The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis
V. finally turns to Mr. Goodman's book, detailing its faults -- and in the process, exposing the stupidity of the reviewers who praised the book, and the tragedy that the book will survive as long as Sebastian's deserved fame does. V. paints Goodman as a witless ignoramus who accepted as pure and clean fact several of his brother's literary jokes -- such as his description of a joke first novel "about a fat young student who travels home to find his mother married to his uncle; this uncle, an ear specialist, had murdered the student's father." Goodman misses this obvious allusion to Hamlet, and populates his book with further evidence of his density.
V. admits that while Goodman completely misses the reasons for Sebastian's "fissure" with the world, there was indeed such a fissure. Rather than the result of historical circumstances or modernity writ large, Sebastian's separation, according to V., followed from a natural shyness and intelligence that set him apart from his surroundings even as a very young child. He buttresses this observation with several passages from Sebastian's writings -- passages which Goodman apparently failed to read.
Moreover, V. reveals that Mr. Goodman had actually sent him a copy of the book, along with a strange and jokey letter about wanting the book to be a surprise. V. is thus certain that Mr. Goodman knows that his book is a fraud and knows that the narrator knows it, despite the positive reviews. Mr. Goodman also sent along the promised information about several of Sebastian's books, along with his own contract which gave him an interest in the books Sebastian wrote while he worked for him. It is clear to V. that in life as well as death Goodman had grossly taken advantage of Sebastian, who was completely naive and uninterested in matters of money.
Returning to the story of Sebastian's life, V. recalls that two years after his mother's death he accidentally met Sebastian at a Paris cafe. Sebastian appeared strangely at ease with the coincidence and introduced him to the girl he was sitting with, Clare Bishop. V. witnessed Sebastian's relationship with Clare as they discussed Sebastian's latest title; Clare found the title stupid and Sebastian accepted her criticism well and amiably. Clare and V. talked briefly outside the cafe, discussing the manner in which she and Sebastian met. V. noted the couple's quiet, casual, happy ease with one another.
We return to Miss Pratt, who, according to Sebastian, assured him that Clare would be happy to learn that her letters to Sebastian had been destroyed. Clare had been married for three years or so. When V. asked whether he might see Mrs. Bishop briefly to ask her about Sebastian, Miss Pratt told him that it would be impossible even to ask. She offered, however, to tell him everything she could about Sebastian and Clare. Thus V. learned of Clare's discovery of the other woman in his life, though Miss Pratt could not say who she was, and the decline of Sebastian's health.
Despite Miss Pratt's help, V. still felt the need to see Clare personally, so behond Miss Pratt's back he called on her. Her husband, a friendly and decent man, answered the door and gently told V. that Clare had no desire to relive her past. Two days later V. decided to try once more, certain that Clare would consent to see him. As he approached her house, he saw her leave, noticed that she was pregnant, and realized that he oughtn't to approach her. He makes one attempt to win her recognition by dropping an object in his pocket -- it turns out to be Sebastian's latch-key -- and asking if it's hers, but the nearsighted Clare shakes her head and walks on, unaware of who is asking.
V. turns to Sebastian and Clare's six-year relationship, during which Sebastian created and published his first two novels and three stories, three-fifths of his complete works. V. states that Clare and Sebastian had a warm, natural, undefined relationship. They never married, not out of unconventional resistence but because it never occured to them to change their relationship one way or another. V. tells of how Clare typed Sebastian's novels while he dictated, digressing to describe Sebastian's difficulty with words both because he had a writer's insistence upon perfect expression and because Sebastian never attained the felicity in English that he possessed in Russian. Indeed, V. says, Clare occasionally corrected Sebastian's unidiomatic English, and Sebastian accepted her improvements with mild embarrassment.
Sebastian's first novel attracted no critical notice. However, his next commenced smoothly, with Clare's help, and life was very happy indeed. After a while, Sebastian decided to holiday in Germany to help with his novel. When Clare joined him there a while later he was mysteriously missing. She waited, unconcerned, to find him strange when he returned. She asked whether he had stopped loving her and he declared that he hadn't, that he had felt a pain in his chest and arm and had gone to see a specialist. V. states that Sebastian suffered from something called "Lehmann's disease," the same heart disorder which had killed his mother. After Germany, Sebastian returned to London and worked steadily for almost a year. V. tells us that he met a friend of Sebastian's, Leslie, who described Sebastian during this time, after the completion of his second novel. She walked into his study to find him lying on the floor and Clare bundling up his papers. Sebastian said, "I'm not dead. I have finished building a world, and this is my Sabbath rest."
V.'s skill as a narrator grows as the chapters pass. His criticisms of Goodman's book -- and of the pseudo-psychologizing, hamfistedly-historicizing society that supports such rubbish -- are spot-on and elegantly stated. (By the way, V. channels many of Nabokov's own published opinions in these passages, including his hatred of Freudianism and his disdain for "historical" literary analysis.)
Nonetheless, Goodman's most obvious gaffe passes unmentioned: the fact that Goodman did not even realize that Sebastian had a half-brother. Of course, there is a pretty reasonable explanation for why V. stays away from this criticism -- namely, that it exposes the total unimportance of he and his mother to Sebastian's life and work. On the other hand, V. and the reader alike are well aware that Goodman's judgement of such things is suspect. He knows little to nothing of importance about Sebastian's inner life. Thus V.'s avoidance of Goodman's gaffe may stem from another motive: perhaps V. accepts his unimportance in Sebastian's life but doesn't care. He seems to have shifted as the book unfolds from writing about Sebastian to writing about Sebastian's books -- or even more, to self-consciously writing about writing. Thus V. is moving away from his earlier "mask" as Sebastian's brother and putting on a new one as Sebastian's best critic.
Aside from the talk of Goodman, the relationship that dominates these chapters is that of Clare and Sebastian. Among literary critics there is a great deal of disagreement as to how a reader should understand this relationship. Begnal, for one, suggests that Sebastian treats Clare badly, and cites their relationship as evidence that Sebastian Knight is not a paragon of virtue, though V. attempts to show him that way. However, it might be too simple to label Sebastian and Clare's relationship "bad." Even when Sebastian calls Clare an "idiot" -- when she almost steps into a bicycle's path -- one might as easily hear concern as abuse. Perhaps his overprotective, paternalistic way with Clare is not wholly fair to her, but he also takes her aesthetic sensitivity quite seriously, such as when he gravely describes the smell of pigeons. The relationship is complex and flawed -- after all, it ends badly, with "another woman" -- but also simple, warm and happy.
An undeniable part of the complexity in their relationship follows from Clare's Englishness -- which reinforces the conflict between balancing Russianness and Englishness that recurs throughout the novel. Clare epitomizes the literary tradition of upper-class feminine Englishness. Her understated prettiness, elegant manner, forgetfulness and easy-going manner are all earmarks of her nation, at least as it's been represented in fiction. Just as Sebastian fell in love with being English while at Cambridge, one might worry that he was more in love with what Clare represented than with Clare herself. Countering this worry is the fact that Clare is in many ways very similar to Sebastian. She is an orphan, she is independent, and she is quite capable of living her life as sees fit, absolutely unconcerned with anyone else's opinion of it.
Continuing the portrait of a happy yet flawed relationship, Helen Pratt, our main source of information about Clare and Sebastian, describes them as happy and loving but also as unbalanced. While Sebastian directs his energy toward his writing, Clare directs hers toward Sebastian -- a sacrifice that makes Sebastian more uncomfortable, it seems, than grateful. The very comfort of their happiness, the stifling nature that comfort can take on, draws Sebastian toward the mysterious Russian whom Helen mentions: away from light and pretty England and toward passionate and beautiful Russia.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Essays and Related Content
- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Major Themes
- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Essays
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- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Vladimir Nabokov: Biography
- The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary
- About The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 7-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 10-12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 13-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 19-20
- Nabokov: Writing Art
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