The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis
V. describes his half-brother's body of work, asserting generally that Sebastian's novels were intended on one level as send-ups of second-rate ideas, writers, and styles; for the careful reader, however, the novels offered more profound examinations of human truths as well.
We turn to The Prismatic Bezel, Sebastian's first book, which received acclaim only after the success of his later novels. In Bezel, a detective comes to investigate a murder that has been committed in a boarding house with twelve guests; in the process of quesitoning all the people in the house realize that they are related to someone else in the group. Suddenly the boarding-house dissolves away and a country-house takes its place, the murder forgotten. The detective reappears and questioning begins anew. Just as it seems that the murderer will be discovered, the body disappears; one of the boarders removes a fake mustache and reveals himself as the man who was supposed to have been murdered. The book satirized detective novels, both in terms of their twisty plots and their potboiler writing style.
V. turns to Success, Knight's second book, which he says approaches even closer to Knight's great overall themes. The book concerns a man and a woman who meet in a car pool during a bussing strike. Sebastian details every element that led up to their meeting, outlining several moments in their past when they nearly met, any one of which would have set off their great romance. Once they do finally intertwine fates, of course, they live happily ever after. V. describes Success as Sebastian's most popular work and emphasizes, as he did with Bezel, that his summaries cannot do justice to the beauty, strangeness and elegance of Sebastian's writing. V. notes that one passage in Success is closely connected to Sebastian's "inner life": a rumination that suggests that human happiness may be impossible because death is inevitable.
Now approaching a critical juncture, V. expresses frustration that he is not doing Sebastian's work justice. However, certain that he has done his best, V. speculates that Sebastian is somehow helping him. He informs us that P.G. Sheldon, a poet who was friends with Clare and Sebastian between 1927 and 1930, was kind enough to help him in his researches and gave him much of the information contained in the pages to come. Sheldon told the narrator that when Success was indeed a success, Clare was very happy. She desired Sebastian to dwell a bit in his fame, to soak up the attention, but Sebastian could think of nothing but his next project. (Through Sheldon we also learn that soon after V. had seen her on the street, Clare had suffered a miscarriage and then died herself.)
V. tells us that following Success Sebastian began to have fits of temper and to take his frustrations out on Clare and his other friends. Wild happiness would give way in a flash to stubborn, moody mistreatment of Clare. Meanwhile he completed his three short stories, the last of which represented the end of the "research theme." Though he seemed to love Clare as much as ever, he also seemed to have left her behind, and she didn't know what to do about it. V. declines to imagine that sexual frustration played a role in their separation, stating that he personally thinks that sex is not so big a deal as many make it out to be; he supports his opinion with passages from Sebastian's work. Finally, V. suggests that the sombre mood of Sebastian's next and final book, The Doubtful Asphodel had settled into his life.
At a doctor's suggestion, Sebastian departed for Blauberg, in Alsace, to undergo a treatment for his heart condition. The afternoon he was to leave, he had tea with Clare, Miss Pratt, and Sheldon, after which Clare spontaneously decided to join him at Alsace; Sebastian told her to go home rather than accompany him. Sebastian was then incommunicado aside from a brief note until Clare telegrammed, prompting Sebastian to say he was returning early by way of Paris. In Paris, V. and Sebastian dined together. V. noted that Sebastian looked terrible. He asked Sebastian about Clare, and Sebastian replied that they were "sort of married"; he then went to make a phone call and, upon returning, announced that he had forgotten an appointment and needed to leave.
V. quotes a passage from Sebastian's writing -- stating that he doesn't understand how people can dine in restaurants without noticing their servers -- which he supplements with a memory: after they dined together in Paris, an old man offered them an advertisement, which they both ignored at first; Sebastian suddenly rushed back to the old man, took an advertisement, read it carefully and threw it out. He then drove off hurriedly. V. returns to Sheldon's memories, saying that Clare thought of Sebastian as mad during these times and admitted that Sebastian would not talk to her. When Sheldon approached Sebastian on the subject he was told to mind his own business.
Sheldon later learned from Clare that Sebastian had begun getting letters from a Russian woman who had stayed at the hotel in Blauberg. Six weeks later Sebastian left England and was gone for months. Clare moved and found work at a life insurance office. A few months later she and Miss Pratt began to meet again, but they did not discuss Sebastian. Five years later she married. In Lost Property, Sebastian's next-to-last novel, a chapter deals with an airplane crash. Some letters that have fallen out of the plane are later discovered, and one is a love letter that has somehow gotten into an envelope directed to a business firm. In it, a man says goodbye to a woman he loves, admits that it was because of another woman, and tries to tell her how he feels and why it happened. V. believes that at least some things said in this letter are expressions of things Sebastian feels for Clare, perhaps even things that he wrote to her. What he does not understand is how Sebastian could have taken such real, important feelings and build from them a "fictitious and faintly absurd character."
Having returned to London, Sebastian suffered a serious heart attack and took to his bed. He managed to finish Lost Property, but his business affairs went into disarray. The effort to find even a simple phone number began to be greater than writing a chapter; thus Mr. Goodman entered his life. Slowly Goodman acquired control over all of Sebastian's affairs, and according to Mr. Goodman, Sebastian shrunk into dejection. Mr. Goodman criticized Sebastian for refusing to accept the role of the author in the modern world, despite all of Mr. Goodman's pleas; when he did finally write about the world it was with such aloofness that he might have been writing about "a dead bee on a window sill." V. finds Mr. Goodman's words so ridiculous that comment is hardly necessary. But he cannot help remembering how Roy Carswell, who painted Sebastian in 1933, told him about how Sebastian used to make fun of Mr. Goodman, while sitting for his portrait. Carswell also told him that Sebastian finally fired Goodman for changing a phrase in a new edition of The Funny Mountain. Mr. Goodman refrained from mentioning the incident in his book.
Now the narrator thinks about Sebastian's portrait, which showed his face as a reflection in a pool of water, a water-spider on the surface seeming to cling to his cheek. Carswell admitted that he wanted to suggest the shadow of a woman behind him, but decided that it would be "story-telling instead of painting." V. told him that he absolutely needed to find the woman, but Carswell believed it impossible, promising him the picture if he ever did find her.
The first half of this section consists entirely of V.'s analysis of and praise for Sebastian's first few works. As the narrator does a poor job of integrating this analysis into the text, one might wonder why he bothers. On the whole, the decision emphasizes a shift we have tracked in earlier parts of the novel: away from Sebastian Knight as a person and toward Sebastian Knight as a writer. Likewise, V.'s primary relationship to Sebastian becomes not that of a brother, but that of a reader -- or, to take things farther, that of a fellow man of letters. Sebastian lived through his fiction in a very powerful, real way. Thus, the "real" life of Sebastian Knight might well be his fiction. V. has no trouble drawing from Knight's writings as well as his biography -- though he displays a bizarre anxiety from time to time when the line between life and fiction threatens to collapse completely, as when Sebastian seems to have put his own words to Clare into the letter in Lost Property.
Which leads us to the million dollar question: Is Sebastian a good novelist? Certainly the ideas presented here are thought-provoking -- the pastiche of the detective genre, the minute exploration of intertwining fates, etc. But it is by no means clear that these ideas make for good novels. Indeed, V.'s shrill insistence that he cannot do justice to the beauty of Sebastian's work seems to protest too much -- is it really so hard to do justice to beauty when beauty exists? It's harder, perhaps, to call dull thought experiments beautiful, which seems to be what V. is in fact doing. The excerpts from Sebastian's novels are absurd, melodramatic, completely without drama. Introducing the character dynamic he would later perfect in Pale Fire, Nabokov gives us an overserious, too personal analysis of a mediocrity (Sebastian) by an obsessive (V.). We are borne along not by curiosity about a "great artist," but by our natural fascination with the workings of obsession.
Still, Sebastian's work does reflect upon the biographical elements in the story, especially when we turn to Success. That novel, at least as V. sketches it, gives us a kind of basic template for understanding any life: we experience a series of coincidences, opportunities, missed opportunities, that altogether form a sort of fate. Sebastian's meeting with Clare, for instance, like the meeting of the lovers in Success, opens up a comfortable, happy, lasting connection that might have been missed indefinitely had the two never coincidentally crossed paths. In this light, Sebastian's interest in coincidence, which recurs throughout the novel, informs his vision of life as a whole. Of course, Success' version of a finally fulfilled coincidence -- which leads to "happily ever after" -- is too pat and simple by far. As Sebastian's experience with Clare shows, there is no coincidence to end all coincidences, no "final" meeting wherein indefinite happiness is possible. A further twist of fate can undo a happy coincidence just as elegantly as it was begun.
This section invites a broader understanding of coincidence than simple meetings. Sebastian's health is a major plot point here -- and indeed his declining health seems inextricable from his declining relationship with Clare, his move toward sombre subject matter in his fiction, and his affair with the mysterious Russian woman. Again, life jostles with art -- the fact of dying gives way to the art of dying, the novel about death. Just as meetings between fated friends can instantly and deeply change their lives, so too the bad health seems to change Sebastian's whole approach to the world. Clare, with her emphasis on sunniness, happiness, success (she wishes him to wallow in his fame, to enjoy himself) is out of place as his health worsens. Sebastian's physical uneasiness leads him, then, to reject emotional ease. He throws himself into misery of all kinds -- fictive as well as "real."
As the above themes and plot strands play out, V. has become less and less obtrusive, more and more skillful as a narrator. He has us in the thrall of suspense. However, his concerns and interests still dictate much of the direction of the novel. For instance, V.'s exposure of Mr. Goodman still smacks of revenge, even though it is more skillfully couched here than it was before, when V. fussed aloud about libel suits. And V.'s apparent obsession with uncovering the identity of Sebastian's Russian lover certainly follows from V.'s personal stake in Sebastian's Russianness. As Sebastian's Russian brother, a partial representative of the home country that Sebastian seemed to reject in favor of jolly old England, V. is both fascinated with and eager to explore the Russian femme fatale, as we shall see at length in the chapters to come.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1-3
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 10-12
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