The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis of Chapter 13-15


V. tells us that he decided to go to Blauberg on the trail of the Russian woman. He made the journey by train, alluding thus to Sebastian's train journey of years before, and arrived in Blauberg just as the hotel opened, before the season had fully begun. At the hotel, V. tried to cajole the manager into revealing the identity of Sebastian Knight's lady-friend, but the manager refused to release any such information. V., forced to change tactics, formulated a new plan for uncovering her identity while on a Strasbourg-bound train.

A man with a thick French accent, Mr. Silbermann, boarded V.'s compartment and began to chat unencouraged about his business: toys and sporting goods. Silbermann further revealed that he was once a private detective, which prompted V. to ask how he might trace the Russian woman. Silbermann agreed to discover the names and addresses of everyone who stayed at Sebastian's hotel during that time; they were to rendezvous in Strasbourg the following Friday. V. offered payment but was refused for the time being; moreover, Silbermann made V. a gift of his notebook, which he thought V. had been admiring.

That Friday Silbermann delivered a list of forty-two names and addresses, thirty-seven of which were not relevant. The four possibilities: Mademoiselle Lidya Bohemsky, of Paris; Madame de Rechnoy, also of Paris; Helene Grinstein, a pretty Jewish woman who lived in Berlin; and Helene von Graun, who, despite her German name, spoke Russian and also lived in Paris. His task accomplished, Silbermann tried to convince V. not to bother these women, to forget them as they had surely forgotten Sebastian, but V. declines. He paid Silbermann -- though Silbermann charged a paltry fee and reduced it further with tortured calculations -- who left before V. could even obtain his address to send him a copy of the completed biography.

V. began with the Berlin address. A boy admitted him to a strange, ugly house filled with unusual inhabitants and V. found Helene Grinstein after a good deal of wandering. She began to speak to him as a friend, assuming that V. had arrived for her brother-in-law's funeral. V. began to depart, but she kindly asked him how she could help him. Hesitantly, he asked her if she had known his brother, Sebastian Knight, at Blauberg, but she said they had never met and he instantly believed her. Upon learning his name, though, Helene revealed that she knew his father in Saint Petersburg. She remembered that some friends, the Rosanovs, were speaking of it just the other day, and invited V. to contact them before he took his leave. V. left, convinced that Helene was not a homewrecker, and determined to see the Rosanovs and incorporate their memories into his book as well.

At the Rosanovs, V. learned that Sebastian had been good friends with Rosanov, and that his sister, Natsha, had been Sebastian's first love. Natasha told V. everything she remembered of their time together -- days on a boat, star-gazing, etc. At the end of the summer, she ended the relationship, telling him she had fallen in love with someone else. Rosanov, unlike Natasha, declined to recall anything about Sebastian other than that he had not been popular at school.

V. tells us that he ran into difficulties upon returning to Paris, but declines to specify as he is keeping himself out of the narrative (so he says). He then looked up the three women in a current directory and found two right away -- one of whom was listed under a husband's name. The third, Lydya Bohemsky, was not listed in any directory, but V. decided to look for her at the address Silbermann provided. Determined to visit all three woman in one day, V. began with Madame de Rechnoy, the one listed under her husband's name.

Her husband, Phal Rechnoy, answered the door and boisterously showed the narrator into a modest room which also contained a young boy and an older man whom Pahl introduced as his cousin. The boy sketched as the men played chess. Waiting a moment as the men finished their game, the narrator hesitantly asked if his wife might possible have known some German friends of his. Rechnoy replied easily that she would be back soon and he could ask her himself. Eventually the cousin and the young boy left, allowing V. to question Rechnoy. In the course of this questioning, Rechnoy revealed that the woman in question may be his first wife rather than his current wife -- his first wife, Nina Toorovetz, had been a femme fatale of sorts who had been at Blauberg as their marriage ended. Rechnoy expressed doubt that V. or anyonce would be able to find her. As V. left the cousin and the young boy were climbing back up the stairs.


Just like a Sebastian Knight novel, V.'s narrative seems to have taken on the trappings of genre fiction -- we are now in the midst of a mystery search for a femme fatale. Of course V. is no Sam Spade; his first and only plan, to ask the hotel manager, is ludicrously misconceived, and it's only with the (again, coincidental) help of a "real" private investigator that he gets the information he needs. Nabokov, rather than V., seems to be in full control of these events, cheekily giving us a "life imitates art" moment in which Sebastian's style of genre satire --complete with detective stories and gumshoes and vampy homewreckers -- materializes before V.'s unseeing eyes. Indeed, V. is personally driven to resolve this paradox, to play "Russian roulette," as it were, with the possible femmes fatale.

Or is it really this simple? Perhaps V. is indeed caught up in a plot seemingly authored by Sebastian -- complete with characters straight out of Sebastian's fiction, like Silbermann (whose name and mannerisms recall one of Sebastian's creations, Mr. Siller). Perhaps, on the other hand, V. is making the whole thing up. Just as he was tempted to give his imagination free range in his account of the Cambridge visit, so it seems possible that as he builds confidence as a fiction writer, V. feels that he can simply fabricate the rest of his "real" life of Sebastian. Perhaps, stymied by the hotel manager's non-compliance, V. embarks more or less consciously on a Sebastian-style plot, full of coincidences and absurd characters, in order to keep his story from stalling altogether. Nabokov seems to be enjoying himself very much, inviting us to shift allegiance between these two views of the unfolding tale -- the V.-is-blind view and the V.-is-making-it-all-up view. Perhaps the truth splits the difference -- perhaps V. is making some things up and is ignorant of other things. But then what is the truth, and why do we care to find it when it seems impossible to do so? Nabokov, if he is successful in anything, is successful in rendering problematic the presuppositions of truth-seeking.

It's worth looking more closely at the correspondence between Sebastian's fictional creations and the new characters that populate this section. V., quoting Sebastian, writes that "Mr. Siller makes his bow, with every detail of habit and manner, palpable and unique --: the bushy eyebrows and the modest mustache. . . the beautiful surprise of shiny perfection when he removes his hat." Meanwhile Mr. Silbermann is described as "a little man with bushy eyebrows," the removal of his "bowler hat disclosing a pink bald head. . .. He winked; his small moustache bristled." Just like Mr. Siller, Mr. Silbermann performs a service for the narrator whom he meets on a train. As if to underscore his selflessness (a defining characteristic of Mr. Siller), Mr. Silbermann winds up refusing any payment for his trouble, and departs before the narrator can do more than thank him.

V.'s first visit to Helene Grinstein winds up being a sort of red herring -- which no detective plot should be without. Almost the instant he meets her, he knows that she could not possibly be the woman in question. But, in another coincidence (recalling, for instance, the pile-up of coincidences in the boarding house in Bezel) she directs V. to Sebastian's first love, Natasha Rosanov. Natasha and her brother provide V. with a few more details of Sebastian's life, but at this point V. seems far less interested in biographical information than in his search for the Russian woman and in his obsession with Sebastian's fiction. He even writes, "A more systematic mind than mine would have placed them in the beginning of the book, but my quest had developed its own magic and logic." Indeed, this is no longer a biography, with Sebastian's life the key to his works; it is something else, a quest of a different color, with Sebastian's works the key to -- not just his life, but V.'s, and perhaps to life in general.

V.'s next meeting continues to pile on the coincidences and literary reverberations. The story seems to be dividing all women into two camps -- the vamp camp and the good-girl camp. For instance, Pahl Rechnoy's description of his first wife, Nina, recalls earlier descriptions of Sebastian's mother. Meanwhile, one can see similarities between descriptions of Clare Bishop, Helene Grinstein and V.'s mother. V. says of Helene, "She never could have been the woman who had made Sebastian so miserable. Girls of her type do not smash a man's life -- they build it." Just as V.'s mother, despite the loss of her husband, managed to get her own family out of Russia safely, Helene Grinstein soldiers on through her own grief, a young and lovely matriarch. Similarly, when Clare Bishop lost Sebastian, she did not fall apart. She moved beyond her grief, marrying another man and putting the past behind her. In contrast, Nina Rechnoy abandoned her husband and child when she had "sucked [him] dry" while Sebastian's mother left the moment she grew bored with the attentions of just one man.