Fat Books & Thin Women

The time of the novel and the time of the narrated in Sebastian Knight

I’ve mentioned countless times that Nabokov is my favorite author, and that the best care package my parents ever sent me included a few of his novels. I think this was my fourth time through Sebastian Knight, and while I’m not sure how to review the book, there is never not something to say about Nabokov’s work. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to write anything other than a general book review, so forgive my rustiness.

The narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the half-brother to the recently deceased author of the title, spends the length of Nabokov’s 200-page novel in search of his brother so that he can write a biography of the writer’s life. The narrator’s product (which makes up Nabokov’s novel) is in part a response to a biography written by Mr. Goodman, Sebastian’s former secretary: The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight (part of, as the narrator puts it, “The Lethean Library” – that is, the library of forgettable books).

The narrator may be striving to write a biography of his half-brother, but the result is a book cataloging his attempts to learn about the life of the half-brother he saw only occasionally after childhood. The narrator strives for a forward motion in the text, to create some suspense or sense of narrative for the reader, and often this results in an odd mixing of narrative time and the time of the narrated. The bulk of the narrative is devoted to a search for a woman Sebastian met while at a sanatorium; the narrator uncovers her existence by catching a glimpse of her writing as he burns, on Sebastian’s instructions, a collection of papers following the author’s death. Despite the intensity of the narrator’s search this all comes to little, as though he’s abandoned an unfruitful plot line, though he does find the woman he’s searching for. He tricks her into revealing herself as the Russian woman of Sebastian’s acquaintance by saying, in Russian, that she has a spider on her neck.*

Once he’s satisfied himself that this is the woman he’s been seeking, the narrator leaves:

“Tell me,” she said following me into the garden, “what is the matter?”

“It was very clever of you,” I said, in our liberal grand Russian language, “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. Because I happen to have met your former husband’s cousin, the one who could write upside down. So I made a little test. And when you subconsciously caught the Russian sentence I muttered aside….” No, I did not say a word of all this. I just bowed myself out of the garden. She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand. (171)

In this passage the moment in the garden and this moment of the reading come together into one; in the narrator’s mind, the two are hardly distinguishable. He says nothing as he makes his way out of the garden, but to create a scene in which he does say something, in which he explains his exit and his methods, is the same to him as if he had actually said these things. And by imagining how the woman will react when she reads the book – “She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand” – the narrator lends to this scene a sort of odd timelessness, pushing the closure to the scene into a future the reader can never access.

Earlier in the novel, when the narrator goes to visit Mr. Goodman, unaware that the secretary has written his own book on Knight, he has Goodman, in the scene itself, wear a black mask so as to hide his appearance. It isn’t clear at first that Goodman is actually wearing the mask, that it’s not the narrator adding the mask into the narrative later on; but in the narrator’s mind, the text he’s going to write and the moment he’s going to write about appear so closely linked that it’s necessary for Goodman to actually wear the mask. After an uninformative discussion Goodman “returned the black mask which I pocketed, as I supposed it might come in usefully on some other occasion” (57). On his way out of the building the narrator speaks with a woman who was acquainted with Sebastian, and Goodman’s mask retroactively slips off:

“Yes,” she went on, “[Sebastian] was an amazing personality, and I don’t mind telling you that I loathed Goodman’s book about him.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What book?”

“Oh, the one he has just written. I was going over the proofs with him this last week. Well, I must be running. Thank you so much.”

She darted away and very slowly I descended the steps. Mr. Goodman’s large soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder. (58)

What’s remarkable here isn’t just the way the narrator literally places the mask over Goodman’s face in his narrated time, but the way he keeps that mask in place while writing the narrative, as though attempting to preserve some sort of “true” narrative time for the reader, recreating his meeting with the anonymous Goodman, preserving that image of the masked Goodman even though at the time he is writing the narrative he already intends to remove the mask at chapter’s end and reveal Goodman’s cow’s udder of a face. Nabokov lets us see the narrator forming the narrative and at the same time the narrator is confusing different types of time (by his very effort to distinguish them), Nabokov is allowing us to see through to the often clumsy creation of Sebastian Knight‘s time.

* That I am, now, able to understand a fair portion of the Russian in Nabokov’s novels is probably going to be the only lasting benefit to my having learned Macedonian.

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I really need to read something by Nabokov other than Lolita. I hear such wonderful things. This one sounds amazing! I’ll keep it in mind when I finally do get around to my next Nabokov.

Comment by Erin

I can’t find a link for some reason – but I think that in this week’s New Yorker (or maybe in their Book Bench blog) it was mentioned that there’s a new book coming out in the fall/winter of Nabokov’s previously-unpublished letters to his wife, Vera Slonim.

Master and Margarita is probably my favorite of his novels. He also did a killer essay on Pushkin – I didn’t “get” Pushkin’s poetry until after I’d read it.


Comment by readersquest

[…] Azar Nafisi – Reading Lolita in Tehran (06/14/11) Emma Donoghue – Room (06/11/11) Vladimir Nabokov – The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (06/11/11) Katie Atkinson – Case Histories (06/10/11) Barbara Kingsolver, ed. – The […]

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