The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis of Chapter 19-20


V. tells us that he finished his research by reconstructing the last year of Sebastian's life - 1935. He muses on the strange resemblance between Sebastian Knight's name and the year of his death - 1936. When The Doubtful Asphodel was published in 1935, Sebastian made his last attempt to see Nina and was sent away by her young admirer. He returned to London and for several months attempted to get out in the world, but everywhere he appeared "a thin, mournful, and silent figure.' One day he ran into Miss Pratt and almost saw Clare, but resisted. He went to see a film, The Enchanted Garden, three times, and when V. saw it, he realized it might have been because there was a shot of sunbathers on the Riviera and Sebastian might have caught a glimpse of Nina. He became very ill, but he ignored the advice of his doctor, and then he disappeared for several months.

V. tells us that at this time, while was in Marseilles on business, he received a strange, rambling letter from Sebastian. Though Sebastian's allusions to his approaching death upset him, V. was quite used to his brother's pessimism, and knew nothing of Sebastian's serious heart condition. Still, he was touched by his brother's unusual desire to see him, and so he decided to go to Paris that Saturday.

That night V. had a strange, unpleasant dream. He was in a large barren room with his mother, a man from work, and the man's wife. They were waiting for Sebastian. His mother kept trying to dispose of dirty, unwieldy objects, such as a muddy bicycle. The couple disappeared. Sebastian appeared wearing a black glove on his hand, which the narrator realized was fake. Sebastian must have suffered some sort of injury. He began to feel ill. A manicurist entered, and as she bent over Sebastian, the black hand fell off, releasing a pile of tiny, soft little hands, like claws. Everyone vanished. Then he heard Sebastian's voice and realized he was buried under a pile of sacks filled with grain. Upon waking, V. sent a wire to Sebastian telling him he was coming, but then he made the mistake of stopping by the office where he was held up until late that night. He returned to find a telegram waiting from Dr. Starov, telling him to come at once.

V. went to the station and realized that he didn't have enough money for a second class ticket. He decided board the train anyway, only to notice that he'd forgotten Sebastian's address. V. desperately tried to think of the name of the town, the name of the hotel where Sebastian usually stayed, but he could remember nothing. He tried to reassure himself that he could call Dr. Starov, but he couldn't help but agonize over whether Sebastian would still be alive when he got there. He slept fitfully.

When he finally arrived in Paris, V. went to a phone booth and looked up the doctor. He dialed, but the phone only rang and rang. He finally got through to a woman who told him that the doctor would be back at 5:30. V. tried the doctor at his office and his home, to no avail. Staring at some grafitti, V. finally remembered that Sebastina was at St. Damier. He took a hellish two-hour taxi ride followed by another miserable train before finally arriving at Sr. Damier.

An old man let him in at the hospital and V. whispered that he was here to see his brother, spelling his name. The man grumbled for a few minutes, but then he told a nurse to take V. to number thirty-six. He bribed a nurse to be allowed to see his brother. As he waited, a feeling of love swept over him, and he couldn't wait to talk to his brother, to tell him all of his thoughts on his books, which he had read so carefully. He sat quietly for a while before speaking again to the nurse, who remarked that the patient's mother would arrive in the morning. V. then realized that they couldn't be talking about the same patient, as Sebastian's mother was dead. The nurse, thus corrected, said that the Russian gentleman had already died.

Though he did not see his brother alive, V. felt that he had learned something tremendous all the same. Any soul can belong to anyone, if you come to understand it. Thus, having labored so to understand Sebastian Knight, he was Sebastian Knight. V. pictured himself on a lit stage, a cast of characters circling around him. He saw Mr. Goodman, Clare and Nina. Slowly they disappeared, but he remained. Sebastian's mask clinging to his face, for he is Sebastian and Sebastian is he, or they "both are someone whom neither of [them] knows."


As the narrator ruminates about the strange confluence between his brother's name and the year of his death, he is actually picking up on a pattern running throughout the story. The number thirty-six constantly reoccurs throughout Sebastian's life, just as violets are repeatedly associated with his mother. Sebastian lived at 36 Oak Park Gardens. He died in 1936, when he was thirty-six years old, in a hospital where he was patient number thirty-six. Nabokov uses such patterns and symbols in most of his works. There are a way to symbolize the paradoxical coincidences that form all our lives -- the chance meetings that change us forever. Nabokov, like Carroll and Borges and other writers who mix the fantastic and the realistic, doesn't merely discuss the ineffable patterns and puzzles of subjectivity: he performs them. He inhabits a fictional world that is at once full of order and meaning -- the violets, the numbers -- and yet still quite indeterminate and ambiguous.

As V. traces his brother's decline, Sebastian becomes a sadder and lonelier figure. When the narrator receives the letter from him, asking him to come to see him, he reacts with equanimity. At this point, one might stop to wonder, did Sebastian love his brother? If Sebastian was actually as cold as V. constantly implies -- and many critics have pointed this snag out -- why does he ask for his brother as death approaches? Why did he continue to write to a step-mother and much younger half-brother, when ties could easily have been cut-off? Why did he suggest that his brother move to London to live near him, or have dinner with him when in Paris? Nabokov invites us to consider that V., not Sebastian, was the source of coldness and tension in their relationship. He resisted his brother's love even as he desired it -- he envied his brother even as he idolized him.

V.'s dream is a strange jumble of Freudian imagery and desperate rambling. Given Nabokov's well-documented dislike for Freudian imagery and analysis, once again one might plausibly suggest that V. has begun to depart from the truth. Between his overdramatic description of the prophetic dream that convinced him to rush to his brother's side, and the ridiculous obstacles that met him on his path (a journey extremely reminiscent of an earlier description of the police detective's journey in The Prismatic Bezel), it seems extremely likely that V. has invented his traumatic journey to disguise the fact that he ignored his brother's letter, prioritized his work over the possibility of a real illness, and simply arrived too late to bring Sebastian any comfort.

At the end of the novel, V.'s mask seems to slip, at least momentarily. He seems completely unaffected by his pointless visit to Sebastian's bedside. After all, while he believed he was sitting by Sebastian, he felt totally at peace. This peace was not affected when he learned that Sebastian was already dead. He speaks strangely about suddenly feeling as if he has captured Sebastian's soul, and in one sense his words ring true. V. has learned the power of the writer: by writing Sebastian's life, he has taken possession of it. Despite his title, he doesn't care whether or not the Sebastian he has described has any "real" relation to the man. After all, he is dead, and those who write his life can almost claim to have lived it; no one has much authority to say otherwise. Once again V. makes reference to Mr. Goodman, "the flat-footed buffoon, with his dicky hanging out of his waistcoat," but this time the jibe falls flat. Whether he recognizes it or not, V. has become Mr. Goodman as well as Sebastian. He has used the life of a famous man to pry himself into prominence. That Sebastian was his brother does not excuse the act -- it renders it all the more treacherous. If anything excuses V., in the end, it is that his chanelling of Sebastian results in some smart, interesting prose -- and a rather disturbing glimpse at the jealous, sentimental huckster who is V.