographs. “I thought,” V. writes, “I should find lots of girls.” But all the photographs “featured one and the same person at different stages of his life.” This person is “Mr. H.,” probably a bachelor. The earliest photographs show a “moonfaced urchin.” Many of the homosexuals in Nabokov’s novels are associated with the moon, as Glory’s Archibald Moon and Pale Fire’s Kinbote.

The letters on the burning sheet are translated by V. as “thy manner always to find….” The antiquated “thy” may recall Shakespeare’s homoerotic sonnets, addressed to “Mr. W. H.,” for example the first lines of sonnet 39: “Oh how thy worth with manners may I sing,….”

In Sebastian’s flat there is also a “cigarette end,” left by a certain Mr. McMath. Are we invited to suppose that Sebastian has disclosed to this smoker the solution of the riddle of “Pythagoras’ Pants” presented in Chapter 1?

Chapter 5: V. visits Cambridge because Sebastian studied at Trinity College. He spends quite some time with “Sebastian’s best college friend (now a prominent scholar).” This scholar tells V. that Sebastian at that time met another Cambridge student, D. W. Gorget, a “delightful, flippant,” fellow famed for his “elegance.” He also informs V. that Sebastian as a tennis player wore “very becoming” flannels, “but his service was a feminine pat.” During their lengthy talk the scholar is stroking “a soft blue cat” which rests comfortably in his lap. He removes the cat only when he starts looking for some of Sebastian’s early poems, and, as he can not find them, assumes that they are somewhere at “his sister’s place.” But his cat worries him more: “I don’t know what’s the matter with this cat, she does not seem to know milk all of a sudden.” The close companionship of his constantly caressed cat and the reference to his sister might suggest that the scholar is a bachelor, and bachelors are sometimes associated by Nabokov with homosexuality. That this bachelor calls Sebastian’s lost poems “the darlings of oblivion” but remembers so well Sebastian’s flannels, does not prevent this fine linguist from writing his prize winning The Laws of Literary Imagination.

Chapter 7: In this chapter V. discusses Lost Property, Sebastian’s most autobiographical work, and quotes the author saying “I had my Kipling moods, and my Rupert Brooke moods, and my Housman moods.” Many of their biographers have discussed the homosexual tendencies of these writers, the repressed homosexuality of Kipling, the homosexual love affairs of Brooke, and the homosexuality of Housman, thinly disguised in some of his poems.

Chapter 8: V. recalls that he met Sebastian and Clare in Paris in 1924. He gives a detailed description of her face (“she was pretty in a quiet sort of way…” etc.), of her perfume, and of her figure (“[r]ather tall, very straight-backed…” etc.). After the end of the affair with Sebastian, Clare marries Mr. Bishop. As V. would like to talk with Clare, he makes a call and meets her husband but not Clare who “is not overkeen to recall past friendships” (italics added).

Chapter 9: V., pondering about Sebastian’s and Clare’s “relationship,” comments that they would have married if only the idea of marriage would have entered “their heads.” It is, as will be seen, far from correct to suggest that their partnership resembled a marriage but for its legal registration. Moreover, after a mere two years there is a breach or at least an estrangement between the two partners. Sebastian confesses that “he had come across a man he had known ages ago, in Russia, and they had gone in the man’s car to – he named a place on the coast some miles away.” When Clare asks Sebastian whether he has “stopped loving” her, he evades the question.

Chapter 10: V. discusses another of Sebastian’s novels, and quotes “a passage so strangely connected with Sebastian’s inner life….” The passage begins with this sentence: “William [Anne’s queer effeminate fiancé, who afterwards jilted her] saw her home as usual and cuddles her a little in the darkness of the doorway.” As Clare is some years later spurned by Sebastian quite drastically, and as their partnership approaches that of fiancés rather than of married people, this sentence has a highly predictive value. As will be discussed, the reason why Sebastian leaves Clare is also related to his sexual orientation.

Chapter 11: V. mentions a discrepancy between Sebastian and Clare as lovers, causing “dissatisfaction” for Sebastian.

Chapter 12: Sebastian leaves England in 1929. His separation from Clare is complete. And Clare “changed her lodgings: they were too close to Sebastian’s flat.” This means that they always have had their own homes, quite unusual for people supposed to be living as a married couple.

V. quotes in this chapter from the Mr. Goodman’s biography of Sebastian: “Knight was very thin, with a pale countenance and sensitive hands, which he likes to display with feminine coquetry. He confessed to me once that he liked to pour half a bottle of French perfume into his morning bath….”

Chapter 13: In search of the woman who V. thinks has infatuated Sebastian, V. visits the Beaumont Hotel at Blauberg. The hotel manager says that “he remembered the Englishman who stayed in 1929 and had wanted a bath every morning.” Asked by V. whether Sebastian “was always alone,” the manager answers “[o]h, I think he was here with his father.” As Sebastian’s (and V.’s) father died 24 years before this interview, Sebastian’s close companion must have been another older man. Of course, this piece of very interesting information is ignored by V.

As the manager refuses to inform V. about his clients, V. is extremely fortunate in meeting Mr. Silbermann who offers to provide him with a list of all the guests. He is so well-prepared to assist V. that he can already present V. a list with “all the hotel-gentlemans,” but we know by now that V. is exclusively interested in women.

Chapter 14: From Mr. Silbermann’s inventory we learn that during Sebastian’s stay there were no less than twenty “adult male” guests (Sebastian not included) and of these “only eight were married.”

Mr. Silbermann who in Chapter 13 wears a “bowler hat” and “fawn glove[s]” is now observed with “small black boots adorned by old mouse-grey spats.” In Speak, Memory Nabokov writes that Sergey wore “mouse-gray spats” about the same time that he read in Sergey’s diary a passage disclosing his homosexuality.

V. visits Helene Grinstein, one of the Russian guests of the hotel. Thanks to her V. meets Mr. Rosanov who was one of Sebastian’s schoolmates in Russia. With Natasha, Rosanov’s sister, Sebastian had a sort of “adolescent romance.” At that time Sebastian once took her out for a boat trip: “Sebastian is sitting upon the bench and reading aloud some English verse from a black copybook. Then he stops suddenly: a little to the left a naiad’s head with auburn hair is seen just above the water, receding slowly, the long tresses floating behind. Then the nude bather emerges on the opposite bank…it is the long-haired village priest.” It is quite curious that a boy of sixteen interrupts an amorous declamation to his sweetheart because of the appearance an older nude man (the naiad-part is of course V.’s addition.) No wonder Natasha stops seeing him, which Sebastian deeply regrets because there is no longer a good reason to ask “the boy who sits daily at the next school desk” about her.

Chapter 15: V. visits Paul Rechnoy and meets Uncle Black, Sebastian’s lover, as will be seen.

Chapter 16: V. meets Madame Lecerf, a friend of Helene von Graun, another hotel guest. Madame Lecerf appears to be well-informed about the affair Sebastian had with her friend. It started because “she thought it would be rather good fun to have him make love to her.” But this turned out to be a dreadful mistake, as the impression Sebastian made on her “must have been appalling.” She soon “got friendly with another man.” Nonetheless, Sebastian tries to see and reach her, but after being rejected in hostile terms, he “did not even send her any more of his usual entreating letters, which she never read, anyway.” Again and again V. tells the reader how very attractive he thinks Madame Lecerf is.

Chapter 17: V. can not stop telling how enraptured he is by Madame Lecerf and how much he wants to make love to her. V. relates how he discovers that Madame Lecerf is in fact Nina Rechnoy.

Chapter 18: See section III below.

Chapter 19: V. receives a letter from Sebastian, beginning with: “I am, as you can see, in Paris, and presumably shall be struck [zasstrianoo] here for some time. If you can come, come; if you can’t, I shall not be offended; but it might be perhaps better if you came.” Sebastian writes that the first part of this letter to which these sentences belong “had been destined … to quite a different person.” It is quite obvious that this letter could not have been addressed to Madame Lecerf as she tried to avoid him by all means and moreover refused to read his letters. The lines must have been addressed to someone so much attached to Sebastian as to be willing to visit him immediately when necessary.

Chapter 20: Sebastian dies of a heart attack in St. Damier.

III

In Chapter 18 V. reviews Sebastian’s novel The Doubtful Asphodel. It has often been observed that this novel’s “chess player Schwarz”, “the fat Bohemian woman,” the “ prima donna” who does not bother to avoid puddles, and the suicidical “ Swiss scientist” with his young mistress resemble respectively Uncle Black, Lydia Bohemsky, Helen von Graun and the Swiss couple “ in the hotel around the corner” at Blauberg. As this couple as well as the women mentioned were all in Blauberg in 1929, it is most likely that Uncle Black was also a guest of the Beaumont Hotel. He could have accompanied Nina Rechnoy who was then married to Uncle Black’s nephew Paul.

In 1935, according to the hotel manager, a Colonel Samain -- most likely Uncle Black’s real name -- stayed at the hotel,. When V. visits Paul Rechnoy, he notices “the portrait of what had been in the past an Imperial Family.” This is of course the family of the last Russian Tsar, Nicolas II, and its presence implies White Russian sympathies. There is also the portrait of “a famous general” suggesting that the Rechnoy family included military men. Uncle Black is also a taxi driver. It seems safe to conclude that Uncle Black is a forerunner of Lolita’s Mr. Taxovitch, another taxi driving White Russian Colonel. Mr. Taxovitch liberates Valechka from her doomed relationship with Humbert Humbert; Uncle Black emancipates Sebastian from his unsatisfying relationship with Clare, which had no future for her either. Uncle Black is distinctly older than Sebastian and could as such pass for Sebastian’s father, just as the hotel manager remembered him. As we know, Sebastian was interested in older men: the doffed man in Roquebrune, the poet Pan and the hirsute village priest.

IV

Sebastian signed his juvenilia with a little black chess-knight drawn in ink. In his letter, dated October 21, 1941, to Edmund Wilson, Nabokov draws attention to the chess game in Chapter 15 which indeed epitomizes the whole story. When V. meets Mr. Rechnoy (mirroring the meeting between Sebastian and Mrs. Rechnoy), Rechnoy has a black knight in his hand. The next thing is that the black knight loses its head. Likewise Mrs. Rechnoy has Sebastian in thrall. But he does not tarry with her long, as is also clear from Uncle Black’s remark “I could take your rook now if I wished.” Nina Rechnoy’s maiden name is Toorovetz and the first part of this name is close to “tura,” the Russian for rook. (I owe this piece of information to the much appreciated help of a Russian-born Nabokov scholar, who was so kind as to check this in Vladimir Dahl’s dictionary of the Russian language, volume 4, p. 444.) Just as Uncle Black restored the chessman’s head, he mended Sebastian broken heart. Clare’s fate is not forgotten and her marriage with Mr. Bishop is commemorated when Mr. Rechnoy “took the queen with his bishop.” The next and final move is a victorious one as Uncle Black wins.

The move of a chess-knight can be compared to the L-shaped sides of an Pythagorean triangle, longer than the move along its slanted side. This detour characterizes Sebastian’s advances: it is via Natasha Rosanov that Sebastian tries to get in touch with her brother and it is via Nina Rechnoy that Sebastian meets her husband’s uncle.

Sebastian meeting Uncle Black through Nina is reproduced by V. as the reader would never have met Uncle Black had V. not been looking for Nina. That Nina is a means rather than an end is beautifully reflected in the name by which she is introduced, “Madame Lecerf” (148), because V.’s long pursuit of her (London, Blauberg, Berlin, Paris and Lescaux) resembles the chase of a stag (cf. the rock-drawings of stags in the caves of Lascaux, France). As Paul B. Morgan ( “Nabokov and the Medieval Hunt Allegory," Revue de Littérature Comparée, 3, 1986) has shown, “le cerf amoureux” (“the stag of love”) is a traditional motif of mediaeval French poetry, from which a stag hunt evolved as a poetic allegory, its upshot being “some…acquisition or burden of wisdom with which [the pursuer] must learn to endure,” just as V. would most certainly find it hard to accept Sebastian’s homosexuality.

Sebastian’s relationship with Uncle Black seems to have been a lasting one. In the first three sentences of his last letter Sebastian asks the addressee – and Uncle Black seems the most likely candidate for this role – urgently but gently to come and visit him, but allows for reasons hampering this. However, Sebastian did not stay in Paris and sensing that his end was approaching, asked for V., his only relative.

As V. is only interested in female characters and simply ignores the existence of Colonel Samain, alias Uncle Black, the taxi driver and former White Russian Colonel, he would never have been able to reveal Sebastian secret life. “ Would I ever get to Sebastian?” V. asks despairingly when he is taken by a taxi to Sebastian. But instead of acknowledging the taxi driver’s responsible role, Sebastian keeps nagging the taxi driver to go faster, until he refuses to carry Sebastian any longer as he is afraid of a crash with his car.

V

It appears that Sebastian’s real life has been ingeniously hidden from the reader’s eye by V.’s vigorously virile version of it. The darlings of memory (such as the attractiveness of Sebastian flannels or his girlish tennis serve) become the darlings of oblivion when they are presented within a dazzling context of a profusion of fascinating details, a labyrinth of not a few cul-de-sacs. Such are the laws of literary imagination that even now, knowing the true story of Sebastian Knight’s life, the familiar story as told by V. does not subside.

It looks as if Sebastian will forever be associated with two parallel lives, the unfortunate homosexual unable to acknowledge his sexual orientation to such good friends as Clare Bishop, R. G. Sheldon and Roy Carswell, and the obdurate fool of love who spurns the sweet-tempered Clare because he can not resist the charms of a coquette who despises whoever complies. The version that V. has superimposed on the coordinates of Sebastian’s life is to a very great extent V’s own mode of life, so that it befits the biographer to conclude his work with the statement “ I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I.”

VI

Sebastian’s parallel lives reflect in some ways those of Sergey and Vladimir. In 1924, when Sebastian met Clare, Vladimir became engaged to Véra. In the beginning of the thirties, when Sebastian might have met Uncle Black, the happy relationship between Sergey and his partner Hermann Thieme started. (For a biographical outline of Sergey’s life see Lev Grossman, “The Gay Nabokov,” Salon, and also the first volume of Brian Boyd’s biography, Vladimir Nabokov, The Russian Years, London: Chatto and Windus, 1990, 396.)

In 1937 Nabokov had an affair with Irina Guadini, whom he first saw in 1936. The liaison was most serious and had it been prolonged, might have caused the end of the Nabokovs’ marriage. Brian Boyd, in his discussion of the novel, writes that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight might be seen as a projection of Nabokov’s life, had he not broken up with Irina (ibid. 501). Irina might have been as captivating as Nina. In her biography of Véra, Stacy Schiff writes that Irina is called “a siren” and a “ femme fatale,” but contrary to Nina, Irina was enamored of her admirer as well, and to such an extent that she even worshiped “his abandoned cigarette butt in the ashtray” (which may account for the numerous cigarette ends in ashtrays in the novel) (Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov], New York: Random House, 1999, 87).

Few readers, I suppose, will find the “Real Life” of Sebastian Knight more commendable than his true life. It might be concluded that by presenting these two parallel lives, these two modes of life “that question each other,” Nabokov not only showed much understanding, but also a comparative compassion, to such a degree that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a real tribute to Sergey’s way of life.

Gerard de Vries
Voorschoten, 2010


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