Nabokov's Primer: Letters and Numbers in the Real Life of Sebastian Knight

By Zwart, Jane | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Nabokov's Primer: Letters and Numbers in the Real Life of Sebastian Knight


Zwart, Jane, Philological Quarterly


Sebastian Knight, a cipher in a novel, possesses no real life; what Nabokov labels as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is, of course, mislabeled inasmuch as the words apply to the story the book coyly tells, as if the life were being recounted by the writer rather than invented. The book itself, however, is impeccably labeled: the book itself (the thing, not its story) is all the real life that Sebastian Knight has. Nabokov has this tendency to pass off an invented story as a real past, even if his labels do not always betray his trick as clearly as in Sebastian Knight's case. Moreover, by making his unreliable narrators the easy targets of his readers' doubts, the author makes us trust him for telling us who to distrust. He thus preserves for his stories (not as told, but as past) a fictional infallibility. His own story, in fact, as related in Speak, Memory, seems almost more fallible than his fictions do.

According to David Shields, Nabokov takes up largely opposite modes of narration in his autobiography Speak, Memory and the fictional biography The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Shields argues that Speak, Memory positions the reader and writer both as listeners to the autonomous voice of the mnemonic--a situation which renders the memoir's author as no more than the scribe best-qualified to write down whatever memory discloses. The automechanics of the autobiography's composition then sets Nabokov as the pencil-handed narratee as much as it sets him up to be the narrator, and this contingency, says the critic, permits the stuff of his autobiography the near-sentimentality (the forward tenderness) that his novels never allow. Shields perceives the difference between the autobiography and the fictional biography even on the level of what he calls the "titular antithesis" of the two books. Unlike the invocation "Speak, Memory," and its corollary positioning of author as recipient (as narratee), the half-dozen words that name The Real Life of Sebastian Knight imply the genre of the "tell-all," a genre that showcases the writer's authority. The writer thus "assumes a sophistication beyond the reader and hence an implicit antagonism toward us," writes Shields. He goes on to urge us to compare the first lines of each book. (1) Speak, Memory opens: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness;" (2) Sebastian Knight: "Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, in the former capital of my country." (3) The universal cradle of Speak, Memory makes for easy contrast with the specificity of Sebastian Knight's birth announcement.

But the most telling comparison between Speak, Memory and Sebastian Knight lies not in this juxtaposition of first lines; rather, it is the cradle of the autobiography and the novel's deathbed that reveal most about the two books' cross-purposes, purposes that finally intersect at a single point. At the end of Sebastian Knight, the narrator, having hurried to a hospital by train, "peer[s] for a moment into a dark room" in which he believes his half-brother is dying. "A small blue-shaded lamp" lit and dim beside him, V. listens to the man in the other room breathing gently. (5) "That door standing slightly ajar," he recounts, "was the best link imaginable." Nabokov's biography begins by insisting that "common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." But his novel insists upon the opposite: that two eternities of light (even if that light is only the dim wattage from a shaded lamp) ensconce the dark brevity of having to die. Common sense does not tell us this, as common sense is more comfortable with the logic of mortality than that of immortality. Common sense, likewise, balks at the novel's conclusion: "I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.

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