NABOKV-L post 0012996, Sun, 30 Jul 2006 21:39:11 -0700

Vn Bibliography: John DeMoss "The “Real”Real Life : Sebastian Knight and the Critics "
The “Real” Real Life: Sebastian Knight and the Critics
The “Real” Real Life: Sebastian Knight and the Critics

Although most of the critics who have written articles or chapters on Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight[i] have discussed structural elements of one sort or another, no one seems to have noticed the major configurations that underlie and inform the whole novel. Moreover, the critical literature on RLSK is riddled with misreadings and other errors. Life imitates art so uncannily in many of these cases that I have sometimes wondered as I read the commentaries if Nabokov himself (or his smiling shade) had not somehow been involved in the production of the distortions. The spirits of Kinbote and Mr. Goodman are alive and thriving in much of the critical literature, and I have often been tempted to adopt a stance toward the critics similar to that of V. toward Mr. Goodman, and to claim to be writing the real interpretation of RLSK.

I have tried to resist the temptation. However, I think that a book as intricately constructed as RLSK deserves a more careful reading than it has in most cases received. A review of the faulty readings is not only edifying and entertaining in itself, providing as it does something of a casebook in shoddy scholarship, but also reveals once again some typically Nabokovian traps that his critics, though amply forewarned by the master himself, have been prone—even eager, it would seem—to step into. After I review the errors in reading as well as what I believe to be mistaken interpretations of the novel, I shall describe its not-so-hidden structure—a structure which offers, if not the key to the book, at least a more consistent and thorough solution to the puzzle than has been put forward up to this point.

G.M. Hyde, Donald E. Morton and Charles Nicol try to draw parallels of varying degrees of closeness between the novel and what they understand to be Nabokov’s personal feelings or the events of his life. Mr. Hyde, in his list of “Biographical Notes” on Nabokov, presents this entry for 1945: “Death of his eldest brother Sergey (‘Sebastian Knight’) in Nazi prison camp.”[ii] I don’t know how else to interpret this strange statement other than that Mr. Hyde believes Sebastian to be a portrait of Sergey. That Sebastian’s name is quoted rather than italicized indicates such an interpretation; and the entry cannot be dismissed as an oddity of punctuation, for the titles of other novels in the list are italicized, not quoted. Furthermore, Mr. Hyde draws similarly tenuous conclusions in his discussion of the novel. He says that RLSK is “an elaborate synthesis in which . . . Nabokov explores his new identity,” and that the novel “enacts an acceptance of homelessness . . . in combination with a determination to reduce [Nabokov’s] cultural belongings . . . to an absolute minimum.”[iii] This need to find a personal motive for the writing of a piece of fiction implies, I think, an unwillingness or an inability to enjoy the work on its own terms.

Mr. Morton makes an equally personal connection between RLSK and Nabokov’s life: “Many autobiographical ties are readily recognizable. Nabokov has revealed in Speak, Memory that the story of V. and his brother Sebastian is an evocation of Nabokov’s own curiosity about his brother Sergey.”[iv] Nabokov has revealed no such thing, and Mr. Morton’s rather obscure phrasing does not hide the fact that he has distorted what Nabokov did write: “That twisted quest for Sebastian Knight (1940), with its gloriettes and self-mate combinations, is really nothing in comparison to the task I balked in the first version of this memoir and am faced with now.”[v] This, the sole direct reference to RLSK in Speak, Memory, makes only the most tangential of connections between V.’s quest and Nabokov’s. If anything, Nabokov is pointing out the great differences between those two quests. This utter lack of a revelation from Nabokov does not, however, prevent Mr. Morton from developing his initial misreading of the passage into further subjective judgments concerning not only RLSK but also Bend Sinister.

Mr. Nicol’s biographical implications are more difficult to decipher. He seems to want to have things two ways at once. He brings up the autobiographical angle by stating that Nabokov “almost haphazardly” gives details of his life to various characters. (I think that it can be stated more than almost confidently that Nabokov does nothing haphazardly in his novels.) One of the details that Mr. Nicol then points out is that V.’s mother “wears her dead husband’s wedding ring tied to her own with black thread, an eccentricity which Nabokov also ascribes to his own mother.”[vi] But Mr. Nicol concludes (or seems to conclude) that not much can be learned from such details: “Yet what V. says of Sebastian’s works, that it is futile to trace their autobiographical aspects, applies equally to Nabokov’s own.” At this point one might with reason wonder why Mr. Nicol even bothered to make the comparison. He then quotes from RLSK:

He had a queer habit of endowing even his most

grotesque characters with this or that idea, or

impression, or desire which he himself might have

toyed with . . . . I fail to name any other author

who made use of his art in such a baffling manner—

baffling to me who might desire to see the real man

behind the author. (114)

Mr. Nicol’s next few sentences defy understanding: “This method, then, although used successfully with Lost Property, has its hazards. Culling autobiography from an author’s fiction is, however, another useful method of composing a biography.”[vii]

What does Mr. Nicol mean by “this method”? And who uses it “successfully” with Lost Property? And if one can answer those questions, is not the next statement (“Culling autobiography,” etc.) a complete contradiction of what Mr. Nicol seems to have been saying earlier?

Before one decides that it is worth one’s time to puzzle over these problems one should consider the howler[viii] that appears in Mr. Nicol’s next paragraph: “Sebastian wrote under the name Knight, his mother’s maiden name, just as Nabokov had written his Russian novels under the name Sirin, his mother’s maiden name.”[ix] One has to admire Mr. Nicol’s nerve (if that is what it is) in presenting this bit of apparently willful ignorance. The best that I can conclude is that Mr. Nicol was playing a joke—that he deliberately planted the misinformation to show that no one reads these articles with much attention. And in this case, apparently no one did, for some fifteen years. (But then I am ignorant of Russian; perhaps Rukavishnikov translates into Sirin in some other language.)

One more related point: Mr. Nicol agrees with Page Stegner, whom he cites, that the character Paul Rechnoy in RLSK is Nabokov. Although Nabokov admitted to having given walk-on roles to himself and his wife in at least one of his novels, King, Queen, Knave, I doubt that he would picture himself as a foolish, gossipy, divorced “pale wretch.”[x] Furthermore, in the very passage that Stegner quotes—and that Nicol presumably has read—Rechnoy is described as “shockheaded.” If this word refers to the character’s hair (I admit that it is used ambiguously), he can hardly be the same man who was described almost a decade earlier as “elegantly balding.”[xi] I think we can safely refrain from investigating any other meanings of “shockheaded” in reference to Nabokov.

It is too bad that such errors mar Mr. Nicol’s article, for he sometimes describes parts of the novel’s structure with interesting insight.

In his Fictitious Biographies, H. Grabes tries to equate V.’s techniques and literary views with Nabokov’s. This seems to me a slightly more tenable notion than that of equating one character or another with Nabokov or his relatives. Mr. Grabes doesn’t do much to support the position, however. In his “In Place of an Introduction” introduction, Mr. Grabes says that, like Van Veen, he will “try not to explain anything,” but will “merely describe.” Mr. Grabes hopes that his

Attempts at description . . . will facilitate the

sometimes strenuous process of reading. This means

that careful and repeated close reading of the

novels themselves would make this book to a large

extent superfluous, at least for those trained in

reading literature. But the following descriptions

may prove valuable to the less skilled reader and

to those without the time or inclination to reread

the novels for a third or fourth time.[xii]

Among the many questions which this remarkable passage raises is whether a person who is not interested in reading or rereading Nabokov would be interested in reading Grabes on Nabokov instead. Maybe something has been lost in the translation of Mr. Grabes’ book from the German. However that may be, Mr. Grabes does, in section four of his chapter on RLSK, go well beyond description. (Lazy students beware!)

Like Mr. Morton, Mr. Grabes cites Speak, Memory as a justification for his interpretive remarks:

As a comparison with Nabokov’s autobiography . . .

clearly shows, all his novels are autobiographical,

but this is especially true of The Real Life of

Sebastian Knight. This is not so much due to the

many corresponding details between the lives of the

fictitious author Sebastian Knight and of the real

author Nabokov . . . but is rather due to the fact

that the narrator’s detailed description and

criticism of Sebastian Knight’s works . . . is not

only applicable to the narrator’s biography but

also applies to all of Nabokov’s narrative works

and to his views on literature. We must however

resist the temptation of going into too much detail

and shall make do with a few examples.[xiii]

I submit that whatever similarities exist between Nabokov’s life and Sebastian’s (or V.’s) are indeed mainly in the “corresponding details,” which, as Nabokov freely admits, he occasionally gives to his characters. “It is also true,” Nabokov says, “that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas.”[xiv] (The italics are mine.) If one is going to claim that V.’s views apply to all of “Nabokov’s narrative works and to his views on literature,” then one should certainly not “resist the temptation” to go into “too much” detail.

Remarkably few details suffice for Mr. Grabes. He quotes two brief passages from RLSK and then remarks,

Although this is said about one of Sebastian’s

novels it would be hard to find anything more

reminiscent of Nabokov’s own narrative technique.

hence there can be no doubt that Nabokov uses the

discussion of fictitious works by a fictitious

author to comment upon his own literary


Notice the great leap in faith and logic that Mr. Grabes makes with his “Hence.”

What is to be gained from interpreting RLSK as an expression of Nabokov’s private feelings about losing his brother or his “identity”? Discussions of “cultural belongings” and of Nabokov as a historical personage may make interesting literary gossip, but they say nothing of importance about the novel.

Nabokov speaking as Nabokov questions most incisively this tendency to connect art and “reality”:

It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to

derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false

and always irrelevant) that a work of art is

traceable to a “true story.” Is it because we begin

to respect ourselves more when we learn that the

writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough

to make up a story himself? Or is something added

to the poor strength of our imagination when we

know that a tangible fact is at the base of the

“fiction” we mysteriously despise? Or taken all in

all, have we here that adoration of the truth which

makes little children ask the story-teller “Did it

really happen?” and prevented old Tolstoy in his

hyperethical stage from trespassing upon the rights

of the deity and creating, as God creates,

perfectly imaginary people?[xvi]

The implication that the author wasn’t clever or autonomous enough to make up a believable fictional character is but one side of this patronizing approach to literature. There is in this “real life” criticism a condescension which implies a distrust of the author and a dislike of his works: “I will reveal the real meanings which the duplicitous author has hidden.” That anyone would take this approach to Nabokov’s works is especially surprising and irritating in view of Nabokov’s superior knowledge and skill and his generosity and honesty in writing of his life and works. But most important, it should be obvious, even without Nabokov’s many published admonitions, that if we allow what we “know” of the history or ideas of an author to influence our perception or understanding of what goes on in his novels, we are liable to end up with a distorted understanding. It is doubly important to be aware of this possibility in connection with RLSK.


The biographical fallacy occurs on another level in the assumption that Lost Property is Sebastian Knight’s autobiography. G.M. Hyde refers to Lost Property as Knight’s reminiscences,[xvii] and Dabney Stuart states flatly that “Sebastian wrote fiction: three novels, three short stories; he also wrote an autobiography, Lost Property.”[xviii] This leads Mr. Stuart into a brief discussion of the similarities between Nabokov’s life and Sebastian’s, similarities which he finally dismisses—correctly, I believe—as unproductive. But it is never stated in RLSK that Lost Property is Sebastian’s autobiography. V. twice (pages 6 and 26) refers to the book as Sebastian’s “most autobiographical work,” but he makes clear in his discussion of the airplane crash and the switched letters that the book is not a straightforward autobiography:

If we abstract from this fictitious letter

everything that is personal to its supposed author,

I believe that there is much in it that may have

been felt by Sebastian, or even written by him, to



The light of personal truth is hard to perceive in

the shimmer of an imaginary nature, but what is

still harder to understand is the amazing fact that

a man writing of things which he really felt at the

time of writing, could have had the power to create

simultaneously—and out of the very things which

distressed his mind—a fictitious and faintly absurd

character. (both quotes, p. 114)

If the reader of RLSK extracts from these statements by V. everything that can be stated with certainty about the connection between Sebastian’s work (of which the reader knows only fragments) and Sebastian’s life (of which even V. knows very little), then the reader is left with just about nothing of substance.

But Mr. Stuart doesn’t really seem to know what to think of Lost Property; in the next chapter of his book he says that V., “in his discussion of a fictional passage [italics mine] from Lost Property . . . quotes a love letter found in the mailbag of a wrecked airplane, and then uses this letter as a mirror of Sebastian’s response to the end of his affair with Clare Bishop.”[xix] If this were not confusing enough, in another of his chapters, Mr. Stuart places the letter in a different novel of Sebastian’s: “And the letter from Sebastian’s second book, Success, seems to the narrator to be addressed to Clare, though disguised by art to seem a part of the novel.”[xx]

A number of other misreadings should be mentioned. Alex de Jonge, for example, has apparently fallen for the same joke that Sebastian played on Mr. Goodman concerning the plot of Sebastian’s first novel (p. 64), for Mr. de Jonge reports that parodic plot summary with a straight face. Commenting on the books that V. finds in Sebastian’s flat, Mr. de Jonge writes,

The books . . . will have a series of echoes in the

course of the work to come. . . . Thus, we find an

echo of Hamlet, the first title on the shelf, in

Knight’s first novel, about a fat student who comes

home to find his mother married to his uncle, an

ear specialist, who has poisoned his father. Much

of the echoing is a great deal subtler than this .

. . .[xxi]

Indeed. While it is not certain in RLSK whether or not this was the plot of Sebastian’s novel, V.’s doubt should alert the reader to be wary of accepting the summary as fact.

Page Stegner, Dabney Stuart, and perhaps G.M. Hyde and Julia Bader are confused by the black mask that Mr. Goodman wears during his meeting with V. Mr. Hyde says that “they certainly indulge in oddly suggestive mask-play.”[xxii] Miss Bader says,

This event is another reminder that the parts

allotted to various characters . . . are only

temporary roles involving a “black mask” which is

reusable. It is perhaps this same device which V.’s

final declaration alludes to: “I cannot get out of

my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face.”[xxiii]

Mr. Stegner says, “One is reminded by this inexplicable event that there is an artist sketching what is before our eyes and it is he who will be needing that mask.”[xxiv] And Mr. Stuart reports that “During the narrator’s visit to Mr. Goodman a black mask plays a rather mysterious part in the interview.”[xxv] With this “mystery” as his starting point, Mr. Stuart then develops an interpretation of the mask, but there is no reason to interpret the mask; it is neither mysterious nor inexplicable.

Before his report of the meeting, V. clearly expresses his reluctance to make any remarks about Goodman’s appearance that would influence the reader’s judgments or be libelous to Mr. Goodman:

I approached Mr. Goodman with an open mind; it is

no longer open now, and naturally this is bound to

influence my description. At the same time I do not

very well see how I can discuss my visit to him

without alluding . . . to Mr. Goodman’s manner if

not appearance. Shall I be able to stop at that?

Will not Mr. Goodman’s face suddenly pop out to the

owner’s rightful annoyance when he reads these

lines? . . . I am treading on very thin ice and

must try to step warily as I enter Mr. Goodman’s

study. (p. 56)

The “mask” is a figure of speech, V.’s fanciful way of avoiding a description of Goodman’s face.

The narrator then viciously discards the mask when he learns, after the interview, that Goodman has already written a book about Sebastian: “Mr. Goodman’s large soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder.” (p. 60) For rereaders of the chapter, this revelation adds comedy to V.’s earlier description of one of Goodman’s gestures: “Mr. Goodman with finger and thumb stroked his face . . . I mean the face under his mask . . . stroked it down, down, reflectively.” (p. 57)

If the mask really conceals anything, it is perhaps the fragility of V.’s reconstruction of the time sequence and of his emotional reaction, for at the point in time from which V. is writing of the meeting, he would already know that Mr. Goodman had written a book about Sebastian. V.’s reconstruction of the mask episode may be evidence of his sophistication as an author, or it may be one of the “unbearable imperfections”[xxvi] which Nabokov later saw in the novel. This depends upon how one interprets the internal authorship of the book, a problem which I will discuss further on. At any rate, the mask episode shows that V. is in certain ways not to be trusted, but the astute reader has known that since the first page of the novel, where V. revealed the identity of the lady diarist that he had promised to keep secret.

Some errors in interpretation come from misreading what is on the page, as opposed to missing altogether what is there. In his article on RLSK, Anthony Olcott describes the two photographs hanging in Sebastian’s study in this way: “One is a picture of a curly child playing with an equally curly puppy, and the second a picture of a Chinese about to be beheaded (p. 41).”[xxvii] Mr. Olcott at least records the page number correctly. If one turns to that page in the novel, one reads, “One was an enlarged snapshot of a Chinese stripped to the waist, in the act of being vigourously beheaded, the other was a banal photographic study of a curly child playing with a pup.” Where did Mr. Olcott find “equally curly”? And is “about to be beheaded” the same to Mr. Olcott as “in the act of being vigourously beheaded”? In fact, this photograph exists, and its details conform exactly to V.’s description.[xxviii] Mr. Olcott’s renditions might seem to be minor rewritings (somewhat reminiscent, say, of Mr. Goodman’s toying with one of Sebastian’s epithets[xxix]), except that Mr. Olcott’s improvements on these phrases play a central part in his condemnation of V’s supposedly faulty perception and judgment. V. may be untrustworthy in some ways, but he is apparently a careful observer and an accurate reporter.

Mr. Olcott’s next paragraph is worth quoting in full. In attempting to prove that Sebastian may have “a streak of perversity and cruelty which V. simply doesn’t perceive,”[xxx] Mr. Olcott says,

Nabokov sometimes makes his repellent characters

grossly ignorant of the physical world. To judge

from the notebook V. finds in Knight’s office, upon

which was “an impossible butterfly (p. 39), it is

possible Knight possessed such ignorance. Knight

also, in describing his reverie at the pensione in

which he supposed his mother to have died, makes a

passing reference to a “bed of purple pansies” (p.

19). A reader is of course forced to accept the

statement, but considering that considering that

the pensione is named Les Violettes, it seems logical

to presume that Knight is mistaken, that he is gazing

at a bed of violets.[xxxi]

Again, Mr. Olcott’s recording of the page numbers is impeccable. It seems that Mr. Olcott is now willing to accept V.’s statement concerning the “impossible butterfly” in order to prove his new point. Not to make too big an issue of this contradiction, isn’t it at any rate rather ridiculous to judge Sebastian’s knowledge or ignorance by the cover of a notebook that he owns? It is just as likely, given his penchant for joking, that Sebastian enjoyed the butterfly for its very “impossibility.” Furthermore, Mr. Olcott has not bothered to find out that pansies are violets; they belong to the same genus, Viola, and, in my dictionary, both flowers are defined as “any of the plants” of this genus. This sort of approximation is an important and recurrent motif in the novel, a motif which I will discuss later. Finally, I am puzzled by Mr. Olcott’s use of the word pensione. The narrator of Lost Property (who may have been Sebastian) was in the wrong village, not the wrong country.

Mr. Olcott concludes that “V. is an unreliable reporter and perhaps a bit of a failure.”[xxxii]

An equally insidious but much less amusing sort of misreading is the type of pigeonholing that Donald E. Morton attempts. He says that Nabokov “forces his fiction beyond the in some ways simpler modes of tragedy and comedy toward the more complex mode of irony. . . . and irony has its own special requirements.”[xxxiii] And Mr. Morton bases his conclusion that the novel is an “interesting failure” on a discussion of what he believes are the central ideas of the book:

The novel is built on a central combination of

perceptions: that the hyperactive mind is both the

artist’s burden and his gift and, further, that the

success of art depends on its creator’s ability to

yield to his own genius. Oddly enough, these very

principles balk the novel’s progress and make of

Sebastian Knight a flawed masterpiece, an

interesting failure.[xxxiv]

Instead of the word “genre” Mr. Morton is careful to use “mode,” a currently fashionable bit of critical jargon (Dabney Stuart is also quite fond of it), and in place of “ideas” he uses “perceptions” and “principles.” But the narrowness of his intentions is obvious. To try to categorize RLSK is to misread the novel in the same perversely limited way in which Mr. Goodman sees Sebastian’s life, and the ideas by which Mr. Morton is so willing to judge the success of the entire novel are mere fragments of the book’s content.

In addition to the autobiography-environment trap and the literature-as-ideas trap, the identification-with-characters trap sometimes proves too great a temptation to critics of RLSK. Julia Bader, for instance, says that she can “find no support in Sebastian Knight for Dabney Stuart’s contention that V. employs the same techniques as Goodman, that Goodman’s approach yields a serious ‘truth’ about Sebastian which V. refuses to recognize out of vanity.”[xxxv] But her denial by assertion merely shows that Ms. Bader has refused to see a rather obvious and very important point about the uncertain “realities” of the novel. She is overly eager to take the side of V. and, as she supposes, of Nabokov in fully condemning Mr. Goodman: “Goodman is a version of the recurrent Nabokovian villain-hack whose insensitivity and trite prose style are viewed with scorn and derision.”[xxxvi]

I find that Mr. Stuart presents his “contention” quite convincingly. Surely no one can deny, for example, that V. uses the same technique as Goodman when he tries to extract biographical information from Sebastian’s fiction. Andrew Field and H. Grabes also see through what is more than likely a distortion of Mr. Goodman. Mr. Field points out that “the lugubrious Goodman serves by way of contrast to lend an air of restraint and seriousness to V’s own work, or to put the same thing another way, Goodman may be one means by which the artist is helped to assume the appearance of biographer.”[xxxvii] And Mr. Grabes notes V.’s willingness to use the same passage of Sebastian’s writing that Goodman used to support a different interpretation of Sebastian’s life.[xxxviii]

It is important for keeping one’s bearings in the major “game” of his novel that one see through V.’s techniques. I have already pointed out his ability to reconstruct past events in a convincingly present way. Another of his talents as a writer is his ability to manipulate the unwary reader’s emotions; and V.’s emotionally persuasive condemnation of Mr. Goodman helps to divert the gullible reader’s attention from the similarity between Goodman’s methods and V.’s own. It is just at the points at which V. is most emotionally moving that he may be trying to cover gaps or weaknesses in his reasoning and research. Thus the heavily lyrical, almost purple passage which follows V.’s quotation of the Roquebrune incident and Mr. Goodman’s commentary on that incident:

So let the door be closed leaving but a thin line

of taut light underneath, let that lamp go out too

in the neighboring room where Sebastian has gone to

bed; let the beautiful olivaceous house on the Neva

embankment fade out gradually in the gray-blue

frosty night, with gently falling snowflakes

lingering in the moon-white blaze of the tall

street lamp and powdering the mighty limbs of the

two bearded corbel figures which support with an

Atlas-like effort the oriel of my father’s room. My

father is dead, Sebastian is asleep, or at least

mouse-quiet, in the next room—and I am lying in

bed, wide awake, staring into the darkness (pp. 20-


Here the special reality which V. is creating in the novel is further enhanced by his ability to touch the vulnerable reader. How could V. be wrong about Sebastian’s feelings when he is so “right” in his own feelings (even though he has no more solid evidence for his interpretation of the Roquebrune incident than does Mr. Goodman)?

V., like Hermann, Humbert and Kinbote, is an unreliable narrator, though perhaps not exactly in the ways that one might at first suspect. And, as with those other narrators, the reader must both surrender to the teller’s version of things and at the same time try to figure out the distortions and see through them. It seems an impossible and crazy game, but I believe that there is a way to win.


The various treatments of the structure of RLSK are not so much misreadings as they are limited readings. Most of the critics who have discussed the structure have accurately described certain of its elements. Everyone, for example, notices at least some of the mirrorings, doublings or echoes in the novel (though Andrew Field says that they are only occasional[xxxix]). Julia Bader, Charles Nicol and Dabney Stuart give especially penetrating discussions of some of these reflections. I will not try to review all of their points here, but I suspect that there is not a scene, character, name or event in RLSK that is not in some way mirrored or echoed in another part of the book. Again, however, no one seems to have seen that many of the mirrorings follow an easily described pattern; rather, some critics have actually described traces of the pattern but have failed finally to discern its larger form.

Not only is “’the absolute solution’” (to the structural puzzle at least) “written all over the world” of the novel, but also, like “the intricate pattern of human life,” the pattern of the book “turns out to be monogrammatic.” (all quotes, pp. 178-179) Furthermore, this structure is such that once it is seen, as Nabokov says of the scrambled picture at the end of Speak, Memory, “the finder cannot unsee it.”[xl]

D. Barton Johnson, in an article on “the alphabetic motif” in Nabokov’s work, touches on the monogrammatic pattern, but concludes that “only in one novel does the device of alphabetic iconicism assume the proportions of a major motif expressive of the book’s central theme.”[xli] The novel to which Mr. Johnson refers is Invitation to a Beheading, but the same may be said of RLSK.

In order to visualize one of the ways in which the structure of the book forms a pattern, one should notice not only the echoes or mirrorings but also the relative positions of certain of those echoes. Thus, Sebastian’s visit to the wrong town at the beginning of the novel is echoed by V.’s visit to the wrong bedside at the end of the book. Madamoiselle’s wish in the second chapter that V. make his book “a fairy-tale with Sebastian for prince. The enchanted prince . . .” (p. 23) is fulfilled by the scenes in Mme Lecerf’s home and garden in the seventeenth chapter and by the mention of Sebastian’s repeated viewings of the film, The Enchanted Garden, in chapter nineteen.[xlii] Sebastian’s rough draft (pp. 39-40) is imitated by V.’s stream-of-consciousness (p. 192). There is a beheading on page 41 and another on page 142. The lack of a helpful stranger at the beginning of chapter six is “answered” by the appearance of the very helpful Mr. Silbermann in chapter thirteen. The analysis of Mr. Goodman’s book in chapter seven is continued in chapter twelve. The two meetings of Sebastian and V. occur in chapters eight and eleven. Sebastian’s “lying spread-eagled on the floor of his study” at the end of chapter nine is mirrored by the reclining conjuror at the end of chapter ten. The point I am trying to make is that a significant number of the book’s doublings occur in corresponding places in the two halves of the novel, moving from the beginning and the ending toward the center, i.e., in roughly mirrored positions.

And now we shall know what exactly it is; the word

will be uttered—and you, and I, and every one in

the world will slap himself on the forehead: What

fools we have been! At this last bend of his book

the author seems to pause for a minute as if he

were pondering whether it were wise to let the

truth out. (pp. 179-180)

Thus does V. describe the hoped-for moment of revelation in his reading of The Doubtful Asphodel. But for readers of RLSK, that moment of hesitation at the “last bend” (note the phrase) of the book is one of the many ways in which V. (or whoever is controlling this narrative) has already let the reader know the “secret” of the present novel: the structure of RLSK approximates a V, and it does this in a number of abundantly suggestive ways.

If my reader is not yet ready to slap himself on the forehead, I shall offer further evidence. But first a few more points should be made about the major “bend” that I have just described—the V-shaped arrangement of echoing images and events, an arrangement which has its obvious vertex at the halfway point in the number of chapters, between ten and eleven.

In the early chapters the reader was led on a number of what might have seemed, from a certain angle, disappointing searches, often to dead ends. In chapter ten, V. has almost completely given up trying to trace the historical details of Sebastian’s life, and is relying more and more on Sebastian’s books to carry his own book forward. As Charles Nicol says, “V.’s increasingly vague focus on Sebastian’s life corresponds to his increasingly sharp interest in Sebastian’s work.”[xliii] Chapter ten consists entirely of analyses of and quotations from Sebastian’s works. The reader sees at this point that there is half the book yet to read, but that the storyteller seems to have run out of story. Where can the book go from here?

The reader is left at the end of chapter ten groping in the dark along with queer Willy. Willy daydreams of his girlfriends, but he shares his bed with books, books that are “reluctant to move.” (p. 100) And the reader who is being distracted[xliv] by Willy’s romantic dreams may miss what is happening to himself in the workings of the present volume: he is being “bedded down” in a book. It is interesting that Mme Lecerf says to V. at one point, “I’ll be disappointed in your book if it all ends in bed.” (p. 170) Of course RLSK ends beside Sebastian’s deathbed, but V.’s book also “ends” in a very important sense on the last page of chapter ten, where its methods and its story blend indistinguishably with Sebastian’s. Never before has the reader been led so deeply into one of Sebastian’s books, and never before has the reader been left so completely in the dark. Even the mysterious voice at the end of chapter five is cleared up, at least superficially, at the beginning of chapter six. (Notice that these things tend to happen “in fives”: the end of chapter fifteen also leads the reader into an unfinished story.) But at the end of chapter ten the reader has been left in a book within a book, and the narrator does nothing to extract him from this dark corner.

Note that all of this is prefigured in the plot synopsis of The Prismatic Bezel (p. 94). Dabney Stuart also finds a major shift from one reality to another, but he locates the shift in chapter thirteen, when Silbermann appears. This certainly is an important turn of events, both in the plot and in the “realism” of the book, but I believe that the reader’s last glimpse of the “old” reality occurs at the end of chapter nine, or somewhere in the middle of chapter ten. When chapter eleven begins, the book has already entered a new type of reality.

Thus the novel “bends” at or near the middle. Two methods merge, and the two halves of the book form mirror images (though slightly distorted ones, as all mirror images are), making the book in a certain sense readable from back to front as well as from beginning to end.[xlv] But it is important that one not insist on a “main” bend. This central one is certainly not the only one. The novel contains V’s in other facets of the structure, in the plot, in the imagery, and in dimensions that are usually not even considered in academic approaches to literature.

One might describe a V in several ways—as one line which bends in the middle, as two lines which meet and form an angle, or as two lines which emanate from a single point. Each of these descriptions is helpful in discussing the structure of RLSK. (Perhaps I should be writing “structures,” for just as there are different ways of describing a V, there are several ways in which one might view the composition of the book.)

Another important way in which one might consider the book’s structure as a line that is bent in the middle (or near the middle) is as an L rather than as a V. Just as in Pale Fire, one of the games within this novel is that of guessing who “wrote” it. Andrew Field has pointed out major pieces of evidence that tend to prove Sebastian’s authorship,[xlvi] but the V that I have just discussed suggests that V. is the author, for his monogram lurks within and behind the whole work.[xlvii]

However, the careful reader cannot with certainty assign the authorship to V., because another facet of V.’s monogram that everyone seems to have missed is that it is also Sebastian’s monogram, in several ways. First, Sebastian, as others have pointed out,[xlviii] is connected in the novel with the knight’s move in chess, a move which forms an L. But an L tipped up on its angle approximates a V. (One might say that the two letters are half-brothers.) Furthermore, a V is the Roman numeral five. Sebastian wrote five books; Silbermann, who may be one of Sebastian’s disguised selves, spoke five languages; hands, of course, have five fingers (whose interstices form V’s), and hands appear throughout the novel, quite often as apparent devices of Sebastian or his ghost; I have already mentioned that similarly odd things occur at the end of every five chapters of the book; and fives occur significantly elsewhere, as I shall show later.

To continue with the monograms, the Arabic numeral five approximates the letter S (another kind of bend), whose bottom half, by the way, is a backward image of its upper half. (Is anything “by the way” in this intricate maze of a novel?) And of course the S is Sebastian’s “real” monogram. Thus we may deduce the formula, L˜V˜5˜S˜L; and the internal authorship game may be one which leaves the players running in circles. But the V motif as a means of describing certain aspects of the book is richly rewarding, and becomes even more obvious when we add all the S’s, 5’s, and L’s to the list of V’s that are reflected in the imagery, plot and structure of the novel.

So far I have been referring to the “bends” in the novel as V shapes, and for the sake of convenience I will in most cases continue to do so. But it should now be obvious that in addition to the necessity of altering or expanding that designation in order to discuss the internal authorship of RLSK, there are other reasons why the V’s should be thought of simultaneously as 5’s (which in turn should remind us of S’s), as L’s, and often as other types of angles as well.

The turning points that I have mentioned (the endings of chapters five, nine, ten and fifteen) may be seen—along with other turns—as suggesting the L-shaped move of the chess knight. A knight in chess may take what amounts to a “short step” (one square in any of four directions) followed by a “long step” (two squares in one of two directions), or a long step (four possibilities) followed by a short step (two possibilities). Though perhaps not the strongest nor the most far-reaching piece on the board, the knight is the most versatile. A chess player must account for all of the opposing knight’s possible moves. One might easily assume, for example, that the opposing knight will take his long step first, or take it in one direction rather than another. Similarly, the “moves” of RLSK are difficult to predict and easy to miss even after they have been made, for the reader’s opponent (Nabokov) is invisible (though some of the “projected biography” critics would claim otherwise), and the real whereabouts—the very existence—of his knight (or Knight) is continually uncertain.

An important instance of the knight’s move is the turn already mentioned at the end of chapter ten. There, the “conjuror began to snore.” This conjuror is an early manifestation of the recurring Siller/Silbermann figure (who also shares certain traits with Sebastian[xlix]). Siller and Silbermann are helpful in various ways, but the conjuror at this point has no help to offer. He has been gratuitously insulted, and he turns out the light while Willy is still in the room. The reader’s meeting with the conjuror here is similar to other “moves” throughout the novel: the reader encounters someone or something before he becomes aware that it is important that he has done so; a secret is revealed in one form before the reader perceives it in a more obvious form. One of the most striking and often-quoted examples of this is that the “message” of the novel, the merging of souls at the end of the book, has actually been revealed in a more abstract form earlier, in the passage from Lost Property:

“All things belong to the same order of things, for

such is the oneness of human perception, the

oneness of individuality, the oneness of matter,

whatever that may be. The only real number is one,

the rest are mere repetition.” (p. 105)

In fact, Willy’s meeting with the conjuror, which foreshadows V.’s meeting with Silbermann, is itself prefigured by Sheldon’s meeting with Sebastian at the end of chapter nine. There, Sebastian, who is also a conjuror of sorts, is also reclining (significantly, in a “spread-eagled” posture, suggesting another V). And certain of the conjuror’s previously enigmatic words seem now more meaningful: “’They don’t kinda like my accent,’ he replied, ‘but I guess I’m going to get that turn all the same.’” (p. 99, italics mine.) This early move, as well as that already mentioned (V.’s revealing the secret of one novel while searching for the secret of another), may be seen as Nabokov taking his short step before his long one, or as his moving in one direction when the reader expects him to move in another or expects no “move” at all.

Another clever instance of this type is contained in V.’s statement, “I sometimes feel when I turn the pages of Sebastian’s masterpiece that the ‘absolute solution’ is there, somewhere, concealed in some passage I have read too hastily, or that it is intertwined with other words whose familiar guise deceived me.” (p. 180) Again Nabokov has made his move before we quite realize that he has made it. The absolute solution (in the alphabetic sense, at any rate) is revealed not in “some passage,” but in the very act of turning the pages, for any book, when opened at any page, approximates the shape of a V. Just as he did when he mentioned the “last bend” of the book, V. reveals “the answer” even as he searches hopelessly for it.

The image of the opened book also suggests that the novel has as many centers (and forms as many V’s) as it has pairs of pages. The structure of the book as a physical object, as a literary composition, and as a series of plotted events may be represented, in its simplest form, as a V. But it is a V with an ever-shifting vertex—like a whirlpool, another V-image which is appropriate not only because it adds a third dimension to the basic V shape, but also because it combines the V with that favorite form of Nabokov’s, the spiral.


The basic V shape is also consistent with the novel’s echoing of the designs (and often the titles) of Sebastian’s works. As other readers have pointed out, the novel is in one sense or another at least seven different books.[l] It is Sebastian’s five books, in that those books have their only real existence here, and in that it reflects their themes, structures and characters. In the same ways (despite Ms. Bader’s failure to find evidence for such a claim), it is also Mr. Goodman’s book, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. In that the novel fulfills Madamoiselle’s wish, it is also her fairy tale. And it is that book by Sebastian’s Cambridge friend, The Laws of Literary Imagination, in that it is a practical demonstration of such laws.

The multitude of V’s in RLSK is especially reminiscent of the title, The Prismatic Bezel. All the definitions of bezel[li] may be graphically represented by V’s, and a prism would produce an infinitude of V’s through reflection and refraction. The major V in the plot of The Prismatic Bezel and the similarity of that plot to the V at the center of RLSK have already been thoroughly discussed by others, though no one has so labeled the design.

The similarity between the plot of RLSK and that of Success, as described by V., has been cited fairly often:

The author’s task is to . . . . discover the exact

way in which two lines of life were made to come

into contact. . . . The two lines which have

finally tapered to the point of meeting are really

not the straight lines of a triangle which diverge

steadily towards an unknown base, but wavy lines,

now running wide apart, now almost touching. (pp.


Though V. says that the lines are not “the straight lines of a triangle,” the basic form that he finally describes is that of an inverted, if wavy-sided, V. The final “meeting” of V. and Sebastian at the end of RLSK may be seen as the vertex of just such a V, as may the meeting or merging of their books, their methods at the center of the novel. In both instances this sort of design is an inversion, a parody of the hackneyed story formula which demands an action which rises to some climactic point and then dwindles to a denouement. Such stereotyped expectations of plot (similar in spirit to the genre-hunting of Mr. Morton’s book) are exactly the sort of reading that is being parodied in the novel. In one case (the merging of souls), the climax occurs on the very last page of the book; in the other case, the action (V.’s search for the “real” Sebastian) diminishes to nothingness toward the center of the book, and then begins to rise again. The names of the main characters in Success provide further evidence that it echoes RLSK: Percival (the English version of Parsifal) is a knight’s name, and Anne’s monogram, if inverted, approximates a V.

None of Sebastian’s three stories is described in any detail, but there are hints of the V motif in the titles of both The Funny Mountain (a mountain may be depicted abstractly as an inverted V) and Albinos in Black (see section V of this article). V.’s description (p. 104) of Mr. Siller from The Back of the Moon, which is the only bit of information we get about that story, has often been quoted to show the similarity between Mr. Siller and Mr. Silbermann. The passage is even more suggestive in light of the points I have been discussing. For example, there is added irony in the description of Mr. Siller as “perhaps the most alive of Sebastian’s creatures” when we realize that Mr. Siller probably is Sebastian in disguise (in a literary if not a literal sense). Similar irony is apparent when V. says that Siller is “the final representative of the ‘research theme.’. . . It is as though a certain idea steadily growing through two books has now burst into real physical existence.” This passage echoes the events of RLSK and presents us with another surprise knight’s move: V. has been doing research on Sebastian’s life, research of a type (for “real facts”) which ends in the discussion of the two books, The Prismatic Bezel and Success, in chapter ten, and it is at the end of that chapter, not in the description of The Back of the Moon, that the Siller-Silbermann conjuror figure makes his first full-blown appearance.

Lost Property is “the most autobiographical” of Sebastian’s books, but, of his longer works, it is the least thoroughly described by V. He quotes only bits of the book, and does not summarize its plot or structure. Nevertheless, there are plenty of suggestive clues in the fragments that we do get, and it is worth noting here that much helpful information can be extracted from the plane crash episode without drawing parallels between the text of the misplaced love letter and Sebastian’s affair with Clare. I am only reminding the reader that he should be wary of V.’s suggestion that the letter reflects Sebastian’s personal feelings. After all, there is some evidence, as Julia Bader points out, that V. Himself wrote the letters![lii]

The elderly Englishman (interestingly, the name Sebastian means “venerable one”) who survives the plane crash is in pain from a toothache. “’I’ve had it all the way,’” he says (p. 112) Remember that when V. was going through drawers in Sebastian’s apartment he found “a glass tube of tablets for headache, nervous breakdown, neuralgia, insomnia, bad dreams, toothache.” And he adds, “The toothache sounded rather dubious.” (p. 40) “Suspicious” might be a better word. We should also recall one of V.’s comments on Mr. Goodman’s view of Sebastian’s life: “Churlish, capricious, mad Sebastian, struggling in a naughty world of Juggernauts, and aeronauts, and naughts, and what-nots . . . Well, well, there may be something in all that.” (p. 65; ellipsis in the original) There may indeed, and I think that this statement by V. is one more way in which Nabokov is alerting the reader not to dismiss Goodman and his book carelessly.

Although we should be careful about equating Sebastian with the writer of the letters, his presence at the plane crash is further hinted at in the description of the six letters that were found in a field:[liii]

Two of these were business letters of great

importance; a third was addressed to a woman, but

began: “Dear Mr. Mortimer, in reply to yours of

the 6th inst . . .” and dealt with the placing of

an order; a fourth was a birthday greeting; a fifth

was the letter of a spy with its steely secret

hidden in a haystack of idle prattle; and the last

was an envelope directed to a firm of traders with

the wrong letter inside, a love letter. (p. 112)

First, it is possible that Nabokov is punning on the word “letter” throughout this episode.[liv] It is in the misplaced love letter that the passage containing all the L’s and V’s occurs (quoted in section V below). Second, Mortimer is not only a knightly name, it is also etymologically related to death, with which Sebastian has some very definite “business” in RLSK. The quoted love letter hints at this also: “’The heat is terrific and I have not been able to clinch the business I was supposed to bring “to a satisfactory close,” as that ass Mortimer says.’” (p. 114) A common theme in medieval art was that of a knight playing a chess game with Death, the knight “pledging his life as the stake and Death promising to reveal the secret of human existence if he loses.”[lv] According to V., Sebastian’s last book, The Doubtful Asphodel, takes the reader to the brink of just such a secret. Could it be that Sebastian (or his ghost) is somehow in charge of the present narrative, and has returned, having triumphed over death, to reveal “the secret of human existence” in RLSK? If it can be established that Sebastian is the internal author, then it should be valid to ask what the meaning of human existence is, and to expect to find the answer in this novel.

Of course, both V. and Sebastian provide answers of a sort to that question—Sebastian in the “one is the only number” passage, and V. when he says of Sebastian’s life, “Two modes of his life question each other and the answer is his life itself, and that is the nearest one ever can approach a human truth.” (p. 137) Note that the second answer suggests another V-shaped image, providing yet more evidence that this image is the central emblem of the novel.

Leaving to others the task of finding the meaning of existence, let us return to the scene of the crash. It is also interesting that in the group of letters the fifth is “the letter of a spy with its steely secret hidden in a haystack of idle prattle.” We know already that the number five is significant, and that the Arabic numeral resembles the letter S. Thus the “prattle” may not be idle: the alliteration in the phrase suggests that the “secret” may be the letter S, Sebastian’s monogram. This letter within a letter echoes the earlier description of Mr. Siller’s Adam’s apple in The Back of the Moon: “’moving like the bulging shape of an arrased eavesdropper.’” (p. 104) Here we are given the image of a spy within a spy, as it were. Both images are clearly echoes of Hamlet, another work with echoes of itself within itself, a work which questions the meaning of existence, and a work containing a ghost that returns from the past to try to influence the present.

The similarities between The Doubtful Asphodel and RLSK are obvious. I have already quoted several of V.’s impressions of Sebastian’s methods and “messages” which echo elements of RLSK and which suggest V-shaped images (e.g., “the last bend,” and “as I turn”). But a number of such images also occur in actual quotes from The Doubtful Asphodel or in summaries of its plot, and I will discuss these images in my closing remarks.

Other meetings, mergings and divergings form a major plot motif in the novel, and each of these may be visualized as a V. Sebastian and V. meet in “real life” two times before Sebastian dies. Structurally, according to the literary time sequence of the book, these meetings are nearly mirrored events, occurring as they do in chapters eight and eleven. Chronologically, the meetings occur in 1924 and 1929. Can it be a “mere” coincidence that the number of years between the meetings is five? Not only does a V represent the number five; it is also a way of depicting a gap, and gaps figure importantly both in the surface narrative of RLSK and in V.’s discussions of the styles and methods of Sebastian’s books.

It is interesting that the meetings in the first half of the book are, for the most part, under V.’s control. He plans and initiates the meetings with Madamoiselle, with the Cambridge scholar, with Mr. Goodman and with Clare—an encounter which he later refers to as a “strange half-meeting” (p. 101). A major meeting that he does not plan is the chance encounter with Sebastian in Paris. It is also worth noting that none of V.’s planned meetings yield much in the way of concrete or—to V.—satisfying information about Sebastian’s life. Yet the meeting with Sebastian himself teems with significant imagery. Furthermore, when another chance meeting—that with Miss Pratt—does yield information about Sebastian, V. finds the bare, “real life” facts useless by themselves: “I wrote it all down—but it was dead, dead.” (p. 76) It should be noted in passing that this meeting with Miss Pratt echoes the fortuitous meeting with Natasha Rosanov in the second half of the novel—a meeting which is also the chance off-shoot of a planned meeting, but which in this instance yields an abundance of the kind of “real” information that V. is looking for.

The second half of the book, on the other hand, is dominated by chance meetings, encounters which V. fails in one way or another to control. The most obvious of these is of course the meeting with Silbermann, which, if taken in a certain “realistic” way, is the most outrageous of coincidences. The meeting with Natasha and those with Mme Lecerf are also out of his control—either in the sense that he didn’t expect the meeting or in that he didn’t know for most of the time with whom he was actually dealing.

It is during his association with Mme Lecerf that V. states that he is “losing [his] grip somehow.” (p. 168) This statement is significant in several ways. It is the open admission of something that the careful reader could have seen happening earlier (in that V. was no longer controlling the narrative, the moves of his own book), and thus is another knight’s move. It is also a demonstration of Mme Lecerf’s magical powers. She is an enchantress who turns men into dogs.[lvi] Other coincidences in the second half of the book include V.’s luckily-timed meeting with the train to St. Damier after he is abandoned by the taxi driver, and his remembering the name of the sanatorium (a “meeting” of memory and desire). The final meeting is also not under V.’s control, for he sits by the wrong bedside thinking he is with Sebastian at last.

Interestingly enough, the meeting with the living Sebastian in this half of the book is planned—Sebastian calls V. to arrange a dinner date in Paris, at which, in contrast to their first meeting, there is a dearth of meaningful imagery. The two V.-Sebastian meetings and the correspondence between the meetings with Miss Pratt and Natasha, as well as most of the correspondingly-placed characters and events that I mentioned earlier, suggest the kind of reverse symmetry that one finds on the opposite sides of a chess board: if one folds a chessboard in the middle (forming a V shape), one may notice that squares of opposite colors are in mirrored positions. Similarly, if one compares the two halves of the novel, symmetrical but qualitatively different events, characters or images “face” each other.

Many details of the novel may be seen not as meetings or mergings, but as branchings or divergings of related items from each other or from some common ancestor. As I have already pointed out, pansies are related to violets; similarly, pinks (p. 166) and carnations (pp. 153-154) are half-siblings; and the daffodil (Narcissus pseudo-narcissus—wonderfully suggestive name!) is apparently a mispronunciation of “asphodel,” among whose definitions is “an unidentified flower of classical legend, said to resemble the narcissus and to cover the Elysian fields.”[lvii]

Characters in the book are similarly related. The most obvious are V./Sebastian and Siller/Silbermann. In addition, Virginia Knight and Mme Lecerf are spiritual sisters, Clare Bishop marries a man with the same last name,[lviii] and Clare and Helene have names with similar etymological roots.[lix]


V’s are also “written all over” the novel in the more orthodox form of repeated imagery, though many of Nabokov’s plantings of angles are far from orthodox. Some of the parallels that I draw between V’s and various images might seem far-fetched, but the reader who wants to comprehend the pattern of the novel and to make sense of the whole work must obey “the laws of imagination” and not, for example, the laws of some formulaic set of critical principles. The novel itself, in its iconoclastic treatment of conventional methods of writing and reading, continually demonstrates the necessity for an imaginative approach. Certainly the sheer number of V images in RLSK (even without my pointing out some of the less obvious ones) is so considerable as to be undeniably intentional and of major importance.

The V images often occur in clusters, in various combinations of sound, color, object and idea. This makes the explicator’s task particularly difficult, for any cluster might offer five or six different images or types of image whose occurences and recurrences need to be pursued and noted. “’How funny,’” Elena Grinstein comments to V. at one point. “’It always happens like that, in heaps.’” (p. 136) I found that the reader of RLSK is often put in the position of imitating or echoing actions or thoughts that take place in the novel, a notion which I will develop in the last section of this article.

One of the most obvious “heaps” is the V-filled passage on page 112:

Life with you was lovely—and when I say lovely, I

mean doves and lilies, and velvet, and that soft

pink ‘v’ in the middle and the way your tongue

curved up the long, lingering ‘l.’ Our life

together was alliterative . . . . This is all

poetry. I am lying to you. Lily-livered.

If we remember that an L is the structural cousin of a V, this passage is even more laden with V imagery than is at first apparent.[lx] Furthermore, a small L may also represent the Arabic numberal one, which in turn may be represented by the letter I. Both the number and the personal pronoun have obvious significance in the novel. “I” evokes the question of identity, and the number one recalls the “message” from Lost Property, that “the only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition.” (p. 105)

But certain numbers in the novel are related in other ways besides being mere repetitions of the number one. Other critics have noted the repetitious use of threes and multiples of three. A three is related to a V in that any angle is made up of a minimum of three points. The middle book of Sebastian’s five contained three stories, and the middle story of those three was Albinos in Black. It is noteworthy that V. discusses Sebastian’s five books in the order in which they were published—The Prismatic Bezel and Success in chapter ten, the three stories in chapter eleven, Lost Property in chapter twelve, and The Doubtful Asphodel in chapter eighteen. If we visualize these discussions as points in V.’s narrative, the points form a V (or an L): two of the points are lined up just before the center of the book; the three stories are points forming the angle of the V, with Albinos in Black as the axial point; and the last two books may be seen as points which extend the perpendicular side of the figure. Further justification for this geometrical construction may be found in the title Albinos in Black, for not only is this the central work (in the temporal sense) in Sebastian’s oeuvre; it also suggests the bend in a chessboard—the line along which the black and white squares are most closely connected.

Some other numerical aspects of RLSK should be mentioned. At Cambridge, where Sebastian was a “Trinity man,” he “played fives (whatever that may be).”[lxi] This sort of punning is so similar to Sebastian’s style (“’What is this Masonic bond of triteness—or of tritheism?’” p. 55) that one cannot help but wonder, again, who is actually writing the present work. Similarly, the alliteration and rhyme in the phrase “Laughingly alive in five volumes” (p. 52) suggest that a more practiced hand than V.’s is contributing to the writing.

An L is the Roman numeral fifty, which is a multiple of the Roman numeral V; and the numeral one (or small L or capital I), when bent in the middle, forms an L or a V. This might seem to be stretching (or bending) things a bit far, but such a notion fits perfectly with certain themes and philosophical implications of RLSK. The ways in which one (or “1”) may perceive oneself are (a) by looking in a mirror—and a V is a mirror image within itself;[lxii] (b) by bending in one direction or another—the relevance of the bent “1” is clear in this case; and (c) by creating an image of oneself. This last possibility is realized in the novel in several ways, especially in the implication that Sebastian created V. (or vice versa), and in the religious-philosophical view, implied in the already quoted “message” (“one is the only number”), that man is a manifestation of God, that all of nature is God playing hide-and-seek with Himself.[lxiii]

Sebastian’s clever description of the clock hands from Albinos in Black, “’the waxed moustache of ten minutes to two,’” (p. 9) is another of Nabokov’s multifariously suggestive number images. The reader is liable to note the surface charm of the picture without seeing that it also describes another V. I count thirteen instances in the novel in which the time of day is noted. Of these, only one does not form a V when pictured as a set of clock hands (“quarter past nine,” p. 199). Yet, even here, Quarter suggests an angle in more than one sense, and nine is another multiple of the much-used number three.[lxiv]

Besides its numerical possibilities, a V is an abbreviation for quite a few suggestive words (vector, verb, verse, versus, victory, vide, voice, volume and vowel, for instance) and is a graphic representation of a number of objects and ideas. A V may be seen as a bird in flight, as a trumpet or trumpet-shaped object (such as a daffodil or an archaic hearing aid), as an elbow, a knee, shoulder or other angle of the body, as any bezel (as already mentioned), or again, as any angle or corner.

The first meeting between V. and Sebastian contains a major cluster of suggestive images and shows some more of the clever ways in which Nabokov employs such images. At the beginning of the scene, V. is walking in Paris towards the Etoile (a star may be drawn as a series of connected V’s, the verteces forming either the inward or the outward points) when he sees Sebastian and Clare in a café. He sees “the back of Sebastian’s glossy dark head,” which might remind the reader of a dark knight’s (chess piece’s) head which appears elsewhere in the book. Clare is reading a letter (another pun?), and just as V. lays his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder (an angle of the body about which I have more to say below), Sebastian says, “Isn’t it rich?” If one is aware that the present novel may have been written by Sebastian, his question, like the letters episode in Lost Property, could be another of his ways of letting the astute reader in on the game, for this passage is indeed rich in imagistic clues.

Clare wears “a small three-cornered hat.” Her nostrils are pink—the rose or pink color which Nabokov associated with the sound of a V abounds in the novel. Sebastian’s “slightly pointed” ears are “aflame.” He and Clare discuss the title of his first novel, “’I don’t know . . . The prism . . . The prismatic edge . . . .’” As all three walk toward the Etoile, Sebastian grips Clare by the elbow. V. notices the birds “wheeling across the sky.” (From a distance, flying birds may appear—often do appear in drawings and paintings—as outspread V’s with more or less curved sides.) The birds alight on the Arc de Triomphe. V is an abbreviation for victory, and arc in English indicates a section of the circumference of a circle which is defined by an angle radiating from the circle’s center. (All quotes from pp. 71-74)

In addition to the wealth of V imagery, the scene is significant in reinforcing the similarity between V. and Sebastian: their descriptions of the birds show that they notice the same sorts of things and have similar urges to render their observations in words; they are indeed soul mates.

A number of other suggestive bird images occur in the novel. Birds are sometimes compared to books or words. When he and Sebastian part after the funeral of V.’s mother, V. tells us, “I felt immensely sorry for him and longed to say something real, something with wings and a heart, but the birds I wanted settled on my shoulders and head only later when I was alone and not in need of words.” (p. 32) And one of the reviewers of The Prismatic Bezel describes that novel as “’a clown developing wings, an angel mimicking a tumbler pigeon.’” V. continues the metaphor by saying that the novel “soars skyward.” (both quotes, p. 91) During the scene between Sebastian and Natasha, “a V-shaped flight of migrating cranes” flew over. (p. 139) This is perhaps the most obviously described V image in the novel, yet it occurs in a scene at which V. was not present but which would not have been recorded had it not been for his apparent luck at finding Natasha. The lives of V. and Sebastian, which were about as separate as the lives of two brothers could be in “real life,” are in the novel inextricably woven together by art and by (apparent) chance. Thus the V may symbolize their merging in more places than only at the end of the book.

Rose and pink images occur in abundance

throughout the novel, comprising a large part of the repeated imagery which gives the work a seemingly magical coherence. And these images are constantly associated with Sebastian. We know from Speak, Memory and from Strong Opinions that Nabokov associated the sound of a V with “a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink.”[lxv] But we need not rely only on autobiography to discover the significance of the rosy images in the novel. For example, a rose in heraldry is represented by a stylized blossom which always has five petals. The significance of the number five has already been discussed, and we need not look far to find the appropriateness of heraldic devices (and evidence of Nabokov’s knowledge of them) in this and others of his novels. Furthermore, carnation is one of the recognized tinctures of heraldry.

V. first associates the color pink with Sebastian in a childhood scene in which he watches Sebastian paint in watercolors “in the homely aura of a . . . lamp whose pink silk shade seems painted by his own very wet brush.” Later in the same scene, V. mentions Sebastian’s “rose-red diaphanous ear.” (both quotes, p. 16) Sebastian used to “blush a bright pink” (p. 49) when he made an error in pronunciation. He has a long and intimate association with the “pink-nosed husky-voiced Clare,” (p. 77) and was earlier in love with a girl named Rosanov. When V. meets him the second time in Paris, Sebastian is wearing a pink plaster on his neck. (p. 107)

In the fairy-tale aspect of the book, it is perhaps Sebastian’s connection with the color pink (and with daffodils) that saves him from immediate destruction at the hands of the heartless enchantress, Mme Lecerf. She also is associated with this color, but in a negative way. She comments at one point, “’I once told a doctor that all flowers except pinks and daffodils withered if I touched them,—isn’t it bizarre?’” (p. 166) In Madame von Graun’s apartment V. sees “A bunch of carnations . . . in a self-conscious vase,” (pp. 153-154) and in Mme Lecerf’s barren garden V. is told that “There are roses here in summer.” (p. 170) In most versions of Beauty and the Beast, of which the episode with Mme Lecerf is clearly a variant (see note 53), it is a rose from the beast’s garden that the traveler steals a rose for his daughter. Coincidentally, the rose that is depicted in heraldry is supposed to be a dog rose, and it will be remembered that Mme Lecerf’s specialty is transforming men into dogs. In our last glimpse of this charming lady, she sits “on a table in the brightest corner of the stage, with a wineglass of fuschined water.” (p. 205) Once the reader is aware that Sebastian is associated with the color pink, the description of Mr. Goodman’s “large soft pinkish face” (p. 60) may seem even more meaningful. The pinkness of that face may be one more clue that Sebastian is the man behind all the masks in the novel.[lxvi]

A cluster of interesting images involving body angles occurs in the scene of the flight from Russia. If the reader knows that the letter V is the ancestor of the U, the Y and the W, he can see that the name of the heroic Captain Belov is an anagram for elbow. Belov’s execution, it seems, was something of a jumble of body angles, for he was shot “shoulder to shoulder with Palchin [Pal chin?].” (p. 25) A similar conglomeration appears in a mirrored position near the end of the novel. At one point in her conversations with V., Mme Lecerf looks at him “with her chin on her clasped hands and her sharp elbows in close-fitting velvet [there’s that lovely word again] propped on her knees.” (p.154) And when V. tries to get to Sebastian’s sickbed he sometimes has to travel in train compartments that are “full of knees and feet and elbows.” (p. 195)

Several miscellaneous V images are worth noting. There are, for instance, a couple of alliterative passages besides the “lilies and doves” passage and the “laughingly alive” statements quoted above. V. states (pp. 21-22) that Russia seemed a “vast, vague but retrospectively friendly place” to retired governesses like Madamoiselle. And when Mme Lecerf calls to one of her dogs, she says, “’Viens, mon vieux . . . viens.’” (p. 154) Again, each of these passages could be a clue to the hidden presence of Sebastian or his shade.

Architectural details in the novel often suggest V shapes, and it is noteworthy that in heraldry the chevron was originally symbolic of a roof. In the Roquebrune episode, which is rich in all sorts of pink and V images, the pension is described as “a pinkish villa roofed with the typical Provence round red tiles.” (p. 19) When the narrator of Lost Property visits an editor to discuss the publication of some poems, he is distracted by the editor’s stammer, “blending with a certain combination of angles in the pattern of roofs and chimneys, all slightly distorted owing to a flaw in the glass of the window-pane,—this and a queer musty smell in the room (of roses rotting in the waste-paper basket?)” (pp. 67-68) The writer is fascinated not only by the jumble of angles, but at the same time by the smell of roses.[lxvii] When V. visits the Bishops’ house, he surmises that there is “Probably an L-shaped drawing room on the first floor,” (p. 77) and when he visits the bedside that he supposes is Sebastian’s, he mentions that there “was a screen or something half round the bed,” again suggesting an L shape.

Street corners, corners of rooms and other types of corners are mentioned throughout the novel:

hard cornered part of the academic cap (p. 44)

skidding on the street corner (p. 47)

at the corner of her street (p. 79)

and sit in odd corners where she never used to sit

(p. 110)

merely a dark corner (p. 118)

delicate trellis of twigs in one corner (p. 119)

One man in a corner (p. 135)

a sewing machine standing in one corner (p. 142)

I came to the corner (p. 189)

again from the same corner (p. 194)

in the brightest corner (p. 205)

Besides adding to the V motif throughout the book, a number of these corners may be important clues to anyone who might want to trace the chess motif, for they could represent the corners of squares on the chess board.

In addition to the passages already cited in discussing Sebastian’s writings or V’s comments on them, certain figurative expressions are couched in angular terms:

when following the bends of his life (p. 34)

a subconscious turn of this or that sentence (p.


some pleasant sunlit corner of Sebastian’s life (p.


but the angle he chooses (p. 117)

mountains of pain (p. 177)

the right turn in his private labyrinth (p. 183)

a jerky, dubious, zig-zag course (p. 192)

Another clue that Sebastian may be the hidden author of his own biography appears in the name of an acquaintance of his at Cambridge, D.W. Gorget. A gorget is, among other things, a piece of armor worn to protect the throat, or a band or patch of distinctive color on the throat, especially of a bird. As we know, birds and cleverly “armored” knights appear frequently in the novel. Furthermore, gorge suggests a more or less V-shaped ravine.

As mentioned earlier, other gaps figure importantly in RLSK. In comparing his own writing to Sebastian’s, V. says early in the novel, “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.” (p. 35) But V.’s protestations are not very convincing, because his book does “ape”—quite successfully, I would say—many of the methods and effects that he describes in Sebastian’s books. V.’s own first chapters form a series of gaps, for example, in that he so rarely finds what he is looking for. And when he accuses Mr. Goodman of filling in the blanks of Sebastian’s youth with insufficient information, he might very well be describing his own techniques (see p. 64). Although V.’s accounts of Sebastian may seem more substantial than Goodman’s, we have only V.’s word for this; indeed, Goodman, as Sebastian’s secretary, apparently had the opportunity to talk to the mature writer over a period of three or four years.

In describing Sebastian’s works V. feels that he has achieved merely an outline effect: “I have tried my best to show the workings of the book, at least some of its workings. Its charm, humour and pathos can only be appreciated by direct reading.” (p. 95) And, “my sole object is to show the workings, perhaps detrimentally to the impression of beauty left by the book itself, apart from its artifices.” (p. 98)

Gaps or blanks are mentioned again in connection with certain portraits. In chapter thirteen, just before meeting Mr. Silbermann, V. is close to despairing of finishing his biography of Sebastian:

The stream of the biography on which I longed so to

start, was, at one of its last bends, enshrouded in

pale mist; like the valley I was contemplating.

Could I leave it thus and write the book all the

same? A book with a blind spot. An unfinished

picture,—uncolored limbs of the martyr with the

arrow in his side. (p. 125)

Later, in relating the story of Sebastian’s adolescent love, he hesitates to describe Natasha: “A girl is sitting at the helm, but we shall let her remain achromatic: a mere outline, a white shape not filled in with colour by the artist.” And, “Sebastian goes on reading to the girl beside him. The painter has not yet filled in the white space except for a thin sunburnt arm streaked from wrist to elbow along its outer side with glistening down.” (both quotes, p. 138) And when V. visits Roy Carswell, he refers to Carswell’s portrait of Sebastian as “incomplete.” (p. 120) These unfinished pictures are, of course, echoes of V.’s unfinished portrait of Sebastian. Each of V.’s chapters, especially those in the first half of the book, forms an intricate, delicate, never-quite-filled-in pattern which intrigues and pleases the reader as much by what it seems to omit as by what it includes.


Any attempt to describe RLSK can only end in the creation of a similar gap-like effect. In trying to show the workings of the novel, any critic would have to leave out important elements unless he prepared a copiously annotated edition. Thus almost any approach to the work is predestined to echo the V motif. This is bound to happen not only because the critic would have to be selective in his discussion, but also because anyone who decides to make the novel a part of his experience by reading it will, in a sense, become a part of the novel’s design. Only that consciousness which matches Nabokov’s in breadth and depth can hope to view the total novel with enough objectivity and thoroughness. I am thinking of Alice’s confusion at the end of her adventures in Wonderland—did she dream the dream, or was she a part of someone else’s dream? Again, I am not the first to bring up this notion in relation to RLSK, but I believe that no one has yet developed the idea very thoroughly.

Just as in Pale Fire, where the reader is made into a Peeping Tom along with Kinbote, and as in Lolita, where the reader is drawn, perhaps more deeply than he might have voluntarily chosen, into Humbert’s obsession, in RLSK the reader is manipulated into becoming one more level of, another facet of the prismatic metaphor that Nabokov as created. That Nabokov intended this is evident in the seeming infinity of echoes that begins in the book and extends automatically into the reader’s “reality” the moment he begins to catch on to the games of the novel. And he begins these games, without at first being aware of them, merely by opening the book and reading it. The careless or presumptuous reader who thinks he “understands” Sebastian and who believes that he knows “the way” to read a novel will fill in the gaps with his own notions of what Sebastian was “really” like and will judge the novel by whatever standards or methods he brings to the reading. This reader is destined to become a variation on or an imitation of Mr. Goodman, or of V. at his worst, or of the English businessman who “preferred books that made one think.” (p. 181)

It is essential to remember that Nabokov establishes the terms for reading his novels, just as Sebastian “seemed . . . to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.” (p. 181) One of the most important senses in which Nabokov creates his own readers is that a Nabokov novel controls the reader much more thoroughly than the reader determines what the novel is. One cannot approach a Nabokov novel with a method or system of ideas and hope to understand the book. The careful reader, on the other hand, the reader who would view a multi-faceted jewel such as RLSK from every angle, must know its details so thoroughly that he in essence takes apart and reconstructs the entire novel. And in doing this, he must assume nothing; he must not smudge the gem with his own fingerprints. That ideal reader (and I do not claim to be him) will be able to say at the end of the game (to play a variation on V.’s final statement), “I am Nabokov, or Nabokov is I . . . .”

In discussing the search for an ultimate “answer” to RLSK, Julia Bader says, “Artistic originality is contained in no single idea or ‘word,’ but in the ‘combination of the parts,’ in the interwoven phrases, startling images, and teasing details.”[lxviii] This is true, but, paradoxically, the “combination of the parts” of RLSK, as I hope my study indicates, in turn suggests a single idea or word (actually a single letter) which many of the readers of this novel have missed. The V images are, I believe, the major unifying principle of the book’s design.

Do the V’s then mean anything, or are they, after all, merely the “boomerangs of nonsense”? (p. 178— yet another suggestive V shape!) I believe that they do have meaning, in several ways. First, the mere existence of the motif implies a “message.” Because there is a design, there must have been a designer—which is more or less the “message” of every Nabokov novel. The works serve to remind us that Nabokov existed; they are the products of a healthy ego. But they are also, perhaps, the only sort of immortality that a man may know. Therefore the autobiographical question is important, just because we can not find in these novel his “personality” or “character” (words which, if one thinks about them at all, should be kept in quotation marks along with “reality.”) We may find his signature, in anagrams and monograms, but the creative act for Nabokov was clearly an expression of his freedom; through his novels he escaped the illusion of identity. Perhaps it is exactly this that compels lesser souls to try to pin down the “real” Nabokov in his words, for he has achieved what we admire and fear most in our greatest poets: freedom of imagination. This means, among other things, freedom from politics, religion, ideas, and, paradoxically, from words themselves.

Second, the patterns of his novels serve as complex metaphors, a term which Nabokov was not averse to using, though he “detested” allegories.[lxix] We should distinguish carefully between the two. Allegories simplify and make obvious; metaphors may be nearly as complex and mysterious as whatever they stand for. Thus, while RLSK has a “message” on the same superficial level that it also has characters, plot and other standard elements that a novel “should” have, that message is the merely verbal expression of an ineffable and profound experience that only the reading and rereading of the work can provide. And while critics, including myself, may find ideas suggested by the novel, I believe that those ideas are distorted if they are abstracted from the complex design of the work. Thus, even the V images may indeed turn into boomerangs of nonsense if too much emphasis is placed on them as an isolated source of meaning.

The metaphors of Nabokov’s novels, like existence itself, cannot be easily or wholly explained. Their rich suggestiveness can be only partially characterized. Thus, in The Prismatic Bezel, the “detective losing his way” (p. 94) suggests Willy groping in the dark in Success, which in turn suggests the position of V. and of the reader at the end of chapter ten of RLSK. Similarly, in The Doubtful Asphodel, the dying man, the “traveler,” suggests Sebastian and V. and the reader—any traveler through this book and through life. These levels of suggestiveness are emphasized by the poignant repetition of the phrase, “a man is dying,” (p. 175) which, like Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep,” points up the metaphor. The levels are also suggested by details such as “the reader is kept ignorant as to who the dying man is . . . . The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying, and drawing up a ghostly knee.” (p. 175) We are all dying men, and does any of us ever know who the dying man is?

I am not trying to suggest that the reader should “identify” with characters in the puerile way that Nabokov repeatedly disdained. What I mean is what I believe V. means at the end of the book when he says that “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.” (p. 204) The total experience of this novel may be ours only when we have explored its every angle. The reader must know the book so well, must give his consciousness so completely to the book, that he becomes the book. Thus, another point that this study of the V’s should demonstrate is that much is yet to be explored. Most of the judgments that have been made concerning the novel’s value and meaning have been premature, I think. There are still many themes and threads that need to be followed. Echoes of each of those books on Sebastian’s shelf, for example, should be carefully traced; the chess game, which is almost certainly there, as it is in Through the Looking-Glass, should be worked out; the question of internal authorship could be investigated further.

Each of these incompletely explored elements may be seen as one of the games within the novel. Another game, as mentioned earlier, is the obstacle course that Nabokov has set up for those who would read in traditional or stereotyped ways—identifying with characters, searching for ideas, enjoying a “good story,” and so forth. Nabokov’s works challenge us—rather, kindly invite us—to get beyond these limited methods of reading, to find the infinite serenity, the satori[lxx] that lies behind ever-transient meaning. The ultimate game in every Nabokov novel is not to find his “personality,” which would be a worthless and ultimately impossible task anyway, but to attain the same point of view—the same free, pointless view—as that of the consciousness which created these works. The detective in a Nabokov novel is the reader, who must do more than just account for all clues and eliminate suspects; he must not fall into word traps. Because Nabokov is a master of language (as well as of several languages), he is able to transcend words. He is not under their spell; they are his medium. And Nabokov is the least condescending of writers. He doesn’t insult the reader by telling hims what to think or how to think it. Only those who are bewitched by words, those whose thinking is strictly verbal and linear, will be trapped by the connotations or patterns of Nabokov’s words.

The final effect of a masterpiece of design is that it suggests both unity and infinite possibility. Thus there is no “interpretation” of RLSK, and there are as many interpretations as there are readers. And that is a large part of the very definition of art: the artist creates a thing which can stand, when it is finished, entirely apart from himself. This is one quality which gives it power; another is that, at the same time, it captures the reader, draws him into a world that seems to be the world, reality without the quotation marks. In his best novels, Nabokov achieves in more compact form what Proust achieved in In Search of Lost Time—a work which so thoroughly absorbs the reader that he becomes the book and experiences timelessness. Whether or not RLSK achieves this, each reader must judge from his own experience of the novel.

Finally, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight represents an important turn in Nabokov’s career not only because he switched languages when he wrote it, but also because he made his most definite break to date from the realistic novel of the past. And whatever else the book may achieve, it shows, as do each of his best novels, that it is not the Novel that is dead, but certain ways of reading novels. By going beyond the dry, two-dimensional world of the merely verbal mind (“I don’t think in any language. I think in images.”[lxxi]), Nabokov teaches us to read anew.


[i] I abbreviate the title hereafter to RLSK and quote from the New Directions hardbound edition, 1959.

[ii]G.M. Hyde, Vladimir Nabokov: America’s Russian Novelist. Marion Boyars, London, 1977. p. 16.

[iii] Ibid., p.94.

[iv] Donald E. Morton, Vladimir Nabokov, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1974. p. 43.

[v] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1966 (revised edition). p. 257.

[vi] I fail to see the “eccentricity” of this practice, anyway. It is quite common, for example, among young women in the United States whose boyfriends give their own rings to them as tokens of their “going steady.” Tying the rings on with thread is merely practical: men’s fingers are generally larger than women’s.

[vii] Charles Nicol, “The Mirrors of Sebastian Knight,” in L.S. Dembo, ed., Nabokov: The Man and his Work, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1967, pp. 85-94. All quotes are from pp. 91-92.

[viii] Nabokov defines a “true howler” as “a joint product of ignorance and self-assurance.” (Strong Opinions, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1973, p. 235.)

[ix] Nicol, p. 92.

[x] I have chosen my adjectives with care. Rechnoy’s ex-wife turns men into fools, and Rechnoy’s willingness to gossip is apparent in the novel. “Pale wretch,” a pun on Rechnoy’s name, is used by V. on page 175.

[xi] Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave, Fawcett Publications, Inc. 1968 (paper), p. 209.

[xii] H. Grabes, Fictitious Biographies: Vladimir Nabokov’e English Novels, Mouton, The Hague, 1977, p. ix.

[xiii] Ibid., pp. 14-15. I trust that the astute reader finds these long quotations enjoyable enough to warrant their inclusion. As Nabokov was wont to remark while reading samples of bad writing during his lectures at Cornell, “I can’t stop quoting!”

[xiv] Nabokov, Strong Opinions, p. 18.

[xv] Grabes, p. 14.

[xvi] Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1944 (paper), p. 40.

[xvii] Hyde, p. 87.

[xviii] Dabney Stuart, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1978, p. 16 (note 5).

[xix] Ibid., p. 40.

[xx] Ibid., p. 9.

[xxi] Alex de Jone, “Nabokov’s Uses of Pattern,” in Peter Quennell, ed., Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, William Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, 1980, pp. 59-72. Quote, p. 63.

[xxii] Hyde, p. 97.

[xxiii] Julia Bader, Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov’s English Novels, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972, p. 29.

[xxiv] Page Stegner, Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov, William Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, 1966, p. 73.

[xxv] Stuart, pp. 47-48.

[xxvi] Quote in Andrew Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1967, p. 26.

[xxvii] Anthony Olcott, “The Author’s Special Intention: A Study of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” in Carl R. Proffer, ed., A Book of Things about Vladimir Nabokov, Ardis, Ann Arbor, 2974, pp. 104-121. Quote, p. 116.

[xxviii] In Roland Villeneuve, Le Musée des Supplices, Henri Veyrier, Paris, 1974, p. 175. My thanks to Peter Brower for bringing this photograph to my attention.

[xxix] RLSK, p. 118.

[xxx] Olcott, p. 116.

[xxxi] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

[xxxii] Ibid., p. 117.

[xxxiii] Morton, p. 42.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 47.

[xxxv] Bader, p. 29 (note).

[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 29 (note).

[xxxvii] Field, p. 28.

[xxxviii] Grabes, p. 10.

[xxxix] Field, p. 27.

[xl] Nabokov, Speak, Memory, p. 310.

[xli] D. Barton Johnson, “Nabokov as a Man of Letters: The Alphabetic Motif in his Work,” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 1979, pp. 397-412. Quote, p. 404.

[xlii] The fairy-tale motif, in this and others of Nabokov’s novels, deserves a chapter of its own. According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, Vol. I, “beast marriage” is “a common motif of folktale and ballad found all over the world, in which a human beingis married to a beast, in very primitive tales to an actual animal, in later elaborations to a human being doomed to exist in beast form until some woman will love him in the beast shape.” (p. 129) Marriage to a human being in dog form was one of the most common of such tales. Beauty and the Beast is of course the most famous of these tales, and the author of “the renowned example” is by someone named Mme Leprince de Beaumont. Thus the Mme Lecerf episodes are a variation on this tale, and the name of the author of Beauty and the Beast is parodied in the name of Mme Lecerf, who, as we know, stayed at the Beaumont Hotel at Blauberg.

[xliii] Nicol, p. 88.

[xliv] It is surprising and somewhat disappointing that no one seems to have fallen for the psychological traps that Nabokov has set in RLSK. For example, one might do a twisted interpretation of Sebastian’s relationship with his mother, especially since certain traits of hers are echoed by an important woman later in Sebastian’s life. Or an even more fruitful possibility is the case one might make for Sebastian’s being homosexual: his “queer effeminate” character, Willy; Goodman’s innuendoes about Sebastian’s Proustian habits and mannerisms; the appearance of Hamlet (a perennially suspect case) and of a book by Norman Douglas on his bookshelf; and of course all the Narcissus imagery. Finally, when a pawn gets to the far side of the chessboard, as both V. and Sebastian do figuratively in RLSK, the player may dub the piece with the role of his choice, and the usual choice is queen!

Perhaps, as Nabokov as said, “the last rusty nail” has been driven into “the Viennese Quack’s coffin” (Strong Opinions, p. 215), and no one writes so-called Freudian interpretations anymore. Or maybe critics have been scared off by Nabokov’s repeated attacks on such interpretations. Who, for example, would want to be in W.W. Rowe’s shoes, now that Nabokov has gunned down his phallic interpretation of Lolita? Everyone seems to feel free to take pot shots at Rowe’s corpse these days.

Interestingly enough, a recent article by Bruno Bettelheim in The New Yorker (March 1, 1982, p. 52 ff.) indicates that anyone who has derived his notions of Freud’s theories from the English translations of the doctor’s works is bound to have a distorted idea of the theories. It seems, for example, that Freud never used the coldly clinical terms “ego,” “id” and “superego” and that his theories on dreams and symbolism were not as rigid and narrow as some—including Nabokov—have claimed them to be.

[xlv] As Charles Nicol says (Op. Cit., p. 86), “While rereading, one begins to acquire the same method as reader that Nabokov employs as writer: seeing the entire novel simultaneously, as numerous structures, interlocking syllogisms which may proceed in reverse as well as forward order.”

[xlvi] Field, pp. 28-29.

[xlvii] Of course, Vladimir Nabokov’s monogram is an obvious possibility in this game as well—not only the V, but also the N, which may be seen as a fusing of two V’s, one upside down. Such alphabetic acrobatics fit nicely with the standing-on-the-head imagery in RLSK, an echo of Carroll’s Alice books.

[xlviii] Especially enlightening are the descriptions by Stuart (p. 14) and Hyde (p. 89).

[xlix] Both roll their R’s and pronounce some English words peculiarly.

[l] Stuart (p. 45) makes a case for seven, but I believe we might add at least two more.

[li] Bader, p. 16: “(1) the sloping edge of a chisel or other cutting tool, (2) the oblique faces of a brilliant-cut gem, and (3) the grooved ring or rim holding a gem or crystal in its setting.”

[lii] Bader, pp. 22-23.

[liii] Note that the phrase “letters . . . in a field” suggests heraldic terminology.

[liv] I have a similar suspicion concerning the statement that “old letters resent being unfolded” (p. 42). Not only could the word letters be a pun, but also the statement occurs at the end of a chapter. Curious and significant things happen at the ends of many chapters of this novel. Furthermore, the statement would be especially apt in reference to the letter V, which is always more or less “folded.” If it were completely closed, it would be an I, thus fitting nicely with the notion that the work is a novel of identity. Similarly, “greasy black folios” (p. 125) is an interestingly suggestive phrase.

[lv] Harry Golombek, ed. Golombek’s Encyclopedia of Chess, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1977, p. 72.

[lvi] See note 40.

[lvii] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

[lviii] L.L. Lee, in his Vladimir Nabokov (Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1976, p. 98) says, “We cannot be quite sure of her name since Sebastian introduces her to V. as ‘Miss Bishop’; afterward, when V. meets the man whe marries after Sebastian has abandoned her, that man announces, ‘My name is Bishop . . .’ (77).”

Aside from suspecting that V. is lying, there is no reason to be doubtful of the name. V. says (p. 77), “queer—her having married a man with the same name, no relation either, just pure coincidence.” I doubt that there is any reason to distrust V. here. Besides, the double name fits in with the chess there: there must be two of each piece to play a game.

[lix] Again, the doubling suggests chess pieces. See Lewis Carroll’s Alice books for the probably prototype of this character doubling.

[lx] Though Nabokov may have dislike phallic interpretations of his writing, he seems deliberately to have set up critics to make such interpretations. See D. Barton Johnson’s comments on the quoted passage (Op. Cit., p. 403)

[lxi] Fives is, in fact, a British form of handball. But Sebastian (or V.) is clearly “playing fives” in other ways throughout the novel.

[lxii] There is a similar sort of doubling in Sebastian’s name: St. Sebastian is patron saint of soldiers, and a knight is the soldier par excellence.

[lxiii] For a lucid and non-theological discussion of this world view, see Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Vintage Books, New York, 1972.

[lxiv] Playing with numbers and with philosophical and scientific theories involving numbers is just one of the many ways in which RLSK echoes Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

[lxv] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, p. 17.

[lxvi] It is interesting that the other major colors in the novel are blue and violet (which can result from mixing blue and pink).

[lxvii] It is possible that this passage recounts Sebgastian’s initial inspiration for writing The Prismatic Bezel.

[lxviii] Bader, p. 19.

[lxix] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, p. 313.

[lxx] I can find no more appropriate word for the experience that I am trying to describe. It is too bad that much of the language of Eastern religions has been reduced in the West in recent decades to a kind of faddish jargon.

[lxxi] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, p. 14.

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