Nabokov’s “Real Life of Sebastian Knight” and William Caine’s “The Author of ‘Trixie’”
In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (chapter IV), the late Sebastian’s half-brother and biographer-to-be, inspects Sebastian’s apartment:
“I glanced too, at the books; they were numerous, untidy, and miscellaneous. But one shelf was a little neater than the rest and here I noted the following sequence which for a moment seemed to form a vague musical phrase, oddly familiar: Hamlet, La morte d'Arthur, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, South Wind, The Lady with the Dog, Madame Bovary, The Invisible Man, Le Temps Retrouvé, Anglo-Persian Dictionary, The Author of Trixie, Alice in Wonderland, Ulysses, About Buying a Horse, King Lear....
The melody gave a small gasp and faded.”
There has been a good deal of discussion over the years (NABOKV-L & elsewhere) about this list of Sebastian’s favorite books and their possible relevance to the theme of RLSK. Brian Boyd comments:
In a May 24 posting Jeff Edmunds correctly identifies William Caine's "The Author of Trixie" (1924) …… adds: "One wonders what relevance [it] might have had for Sebastian Knight. …”. …Caine's novel is a little masterpiece that all lovers of Nabokov should seek out. Wonderfully deft and wrily self-consciousness in a way quite surprising for its time or at least (since this was, after all, post-Ulysses_) for its time and tone. Once you read it, you'll see its comic relevance to Sebastian Knight, who could almost have written it.
I have taken Boyd’s advice to heart and read Caine’s “The Author of ‘Trixie’”. Although I am not so enthusiastic as Brian (and sincerely hope that it was not written by Sebastian), I too see why VN might have put it on Sebastian’s shelf. It is a tale of misrepresented authorship—a theme that likely lies at the heart of RLSKn. The novel is replete with allusions to Bacon and Shakespeare. (And also to those earlier English clergymen who wrote scabrously funny works, Swift and Sterne. These do not figure in VN’s book, so far as I recall.)
Below, I provide some notes on the now-forgotten William Caine and his novel. NB: William Caine is not to be confused with his bestselling contemporary Hall Caine (1853-1931).
William Caine The Author Of “Trixie”.Herbert Jenkins Limited,
(M: 1873 - 1925)
The Revolt At Roskelly's [f|1910]
The Devil In Solution [f|1911]
An Angler at Large [f|1911]
But She Meant Well [f|1914]
Bildad The Quill-Driver [f|1916]
The Fan, And Other Stories [s|1917]
The Strangeness Of Noel Carton [f|1921]
Mendoza And A Little Lady [f|1921]
The Brave Little Tailor [f|1923]
The Author Of 'Trixie' [f|1924]
Lady Sheba's Last Stunt [f|1925]
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen [e|1927]
The publisher’s blurb for “The Author of Trixie” lures in the buyer with: “WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT”
“Everyone has, at least one novel in him,” and the Archdeacon Roach puts this theory to the test.
He writes what proves to be a “best seller”; but cannot reveal his authorship and, at the same time, preserve his Archidiaconal dignity or hope for preferment to a Bishopric.
Bisham Dunkle, a poet, accepts responsibility for the book; but demands not only the Archdeacon’s consent to his marriage to his daughter Chloe; but a settlement of seven hundred pounds a year, and all of the royalties the book earns.
I (DBJ) continue the synopsis: Poetaster Dunkle and Chloe quickly run through their new wealth and scheme to force her father to write a second book to be credited to Dunkle. If he refuses, they will expose him as the author of “Trixie.” The new book is soon ready but the Archdeacon decides that whatever the cost he wants the glory of authorship for both “Trixie” and the new work. The young couple, whose scheming is now taken over by Chloe, an even nastier number than her husband, agree to the author’s demands but plot to steal the manuscript and have the Archbishop hijacked to a three year trip on a South seas whaler (assuming he will cave in ere it happens). Archbishop and daughter exchange dastardly bluff and counterbluff until the matter is resolved when Trixie’s author is named a bishop and must choose between literary glory and ecclesiastic position. The novel is lightheartedly nasty and all good fun with “a happy ending”. (I am always bemused that the very idea of “a happy ending” is so alien to Russian readers that they use the English term “Hepi end” to describe it.)
Judging by the numerous novels advertised at the back of “Trixie” the book’s publisher, Herbert Jenkins Limited, specialized in (very) light fiction—adventure, spy, murder mystery, and social comedy. The only “name” author, I recognize, is P.G. Wodehouse.
Nabokov’s use of Caine’s 1924 novel is
instructive in another sense. In my investigations of VN’s readings of contemporary (to him) British literature,
I tend to assume that his contact with current stuff largely ended when he
returned to the Continent after finishing
As much as I would like to see some deeper thematic tie between “Trixie” and RLSK (and among the entire list of titles), I cannot. Nor do I find Caine’s novel to have much literary merit. It compares very badly with Norman Douglas’ 1917 “South Wind” a comic novel that also appears on Sebastian’s shelf and that Nabokov is known to have admired.
D. Barton Johnson