Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0017069, Thu, 18 Sep 2008 12:53:53 -0700

Re: Fw: [NABOKV-L] [NABOKOV-L] [QUERY] Sebastian Knight

--- JM: V. writes: "...where is the third party? Rotting peacefully in the cemetery of St Damier. Laughingly alive in five volumes."  And yet, there is something  elusive here, right at the moment when V. realizes that the real Sebastian Knight is to be found in his published work, his fiction.

So,V. observes that "Clare intimately witnessed the first three-fifths of his entire production" and adds that, after SK and Clare broke up, Sebastian became a distraught, deeply unhappy man:"Sebastian returned to London in the beginning of 1930 and took to his bed after a very bad heart attack. Somehow or other he managed to go on with the writing of Lost Property: his easiest book, I think[...]. In The Doubtful Asphodel, his method has attained perfection[...].There seems to be a method, too, in the author's way of expressing the physical process of dying[...].First the brain follows up a certain hierarchy of ideas[...] But the dying man knew that these were not real ideas; that only one half of the notion of death can be said really to exist: this side of the question[...] the quay of life gently moving away aflutter with handkerchiefs: as if he was already on the other side, if he could see the beach receding; no, not quite — if he was still
thinking.' How could SK be "laughingly alive in five volumes"? 
And we know that V. insisted on finding real clues  to SK, inspite of his partial insights:"all the same I must find that woman. She is the missing link in his evolution." We learn, too, that V could not mimick his brother's style because: "Told to write like Mr Everyman he would have written like none. I cannot even copy his manner because the manner of his prose was the manner of his thinking and that was a dazzling succession of gaps; and you cannot ape a gap because you are bound to fill it in somehow or other — and blot it out in the process."
J.A.: These are good quotes, and represent a number of issues. I myself have always wondered at precisely how one could be "laughingly alive" in books as well, which are just words, but I think this literalizes an idea of N.'s. As I recall he claimed that a writer's only real biography was the development of his style. Therefore, I supose he means that the best and truest part of Sebastian is his artistic output. Certainly those are the only things that V. can know for certain. It may also be a hint to the reader, along with several in the book, to wonder if V. is really a puppet of his brother. V.'s view of Lost Property suggests I think another something doubtful about him. Because he disapproves of his brother's love life, his having cheated on Clare and lost her, the book he first writes without her has to be less than up to the man's usual "brilliance"; V.'s bias seems to have influenced his critical faculties. Actually I've always wondered about
this. Is Sebastian really a great writer? This was a question Michael Wood raised as well. The quotes certainly bristle with tons of style, but the works as described by V. sound like arch parodies of Nabokov's work. Was Success really a popular book? Not to mention that novels like The Prismatic Bezel seem extremely unlikely because it's hard to imagine practically and precisely how the transitions would have worked in metamorphosing from the mystery hotel to the swooning charm of a country home without seeming like a rather flat and willful stunt; it's difficult, especially if you know the gift, to imagine how Sebastian would have kept Success from losing its bearings, in my opinion, from seeming ludicrously arbitrary in its investigations of what brought a couple together, massively egocentric without being at least somewhat selfconsciousness of this the way N. slyly was in his last great Russian book. As to V.'s opinion that he's not
able to imitate Sebastian's style, that's patently false--the quotes from the books (with their queer echoes of V.'s quest, which for some reason he doesn't notice) sound exactly the same as V.; for that matter I've always thought Goodman's prose sounded the same as well. He uses some awfully stylish sentences that don't go with the kind of gray academic who would make such a banal "historical" interpretation as the one he does.
Citizen Kane and TRLSK? Interesting comparison but have reach no rosebud  sliding in the end, although we do find a Rosanov to reject him.
J.A.: While there was no literal concrete symbol as in the movie, V. really is searching for Sebastian's rosebud. V. like the reporter of Kane is certain that an answer to a big mystery about the dead man can be discovered, one that would "explain everything"; and in both men's cases the loss that fuel's their lives is quite similar, that of a mother's love and a childhood they could never regain. They're potentially great men who flounder in egotism and a doomed quest for something beyond life. Madame Lecerf and Susan Alexander, despite their great differences in comportment, would probably be able to profitably sit down with one another over a couple of stiff drinks if you ask me.

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