The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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The reader does not learn the first and last names of the narrator; Nabokov later writes to his biographer Andrew Field that "V stands for Victor." Three interpretations have been proposed regarding the relationship between the narrator and his subject – that V and SK are meant to be distinct persons, that SK invented V, and that V invented SK – and all of them seem possible.[2]

There are chess themes abound, as seen in names (Knight, Bishop), direct descriptions, references to black and white, and "moves" made by people. (Nina) Rechnoy's name is an anagram of "chernoy" (Russian for "black") and her birthname is Toorovetz (Russian "tura" for rook). When V encounters her husband Pavel Rechnoy, the latter is playing a chess game with his cousin; V therefore refer to the two men as "Black" and "White". The hospital where SK dies is located in the fictitious French town "Saint Damier" (damier is French for checkerboard). Themes and aspects of SK's books are worked into V's narration.

Through biographical research and SK's books, V comes to trace, understand and repeat the "moves" (in the chess sense) made by his sibling. As an academic project transformed into what Charles Kinbote would call "the monstrous semblance of a novel," Sebastian Knight operates as a kind of trial run of the author's later novel Pale Fire.

The novel contains biographical aspects that later are seen in Speak, Memory, including the birth and upbringing in St. Petersburg, the flight from revolutionary Russia, the untimely death of the father, living as an expatriate in England/ France, a visit to a Swiss governess, and the change from writing in Russian to English. And just as V has a complex relationship with his brother, Nabokov has also a complicated relationship to his brother Sergey.


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