NABOKV-L post 0015369, Thu, 26 Jul 2007 02:27:48 +0200

[BIB:] Nabokov's "Sebastian Knight" and Mann's "Doktor Faustus"
Vladimir Nabokovs "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" und Thomas Manns
"Doktor Faustus"
Jan Stottmeister, M.A., Humboldt Universität Berlin, November 2006

For a PDF copy of the thesis, please send an email to
jan.stottmeister(at) .
The thesis is written in German. An English abstract is attached below.

Jan Stottmeister


At first glance Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)
und Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (1947) would seem to have little in common.
Dense with religious symbolism, historical commentary and protracted debates
about German culture and mentality, Mann¹s text is poles apart from the
narrative aesthetic of Nabokov¹s first English novel.

Yet there are notable similarities between the two texts. Both novels recall
the life of a fictional contemporary artist and both contain extraordinarily
detailed descriptions of that artist's works. In the two novels we find a
first-person narrator who can be seen as a complement to and alter ego of
the main protagonist. Beyond such basic similarities a comparative reading
of Sebastian Knight and Doktor Faustus shows how numerous themes, narrative
devices and even the wording of certain descriptions in Mann's novel are
prefigured in Nabokov's text.

In the first chapter a survey of the history of the artist-novel from the
late 18th to the early 20th century shows how the level of detail in the
treatment of the creative works of the writer Sebastian Knight and the
composer Adrian Leverkühn is without precedent in the history of the genre.
Typically the artist-novel is focused on the biography of a protagonist and
the issue of his identity as artist. Descriptions of the artist's oeuvre are
generally minimal. As the biography of a fictional artist told as the story
of his works, NabokovŒs Sebastian Knight makes a radical departure from
previous models of the genre. Mann's novel represents a similar break with
generic tradition.

The second and third chapters of this study examine just how the creative
output of both protagonists is interwoven into the structure of the novels
and with what narrative strategies this is executed. While Mann's challenge
of transposing musical works into text is quite different from that faced by
Nabokov, there are nonetheless parallels in the narrative techniques
employed by both writers to invoke the works of the respective protagonists.
Knight and Leverkühn also have a similar artistic development. Having
undertaken a parodic deconstruction of conventional stylistics both develop
their own individual style in an intellectual, self-reflexive art which
invents its own rules instead of following the rules of tradition. The last
works of both artists - Knight's novel The Doubtful Asphodel and LeverkühnŒs
Oratorio Doktor Fausti Weheklag - can both be read as allegories of the
plots of the novels in which they are described. The concept of a
self-reflexive art, the idea of a fiction within a fiction, is thus brought
to its logical conclusion.

The fourth chapter highlights startling parallels in the characterisations
of Knight and Leverkühn as cold and aloof figures. Their biographies are the
basis for a discussion of similar themes: the relationship between art and
disease, the tension between artistic and emotional independence and the
determining force of origin, and the opposition of eros and intellect which
in both novels is dramatised by the figure of a femme fatale and accompanied
by allusions to Shakespeare's Love¹s Labour¹s Lost.

A key feature linking both novels is the use of a first-person narrator. In
V., Knight's half-brother and in Zeitblom, Leverkühn's childhood friend, we
find unreliable narrators whose approach to the life-story of the respective
protagonists is coloured by their own bias. Here the act of narration itself
becomes an attempt to approach the biographies of Leverkühn and Knight after
their deaths. A comparative analysis of the narrators in the fifth chapter
focuses especially on the complex interrelationship of identity and
difference which shapes their attitude towards the protagonists. While
Nabokov displays far greater virtuosity in this point, it is striking that
Mann should opt for this form of narration which marks a radical departure
from the reliable or omniscient narrators typical of earlier works.

The last chapter investigates the possibility of a direct influence of
Nabokov on Mann. Although there are no indications from Mann's letters and
diaries of the time that he had any knowledge of Nabokov's first English
novel when he began to conceive Doktor Faustus in March 1943, this chapter
sketches out a number of possible ways Mann may have come to know the novel
of the then still obscure Nabokov. (The most interesting potential link
would be via Mann's contact to James Laughlin, the publisher of Sebastian
Knight.) Beyond the possibility of direct influence, here exile is discussed
as a situation which may have given rise to similar literary motifs and
narrative strategies.

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