The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Nabokov: Writing Art

As well as being celebrated around the world as one of the greatest writers of his generation, Nabokov developed a concise theory of art through his lectures on Russian and English Literature. In 1980 he published Lectures on Literature, followed by Lectures on Russian Literature in 1981. Though his theory was not without its critics, Nabokov was widely respected for his original readings, carefully constructed arguments, and sympathetic analysis of other writers. Furthermore, it is clear that Nabokov held his own writing to the same standard.

In Nabokov's lecture on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, he praises the work because "Contrast and unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated." Throughout the lecture he carefully analyzes the structure of the plot and demonstrates how it supports the themes and ideas Kafka wished to express.

Two significant general ideas can be gleaned from this argument. First, Nabokov stressed that novels are constructed. Plots and themes are not free-flowing bursts of inspiration intended to be perfect reflections of reality. Consequently, Nabokov feels free to blur the lines between reality and fantasy in all of his books. As he says, "From my point of view, any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual."

Second, Nabokov clearly makes mention of the idea of authorial intention, and evaluates whether a work has been successful or not based what the author originally intended to do. Though it has since become fashionable to pretend total disinterest in such thing as authorial intentions, the purpose of Nabokov's analysis was to evaluate the unity of a piece of work. The difference between this notion and a cheapified version of authorial intent is that Nabokov did not connect his writing to his own personal life (though the narrator certainly does some of this to Sebastian Knight), and does not encourage his students to worry about how author's plots resonate with their own private tragedies. He dismisses Freudian interpretation and has no interest in whether, for example, the family in The Metamorphosis might have any bearing on Kafka's relationship to his own family. Despite his clear view on this matter, critics have not hesitated to practice biographical criticism on Nabokov himself. (Many have connected the narrator's investigation into the life of Sebastian Knight to the relationship between Nabokov and his brother Sergei, who was killed in a German concentration camp.)

There is little in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to support this kind of biographical reading and much to undermine it. Sebastian Knight bears certain important similarities to Nabokov as an author, and so this novel is often read as a means of understanding what Nabokov wished to accomplish with his novels. Yet in Sebastian Knight, Nabokov provides far more examples of what not to do as a critic or novelist than what one ought to do. Most strikingly, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the narrator repeatedly uses biographical interpretation to support views of Sebastian's life through his works. He uses a love letter in Lost Property to try and explain Sebastian's feelings for Clare. He quotes passages from multiple texts to support his belief that Sebastian felt a real nostalgia for the Russia of his childhood. Ultimately, his analyses are uninteresting and inconclusive. Given this failure as an example, it seems clear that Nabokov felt little need to use his books to work out his own familial issues.

Understanding Nabokov as a literary critic, and recognizing the systematic attention and care he devoted to the art of writing, encourages the reader to subject Nabokov's work to close scrutiny and careful reading. Intricately constructed and dense with imagery, symbolism, and hidden patterns, Nabokov's novels stand up to the greatest attention on the part of a reader.