The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Themes

Fiction and Reality

In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Though the novel is supposed to take place in a reality identical to physical reality, Nabokov uses fiction-like coincidences and even intrusions of fictional characters to blend the world of the narrator and that of Sebastian Knight's novels.

A good example of Nabokov's use of this technique is the doubling of Knight's fictional character, Mr. Siller, and the character who meets and helps V. on the train, Mr. Silbermann. Identical in description and action, Mr. Silbermann seems to have been conjured up straight from Knight's story, yet V. does not bat an eye. A more subtle example is the way in which Helene Grinstein points the narrator in the direction of the Rosanov's, thereby allowing him to meet Sebastian's first love. In general, coincidences abound in Sebastian Knight that would make even Dickens blush.

Unlike Dickens, however, Nabokov uses these coincidences for thematic rather than plot purposes. There are several reasons for Nabokov's use of this technique. First of all, it mimics Sebastian Knight's own blending of real and imagined experiences to produce fiction. It is reminder that fiction is based on the real; it is not simply a product of our imagination. That is why fiction makes sense, after all -- it is intrinsically connected to our everyday lives. Second of all, this technique fits the narrator's view of the world. V.'s understanding of Sebastian, his exploration of his life, constantly varies between his books and his "real" relationships, with little distinction made between the two. Thus, the reader's own distinctions become confused, as it becomes difficult to tell exactly what in the book is the product of reality, what the product of fiction.

Forms of Love

Romantic love plays a dominant role in the text, both in terms of plot and characterization. First, Sebastian's father's love for Sebastian's mother, even after she has deserted and shamed him, ultimately leads to his death. Despite the narrator's dismissal of his father's obsession with honor, it seems clear that it was love and jealousy, perhaps as well as honor, that motivated their father. This action would mold Sebastian's later feelings and behavior, and V. himself notes that Sebastian became obssessed with the manner and cause of his father's death.

Sebastian falls in love twice in the course of the novel (three times if you count Natasha Rosanov), but it is difficult to qualify either of these passions as romantic love. Sebastian clearly loved Clare, but in many ways they seem more like close friends than lovers. Though Sebastian says they're "sort of married," it is unclear whether they even lived together. His passion for Nina Rechnoy is in many ways similar to his father's passion for his mother. And yet, there seems to be too much of an element of hate in their relationship to qualify it as romantic love.

V. becomes obsessed with tracking down the woman who wrote to Sebastian in Russian, because he believes he is going to find the love of Sebastian's life, his great romantic love. He is devestated by his discovery of Nina Rechnoy, because in finding her, he realizes how bereft Sebastian's life really was.


The idea of family is one of the intrinsic factors motivating V. to tell his story. His hatred for Mr. Goodman may well derive more from Mr. Goodman's failure to acknowledge V. and his mother as part of Sebastian's family, than any misguided claims made about Sebastian's youth or life. Over the course of the novel, V. attempts to prove that he and Sebastian are family in several ways. First, he attempts to show that their history makes them a family, and yet he realizes that it is a history of seperation and lingering withdrawal. He also attempts to insinuate himself into Sebastian's life, by meeting all of the people Sebastian was close to and thereby 'establishing his credentials.' Finally, V. attempts to prove that he understands Sebastian better than anyone else, because they were brothers.

Ironically, the proof that he and his mother were the only family Sebastian had is sprinkled throughout the text. He writes to them, briefly but steadily. He comes to his step-mother's funeral and encourages the narrator to come live near, even with, him. He supports V. for as long as he needs money, and he maintains contact, steadily if not intimitely. Finally, and most importantly, when he is dying, he summons V., his brother, and no one else.

Thus if V. is so desperate to prove that he and Sebastian were related, it can only be because he, rather than Sebastian, doubts the importance of this relationship. V.'s sense of family had been fundamentally undermined when his father abandoned them for a woman with no relation to the narrator. Whatever his motives for writing this book, at least one must be the desire to reclaim the sense of need and importance that the narrator lost along with a father.


Honor is often cited as a motivating factor for people's action in this novel. Yet, it often seems that honor is simply a plausible disguise for disguised human emotions. When Sebastian's father challenges Palchin to a duel for the sake of his ex-wife's reputation, it is farcical. She abandoned him and their child, and any reputation she once had has long ago been lost. Here honor seems to stand in for love and jealousy, and to suggest that Sebastian's father has simply never gotten over the loss of his first wife.

Similarly, V. states that he is writing this book in order to defend his brother's honor from the mistakes and miswritings of Mr. Goodman. Yet one cannot help wonder whose intrusion Sebastian would have resented more? It seems quite possible that he would have found Mr. Goodman's account of his life extraordinarily amusing. V.'s open discussion of his family history, his love affairs, and his slow decline into death seems much more hurtful than Mr. Goodman's pedantic and overdone analysis.

If the book has anything to say about honor, it may simply be that honorable actions never call themselves honorable, and honorable men see no need to hide behind the title. There are few examples of honorable behavior in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight -- when V. burns Sebastian's love letters, or when he refrains from approaching Clare Bishop on the street -- but when they happen, they go untrumpeted.


Sebastian Knight wrote what V. calls "research" novels. Characters are investigated, and the things that are discovered resonate within the story and outside it. One of his novels wore the guise of a detective story, the other a guise of a love story. Yet each were really about the different purposes and methods of investigation, which treated investigation is a necessary part of life.

Now V. is writing a research novel, disguised as a biography. As he investigates his brother, he writes his life. At the end of the book he feels he has gained his brother's soul, and he pictures himself on a stage, surrounded by the character's of Sebastian's life (both real and fictional), himself standing in Sebastian's place. When he says that "the soul is but a manner of being -- not a constant state -- that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations" what V. has discovered is the secret of being a writer. One kind of investigation is the writer's imaginary investigation, which follows and possesses inumerable souls. Like Sebastian, V. has discovered this secret. What he doesn't understand is that any one investigation never leads to the truth, but simply a form of it. He could have followed many paths besides the one he chose. The character that the narrator now "inhabits" is not Sebastian, but merely a Sebastian of his own invention, one born from the fruits of his "investigation."


Masks play a confusing yet clearly important role in the novel. First, masks are used metaphorically to represent the idea of disguise or deceit. V. wears a mask for his readers. He disguises his true feelings and motives, possibly even from himself. He tries to play the role of Sebastian's devoted brother, not just to explain his actions to the reader, but also so that he may obtain the information he requires.

Yet not all masks are worn for such unsavory reasons. When Sebastian goes to Cambridge, he attempts to construct a mask for himself out of perfect unexceptionable behavior. But he constantly learns that his mask is far too obvious, and every time he puts it on, he only calls attention to himself.

When V. goes to see Mr. Goodman, Mr. Goodman is wearing a literal mask. V. behaves as if this behavor is ordinary, and needs no explanation, even when Mr. Goodman gives him the mask as he departs. This scene stands out in the novel for its absuridity, and a clear, realistic explanation does not appear. Yet, one might simply view it as a literal reminder, perhaps for the careless reader, that whether or not a mask is apparent, we all wear them from time to time, and really there's nothing to get excited about.


Fame is a delicate subject throughout the book. It is most often treated in an old-fashioned manner, which does not distinguish between "fame" and "infamy." V. notes that Sebastian was completely untouched by the meagre notice of his first book. When his second book brought him literal "success," he behaved as if he wanted it to go away. It is difficult to know whether Sebastian's attitude towards "fame" is a product of his character or his situation. It is clear that Sebastian's health deteriorates as his professional life improves. His intent focus on his work may simply be the result of his knowledge that he has a very limited time in which to produce anything of consequence.

Sebastian's feelings are contrasted first with Clare's and later with the narrator's. Clare wishes Sebastian to glory in his accolades, to mingle with other writers and critics, and generally to enjoy what he has earned. Again, it is difficult to know Clare's motives, though one can assume that they are selfless. Does Clare understand that Sebastian will not live long, and so is determined for him to enjoy life to the fullest while he can? Or is she in denial about his condition, and so wishes to pretend that he has all the time in the world to work?

In contrast, V. seems to take great pride in his brother's success, but he also assumes that his brother "enjoys" his success. When he reads the notice of the release of what will be Sebastian's final book, he pictures his brother surrounded by adoring fans, and he is more jealous than he has ever been of his brother's success. Even when he writes of this scene, fully conscious that Sebastian will die soon after that memory of him, the narrator does not correct his impression of his brother. Furthermore, one of the reasons he claims to be so annoyed by Mr. Goodman's work is that so long as Sebastian Knight's work is read, someone will also continue to read Mr. Goodman's.

Ultimately, Nabokov seems to be suggesting that fame is something one takes pleasure in only for the sake of others. Sebastian could not care about fame, because it seemed a hollow consolation for his impending death. Only Clare and the narrator could find some comfort in the fact that if Sebastian was going to die, at least he enjoyed some recognition, some deserving tribute, while he lived.