Identity and Consciousness
A main theme of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is identity. Who was or is Sebastian Knight? The biographer, Mr. Goodman, and the painter, Roy Carswell, try to interpret Knight from a few impressions they have derived from the way they read his books and from external contact. V., the narrator, interviews a number of people from Sebastian's past to get helpful hints for his own biography. He finds that either they do not remember him at all, like the Swiss governess, or else they distort the facts through their own point of view and motives, like Mr. Goodman. Clare may have been the one person who could have illuminated Sebastian's character, but V. has almost no contact with her. She was mostly involved with his literary efforts and no doubt has no clue about his motives for the affair with the Russian woman. V. feels he is the only qualified person to write the biography, because first of all, he shared Sebastian's background, and secondly, in a strange way, he shares his consciousness. A soul or consciousness is not something owned by an individual, V. asserts: “any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls” (Chpt. 20, p. 204).
If one takes “V.” as standing for Vladimir, then Nabokov invents him as a fictitious witness for his own life and feeling. The above quotation from the end of the novel also asserts that anyone with sufficient desire and consciousness can follow out the consciousness of another life. V. satirizes people like Goodman and Nina as having insufficient desire or awareness to look into Sebastian's life. V. says, as Sebastian's brother, or as one who is harmonized to Sebastian's consciousness like a twin, he can piece together his real life from a few facts, incidents, and impressions. He will be able to deliver Sebastian whole. The challenge is also to the reader's consciousness to read him whole. He points out the biography is a combination of writer, reader, and subject. Unless all three come together in harmony, much will be missed.
V. (as Vladimir Nabokov) takes the part of all: writer, ideal reader, and subject. He quotes fictitious passages from Sebastian's novels that elucidate his life or opinions. He often shows how Goodman or critics have misconstrued these passages. Nabokov, like other modernist writers (James Joyce, Marcel Proust) is interested in the play of consciousness and memory in one's life. He shows human consciousness as able to rise above and transform circumstance through art. Carswell's portrait, showing Sebastian looking narcissistically into a pool to contemplate his own thoughts, is a criticism of this type of art. V. tries to justify it at the end of the book, in the above quotation, where he shows that Sebastian's act of writing is a sharing of consciousness. He is not trying to run away. In following his brother, V. receives the revelation of Sebastian's life that he wanted to get at his deathbed. Anyone can get the same revelation if they have the desire, he implies. Therefore, perhaps any reader could say as V. does, “Thus—I am Sebastian Knight” (Chpt. 20, p. 205). Sebastian can only be reconstructed in the reader's consciousness.
Time, Fate, and Chance
Though Sebastian is born to privilege in old Russia, he has his share of hard times and difficulties. Nabokov does not dwell on the politics of the Russian Revolution, nor does his character, Sebastian Knight. We get glimpses that he shared the turmoil of other Russians, with the execution of the family friend, Belov, the loss of the family estate, the mother selling her jewels for Sebastian's tuition at Cambridge, and the assertion by Sebastian that he would rather be in exile than a slave at home. Nabokov was keenly aware of the sudden changes of fortune that could occur out of the blue. He himself had been rich as a young man for less than a year before the Revolution dissolved his wealth, land, and position. He had to start over as a literary intellectual in England. The assassination of his father haunted him as a sort of fated accident, where his father was killed, instead of the man the assassins were after. Many of the incidents in Sebastian's life have an unreal nightmarish quality like this. Sebastian's father dies in a duel when it is unnecessary and irrelevant. His mother wanders around France alone dying of heart disease, as Sebastian himself will do. Sebastian suddenly leaves Clare though he is happy, and he is prevented from meeting her again, even though they were on a direct path to see one another at the bookstore. It looks like chance, but Sebastian writes his novel, Success, trying to map out these chance movements as part of a larger pattern of fate.
Goodman accuses Sebastian of copying Proust. He refers to Marcel Proust's (1871–1922) masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time on the relationship of time and memory. Nabokov does not mind acknowledging the influence of Proust; he shows Sebastian's ability to reconstruct the past from sharp impressions he gathered with his sensitive soul. Though exiled from Russia, he can still recall the landscapes of his youth, and this sustains him. The mystery of moving through time, however, is an experience of constant loss. Sebastian's book, Lost Property, speaks of the things and people he has lost along the way. V. is frustrated as he becomes a detective of the past, trying to reconstruct Sebastian's life. After some failures, he feels his efforts are “Hopeless gropings among dissolving things. Why was the past so rebellious?” (Chpt. 13, p. 125) The best V. can do are “the few bright patches” from the image of Sebastian, “some erratic visitor passing across a lighted room” (Chpt. 2, p. 18). Sebastian himself worries in his novel The Prismatic Bezel about the present evaporating instantly into the past: “I cannot bear that backward glide into the past. That last kiss is already dead”(Chpt. 10, p. 99).
Art and Language
Art seems to be the only solution to the effects of time and fate and changing identity. It is impossible to keep up with one's own life when it becomes the past tense immediately (”I cannot bear that backward glide into the past. That last kiss is already dead'”). Art and language, on the other hand, are able to resurrect life. V., for instance, does not feel obliged to put Sebastian's life into chronological order. He feels one can learn more from juxtaposing conflicting scenes, moments, and values or flashes that illuminate the whole person. He tries an experiment to see what he can learn from putting Sebastian's first love for Natasha next to his last love for Nina. Perhaps Sebastian was unable to stay with Clare because he was too happy, and she was too normal and English. He speaks of their love as losing its concentration and becoming plain and nebulous. He and Clare are too alike, two sides to one penny. Natasha and Nina are Russian, and these are not happy affairs. V. quotes Sebastian as saying in a novel, “this pang, this pathos, this fatality which clings to love” (Chpt. 12, p. 113). Tragic love, as opposed to domestic love, was at least a stimulus, and it was apparently something that drove him to write. Is Goodman right then—Sebastian escaped from life in his writing?
Nabokov puts forth rather the modernist idea that language and art can intensify life and preserve its higher value. As a poet, Sebastian valued beauty in the world, and the beauty of art. Music, painting, and poetry are mentioned throughout the book. The beauty of the natural world is captured in the visual and sound imagery in poetry and fiction. Like many artists, Sebastian scorns the ordinary and the mundane. His soul cries out for the extraordinary, which is hard to come by in the world, except in the arts or nature. At Cambridge, for instance, the magic of what he expected disappears into the college campus scene of undergraduates with their gross ways and partying. Sebastian has two sides to him, the English side from his mother, and the Russian side from his father. They account for some of his contradictions.
Contradictions are a problem in life but not in art. Sebastian has fantastic associations in his perceptions which cannot communicate to others but become the stuff of his finest art. V. points out that language is a live and physical thing that can clothe the living thought of the poet. After Sebastian finishes a novel, he explains he has built a new world in language. V. says that imagination is the muscle of the soul. Language is thus able to preserve the unique soul and consciousness of Sebastian, made available to an equally sensitive reader. Imagination goes beyond the obvious and sentimental to find the ultimate truth humans can know. V. asserts that Sebastian found the answer to life's riddle in his last book as he was dying: he learns his life was “not an accidental assembly of natural phenomena . . . [life is] a coherent sentence” (Chpt.18, p. 178, 179). Life is compared to the act of writing itself, a way to find and make meaning. Language can transcend and undo time and space, and thus, Sebastian claimed art and religion and science could join hands. Nabokov is thinking of the human ability to use symbols to push into the unknown, as he himself did with his creative writing, his chess problems, and his scientific research on butterflies.