The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4-6


V. says that he delved into his research of Sebastian two months after his death, motivated by an almost cathartic revelation that he and Sebastian had a deep filial bond that remained unexpressed during life. He even took up writing short stories to test the affinity -- his failure at the medium convinced him all the more of his similarity to Sebastian, as he declares that Sebastian too would have failed at writing such stories.

We learn that V. went through Sebastian's papers following his death. V. reluctantly complied with Sebastian's wish that two bundles of letters be burned -- but not before noticing that one bundle contained correspondence in Russian, which V. finds intriguing. He continued to examine Sebastian's apartment and belongings, filled with melancholy and nostalgia, before finding Sebastian's correspondence with himself and his mother. He realized where he next ought to go in researching Sebastian's life: to Cambridge.

V. recalls Sebastian's instant attachment to England, combined with sadness that he could never fully belong in English society. At first, Sebastian strove to do everything that the true English gentleman did, always unsuccessfully. V. locates an old friend of Sebastian's at Cambridge who relates some amusing anecdotes about Sebastian's Cambridge years, including Sebastian's friendship with a popular and witty undergrad named Gorget. This friend stated that he knew Sebastian until his third or fourth term, when Sebastian essentially dropped out of college life and began writing. He described Sebastian while writing as quite unpredictable -- melancholy for days, elated when finished with a poem. The friend relates a few more anecdotes, including an account of Sebastian's relationship with a tutor who infurited Sebastian by constantly referring to him as Russian. Sebastian finally pretended to be Hungarian only to find that the tutor spoke Hungarian.

V. then pulls a trick, stating that another friend of Sebastian's interrupted this interview, only to reveal a sentence later that there was no other friend -- that he merely wished to have the novelist's freedom in introducing different perspectives on a character.

He turns to a new interview subject, Mr. Goodman, Sebastian's secretary from 1930-4, whom V. attempted to interview without the knowledge that Goodman was publishing a Sebastian Knight biography of his own. V. introduces his account of Goodman with a slippery criticism, suggesting that Goodman exploited his relationship with Sebastian, before covering himself from a slander or libel lawsuit by saying that he does not suggest that Goodman actually exploited Sebastian. V. manages to criticize Goodman only indirectly, alluding to Sebastian's satirical treatment of another writer and indicating that he, too, cannot help but represent Goodman badly.

V. states that upon arriving at Mr. Goodman's study he learned that Goodman was unaware of his relationship to Sebastian, as Sebastian had always gone by his mother's name. V. further relates that Goodman, willing enough to provide him with some business documents, became strange and dismissive when he learned that V. was working on a book about Sebastian. He urged V. to give up his book, pretending that Sebastian, as a subject, did not merit a straight-forward treatment.

As V. left his meeting with Goodman, Helen Pratt stopped him and introduced herself as a friend of Clare Bishop's, one of Sebastian's closest friends. She mentions, moreover, that Mr. Goodman wrote a biography of Sebastian, which she stated that she disliked, having read the proofs.


With Chapter 4, V. begins the book anew. This new start is more successful for several reasons. First, he begins follow the chronology of his investigation of Sebastian, rather than Sebastian's life, which proves much more successful -- it also, by the way, more correctly reflects the nature of the work, which is a novel about researching and writing, not actually about Sebastian. Second, V. begins Chapter Four with more confidence, moving beyond the bizarre confessions and false starts of the first three chapters to recount his catharsis following his brother's death, and to follow this catharsis in a more or less linear fashion through his interviews. V. seems willing to accept that his biography of Sebastian will be personal rahter than objective -- an admission that lends his work coherence as well as credibility.

We learn, through V.'s description of Sebastian's barren and weird apartment, the extent to which Sebastian was totally absorbed in his work. We also learn the extent to which V. does not know or understand Sebastian. Each discovery he makes is not only poignant but surprising, suggesting that V. really had no contact with Sebastian's thoughts or concerns during life.

The careful reader should take special note of the "empty talc-powder tin with violets figured between its shoulders." This is the third time that violets have been mentioned in the story. First were the "sugar-coated violets" that Sebastian's mother gave him on her one brief return visit. Second, the "small muslin bag of violet sweets" that the narrator discovered in Sebastian's locked desk drawer may well have been the same as the first. For now, simply be aware of this profusion of violets. Also be aware that V. is unaware of them; he's not the most astute of detectives. At this point in the novel it seems likely that, though V. will continue to guide us, Nabokov is inviting the reader to be the true detective in his work, to solve his puzzles despite the incompetence of V.

At Cambridge, V. learns a great deal about Sebastian, but he is clearly unhappy with the results of his interview. According to "the scholar" (the only name V. gives him), Sebastian was quite unhappy at Cambridge; furthermore, at Cambridge he came to realize that he would always be unhappy -- at least according to the conventional definition of happiness. Sebastian had two Cambridge periods: pre- and post-writing. Pre-writing Sebastian doesn't seem to have anything to do with post-writing Sebastian, though such clean breaks are always complicated. Really, the two sides of Sebastian seem to represent two manners in which he attempted to disguise his roots. Sebastian initially desired to "become" English -- to put on the mask of Englishness -- by acting English. But this was impossible. He would miss an idiom, a gesture, let his accent slip, and reveal his Russianness. But in writing, Sebastian found a more successful, sustainable "English" mask. After all, he is remembered as an English, not as a Russian writer, a fact that V. seems uneasy with, even suggesting that Sebastian expressed himself more naturally and elegantly in Russian than in English, even at the height of his career.

Turning to Mr. Goodman, V. is determined to set the reader against Mr. Goodman before introducing him. Such preliminaries seem unnecessary, for Mr. Goodman is hardly an appealing figure. Given that the reader already knows about Mr. Goodman's biography, his attempts to dismiss V. and to minimize Sebastian Knight's importance as a writer make him seem pompous, sneaky and ridiculous. In fact, V.'s need to "cushion" his presentation of Mr. Goodman with the snarky allusion to Sebastian's criticism of a similarly absurd literary figure reveals V.'s feelings of inferiority more than it undermines Goodman. V. takes umbrage behind his brother's brilliant satire -- precisely the kind of hijacking of genius that he accuses Goodman of perpetrating. Moreover, V.'s refusal to let his criticism stand, his need to protect himself from a libel suit, adds a further layer of uncertainty and inferiority. He seems to be afraid of Goodman even as he is contemptuous of him.

Then of course there is the bizarre nature of the interaction with Goodman itself. Why is Goodman wearing a mask? Why does he give it to the narrator on his way out the door? In "The Fledgling Fictionalist," Michael H. Begnal argues that V. "supplies" the mask in order to protect himself from a libel suit. In other words, V. doesn't give us the "real" Mr. Goodman in case the "real" Mr. Goodman wants to take him to court. More generally, perhaps, the mask serves merely to highlight V.'s growing attentiveness to the "masking" nature of narrative itself. Like the earlier false interpolation of the Cambridge friend who hypothetically explains it all, V. is drawing attention to the artifice of narrative, and drawing attention to his awareness of said artifice. Thus, in general, V. seems to have grown aware of his place in the work -- and of the impossibility of writing a "mask-free," i.e. objective, life of Sebastian Knight. Even so, the mask image is clumsy and confusing. Perhaps Nabokov thereby suggests that though V. is aware of fictional artifice, he still wields his knowledge in a clumsy, amateurish manner.