The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16-18


Though at first Nina Toorovetz seemed to be the mysterious culprit, V. tells us that he decided that she was far too obvious and common to suit Sebastian's tastes. So V. continued on to the next house and asked to see Madame von Graun. She wasn't in, but he was granted an audience with her friend, Madame Lecerf. Having confirmed that Madame von Graun was Russian, V. chatted with Madame Lecerf, who suggested that Madame von Graun might indeed have been Sebastian's lover, adding that he could see Madame shortly. After learning a bit about Madame von Graun from Madame Lecerf, V. was all the surer that von Graun could be the femme fatale.

Just to be certain, V. sought Lidya Bohemsky as well. He finally tracked her down in a "gloomy looking house not far from the Santé prison." Mademoiselle Bohemsky herself answered the door: "a fat elderly woman with waved bright orange hair, purplish jowls and some dark fluff over her painted lips." V. immediately hurried away.

The next day he awaited Madame von Graun in a sitting room, noting that despite some provincial touches (carnations in a vase, a radio set), Madame von Graun seemed by her accoutrements to be a charming and cultured woman. Madame Lecerf entered with a small, black bulldog and apologetically explained that von Graun would not return for a week. V. asked her to tell him more about her friend, and Madame Lecerf stated that von Graun let out a knowing laugh when told Sebastian's name over the phone. Lecerf further related that she and von Graun had attended the same school in Paris; she continued with an account of von Graun's conquests. She had only ever loved one man, apparently, before marrying a fool and embarking on a series of affairs. Lecerf got V. to tell of how he found her address, laughing all the while at the folly of the Rechnoy's (which shames V., who thinks this ordeal has become too lurid for his taste) before continuing the story of von Graun. Apparently she decided to force an intellectual (whom we are to surmise was Sebastian) to make love to her. She found him insulting and bullying when he did fall for her; she grew bored with his pomposity and took another lover. The intellectual continued to come around, awkwardly jostling with the new lover, until von Graun had a hired boy scare him off.

Now certain that von Graun was the woman, V. arranged to meet her if only to see the sort of woman who could have ruined Sebastian. Madame Lecerf, after offering a mild defense of her friend, invited V. to visit she and von Graun at Lecerf's country house.

V. noted that there was a likeness between the descriptions of Madame von Graun and Nina Rechnoy and wondered whether they were friends at Blauberg. He then sent a letter to Helene von Graun, alluding to some "literary business" between them. A week or so later he boarded the train for Lecerf's and realized that he would pass the town where Sebastian was buried. He soon arrived at Madame Lecerf's house, which was large and somewhat dilapidated (though it was but thirty years old). As he entered he passed a man -- M. Lecerf -- who took his leave.

Madame Lecerf appeared, looking quite pretty, and hurried her visitor along to the train. V. inquired about von Graun's arrival, thus irritating Lecerf. She complained about her critical husband before they continued together to lunch, where they were joined by an old lady and a handsome blond gentleman. Madame Lecerf made no introductions, only aimlessly small-talking V. Finally, V. alluded to his letter to von Graun, the mention of which made Lecerf quite angry. She telephoned von Graun to no avail before changing the subject and leading V. outside for a walk. V. related his brother's death by heart failure, which Lecerf found surprising. While she asked why Sebastian was worth writing a book about -- she, and von Graun too, V. surmises, was obviously ignorant of his literary existence -- a car pulled up. Madame von Graun had arrived.

Though V. was eager to question her, von Graun and Lecerf colluded to avoid him for a few days. Von Graun apparently misunderstood his letter and found it insulting. Lecerf promised to win her friend over. They continued to talk and Lecerf let fall several interesting details. For instance she said, "Once upon a time. . . I kissed a man just because he could write his name upside down." Then she seemed to have a spider on her neck -- which V. remarked in Russian and which she understood, thus proving that Lecerf spoke Russian. These hints built up until finally V. realized that Lecerf had been discussing herself, not von Graun, the whole while. He tells her that he had met her former husband and the cousin who could write upside down. Thus V. left, finally aware that Lecerf had been Nina all the while, and that this was the woman his brother fell for. He determined to send her a copy of the book by way of explanation.

Chapter 18 begins with V. recalling that he had meant to ask Nina whether she had realized that Sebastian was one of the most important writers of his time; he decides that the question would have been worthless, for Sebastian would not have let such women in on his literary accomplishment.

V. then abruptly turns to the last few years of his life, during which Sebastian wrote The Doubtful Asphodel at the British Library and various other places. The premise of the book is that a man is dying. He is the focus of the novel, but unlike the other characters, the reader never gets a clear picture of him. He fades in and out of view. The reader follows many lives as they swell and recede in this man's mind. They learn of his regrets, his mistakes and his fears. The reader seems to experience the slow decay of his body and mind.

Then suddenly Asphodel changes, and it seems "we are on the brink of some absolute truth. . . the truth about death." Every minute it seems that this truth will be revealed, as the narrator digs deeper and deeper into the question of death. Just as it seems the word must be spoken, the narrator hesitates. Should he go this far, should he follow this man into death and reveal the truth? This moment of hesitation is too much. It is over and the man is dead, the truth still unrevealed. And yet one is left feeling that the truth is there, buried somewhere in one of the last passages, if only one reads carefully enough. V. remembers the day he learned of The Doubtful Asphodel. He read an announcement of its pending publication in the newspaper, and for a moment he envied his brother more than ever. He could not help but picture him standing in a room full of admirers, happy and confident in his success. V. decided to get the book as soon as it was published, though this was something he always did, and when he went to his business meeting, he asked his companion whether he had read any of Sebastian Knight's books. The man replied casually that he had read a few, but that he hand't liked them very much. He commented that Knight's books frustrated one without making one think. Following that comment, V. bungled the business meeting.

Though Asphodel received very good reviews, there were hints as to some confusion about the position of the author, some suggestions that he was growing old and tired. The narrator wondered what Sebastian thought. After failing to recover a copy he loaned to a friend, the narrator bought another and did not lend it out. It is his favorite of Sebastian's books.


V. does not come out well in this section. It begins with his determination that Nina could not have attracted his brother -- which we learn by the by is false, Nina attracts Sebastian and V. both -- and follows through a series of mild humiliations until V. finally cracks the mystery and sees Nina's true identity. V.'s relationship with Nina, flirtatious and obscure, gives rise to far more questions than answers. His need to defend Sebastian's memory from Nina's clutches perhaps suggests that he sees Nina as an embodiment of the kind of woman who ruined her father -- he wishes to save Sebastian, even if only the memory of Sebastian, from similar ruin. Or perhaps he is simply struck by the injustice that Nina could have fallen for a man like Pahl Pahlich but not for a literary genius like Sebastian. Then of course there is the possibility that V. has staged the whole thing -- that he wished to control Nina's identity to suit his purposes, a license that, as a writer, he possesses. He certainly mirrors Sebastian's temptation and his own; both brothers succumb, to a greater or lesser degree, to Nina's tempting ways. Perhaps V. wishes to present this as further evidence of his similarity to Sebastian. All in all, Nabokov gives us a literary puzzle of sorts that opens up speculation about the inadequacy of such puzzles. The puzzle is even more puzzling, that is to say, when it is solved.

And to pile puzzle on top of puzzle: who really cares about this mystery, aside from V.? The whole mystery, which has been moving along at a good clip for several chapters now, adds up to nothing more than an exposure of V.'s own anxieties -- about his mother, about his relationship with Sebastian, about his national and linguistic heritage. It promised to "solve" the problem of Sebastian's existence (at least, V. behaved as though it held this promise; the careful reader has been wary of the "puzzle" from the start, suspecting its irrelevant nature all along) but it ends up inviting confusion.

It's fitting, by the way, that the "clue" to Nina's exposure is linguistic -- her use of Russian. Language throughout the book has been tied to identity, and Nina's denial of Russian works as a mask of sorts, relieving her of her Russianness (and thus deflecting V.'s suspicion). Yet, as V. puts it, "language is a live physical thing which cannot so easily be dismissed." Nina's Russian, like Sebastian's, is deeply seated in her life; it allows a peek into her real identity despite her desire to mask herself. Nabokov is perhaps suggesting, more generally, the degree to which our language determines our being. We are what we say, what we have said, who we have said things to and with. Attempts to deny the person that language has made us to be will thus probably fail.

Having solved the mystery, V. seems uncertain how to proceed. One is reminded of his earlier confession that he had taken a writing course to prepare for this project. While he had a purpose for his research and his writing, the narrator strode ahead, always confident of the next step. Now that his goal is once again murky, he retreats the security of the written word -- once again he talks about Sebastian's books. After the confidence and panache of the middle "mystery" chapters, V. is back in uncertain territory.

Sebastian's last book is about human death. V. is at his most eloquent in his summary of the book, as he if he has fully taken over his brother's persona. The reader might become entranced by V.'s rhythmic sentences, waiting as Sebastian's readers did for that one truth to be revealed. However, once again V. unconsciously undermines his credibility when he recalls learning of the impending publication of this book. He recalls that he imagined his brother standing in a room full of admirers, swept up in the happiness of his success. Though he notes that his brother was actually miserable and ill at the time, somehow he seems jealous of even this imagined moment of happiness. This slightly envious tone continues as the narrator explains that this is his favorite of all of Sebastian's books. Knowing what we now know about Sebastian's frame of mind about the contents of the book and while writing it, it is difficult to imagine how V., who claims to feel so much love for his brother, could read it without sharing his brother's misery.