Jansy Mello: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was composed in Paris in the late thirties, and published in 1941 (“As I think I told you, I wrote it five years ago, in Paris, on the implement called bidet as a writing desk — because we lived in one room and I had to use our small bathroom as a study.” excerpt from a letter to Edmund Wilson), We find in it a reference to Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”. Am I correct to assume that this is the first time that V. Nabokov mentions the name of an American author?
V. encounters a selection of books in the shelves of his half-brother Sebastian, in Cambridge:
“I glanced too, at the books; they were numerous, untidy, and miscellaneous. But one shelf was a little neater than the rest and here I noted the following sequence which for a moment seemed to form a vague musical phrase, oddly familiar: Hamlet, La morte d'Arthur, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, South Wind, The Lady with the Dog, Madame Bovary, The Invisible Man, Le Temps Retrouvé, Anglo-Persian Dictionary, The Author of Trixie, Alice in Wonderland, Ulysses, About Buying a Horse, King Lear....”
While I was busy assembling a few sentences from VN’s “The Eye” for later use, I had a flitting recollection of Thornton Wilder’s novel, stimulated by a special tone in one of its paragraphs. Unfortunately I couldn’t gain access to D. Barton Johnson’s "The Books Reflected in Nabokov's Eye"*, to check for this specific reference to VN’s novel. “The Eye” was published in Russian in 1930 and, at that time the author had had ample opportunity to get acquainted with “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, published in 1927 and that, in 1928, won Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. “The novel tells the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die.” (a wikipedia summary). The pattern of these people’s lives in the web of their (exposed or hidden inter-relationships) is an integral part of the friar’s investigation.
The sentence from “The Eye” runs as follows:
“The task was far from easy. For instance, I knew perfectly well that insipid Marianna saw in Smurov a brutal and brilliant officer of the White Army, “the kind that went around stringing people up right and left,”, as Evgenia informed me in the greatest secrecy during a confidential chat. To define this image accurately, however, I would have had to be familiar with Marianna’s entire life, with all the secondary associations that came alive inside her when she looked at Smurov -other reminiscences, other chance impressions and all those lightning effects that vary from soul to soul.” (Vintage, 55)
Neither the narrator nor I are able to “define this image accurately,” for the subjective task of exploring a person’s entire life, and her expanding emotional ties and associations related to different events and people, is an impossibility, even for disembodied consciousnesses (in Wilder’s novel the friar was not intimidated by it). I suggest it to the VN-L because, in this seminal novel, the seeds that are cultivated in it, in spite of their belonging to a single mind, are extremely varied and spread out. In RLSK, as in The Eye, there’s a search after a unifying “I” ( a basic unifying pattern, a watermark, an essence, a soul...),whereas in Pale Fire, as in Wilder’s novel, the quest is after a recognizable cosmic pattern.
To make matters even more difficult, concerning the link between Wilder’s and V.Nabokov’s novels, the novel’s character Smurov explores such associations ad infinitum. In the interesting observations of Annalisa Volpone**, we may find a theme that arises not only in RLSK but, as Volpone notes, in PF, too:
“Notably at the very end of the novel the reader comes to know that: “I [the narrational “I”] do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they multiply, I alone do not exist. Smurov, however, will live on for a long time. (Nabokov 1965,103).[ ] “...From a stylistic perspective, Nabokov effaces the presence of the narrative voice – and consequently of the traditional well-defined point of view – in favour of a multiplicity of refracted and fragmentary voices. Therefore he dramatically complicates the role and function of the narrator, whose (individual) voice turns into a polyphony of silente voices within a network of stories to be told and re-told, disrupting the world that has been depicted, and making it multilevel.” (and now she finds indications of James Joyce’s influences on V.N).
Faint traces, indeed. Nevertheless, I thought it was an experience worth sharing here.
* The Slavic and East European Journal 29 (4): 393–404 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/307461?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21103881731951
** Focus 1. The New Nabokov A. Volpone. “Not text but Texture” or CosMo: Comparative Studies of Modernism n.7 (Fall), 2015, p.69