Summary of Chapters One and Two
The first-person narrator, V., the half-brother of the lately deceased famous author, Sebastian Knight, begins to write his brother's biography. Sebastian was born on December 31, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. From the diary of an old Russian lady V.knows the day of Sebastian's birth was twelve below zero. The diarist's name was Olga OlegnovaOrlova, “an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold” (Chpt. 1, p. 5).
V. fleshes out her brief description of a Russian winter day with his own memories of sledges in the snow and the gold of a church cupola “dimmed by the bloom of powdery frost” (p. 6).V. was born in the same house as Sebastian six years later. The boys had the same father. He remarried after divorcing Sebastian's mother when she deserted their family.
The father was a warm-hearted soldier, and it is from him, V. believes, Sebastian got his energetic writing style. V. remembers their father rushing into a room and “immediately pouncing upon a thing he wanted or a creature he loved” (Chpt. 1, p. 7). In Italy, their father met the English lady, Virginia Knight, and married her over the objections of his aristocratic Russian family.
It was not a happy marriage, for Virginia was restless and ran off with another man when Sebastian was four. Their father remarried in 1905 (V.'s mother), but Virginia reappeared in 1908, asking to see her son Sebastian. The second wife took Sebastian to a hotel to see his mother for the last time. She gave Sebastian sugar-coated violets, then died of heart failure (Lehmann's disease) in France the next year (which will be the cause of Sebastian's early death).
Sebastian's father lived happily as a family with his second wife and their son, V., and Sebastian. In 1912, however, he found out the name of the man who ran off with his first wife (Palchin) and challenged him to a duel. In the duel with Palchin, Sebastian's father was killed. V. never understood why his father insisted on defending his honor or Virginia's honor since it was in the past and irrelevant.
V. begins to criticize Mr. Goodman, Sebastian's secretary, for the shoddy and false biography he wrote about Sebastian immediately after his death just to make money. Goodman is English and does not understand Sebastian's Russian heart the way V. does. V. explains, “Sebastian was brought up in an atmosphere of intellectual refinement, blending the spiritual grace of a Russian household with the very best treasures of European culture” (Chpt. 2, pp. 15,16). Sebastian was always distant and solitary, and V. tried to make his older brother notice him in vain.
One day, V. discovered Sebastian's secret drawer, containing his early poems and the bag of violets his mother gave him. He signed his poems with the picture of a black chess knight. The poems were written in English because the boys had lessons at home. Sebastian never forgot his English mother or that his father died for her. In one of his novels, Sebastian records the incident where he took a trip to the continent and found the place his mother had died. It was a pension named Les Violettes in Provence. In the garden there, he felt his mother's ghostly presence and fainted. He later found out that he was at the wrong pension, in the wrong town. The biographer Mr. Goodman quotes this passage from Sebastian's first novel as an example of his sense of humor, whereas V. reads between the lines and knows what an emotional experience it was for Sebastian's Russian heart. His search for his mother failed.
In 1936 V. went to Lausanne to find their old Swiss governess. He tried to prod facts of their childhood from her, but her memories are distorted, and he does not recognize anything she says. She never knew Sebastian had become a great writer or was recently dead.
Commentary on Chapters One and Two
The book is called the “real” life of Sebastian Knight, because, as V., his half-brother, begins to establish, no one seems to know the real Sebastian, even the people who had contact with him. Sebastian is the reclusive and private poet in another world. V. also wants to point out that his English secretary, Mr. Goodman, is not qualified to write the biography he publishes immediately on Sebastian's death. He consistently distorts the author's feelings and motives, reading English behavior or his own dull secretarial mind into this delicate Russian soul.
V. portrays Sebastian as a Doctor Zhivago type, drunk on the beauty and sorrow and irony of the world around him. Sebastian is obviously wounded by the early death of his mother and carries around the violets she gave him. It is both satire and pathos that Sebastian faints at the wrong house while looking for his mother. Nabokov partly parodies a romantic biography of an author, but also shows life as a tragic affair where people seem constantly to miss and misplace one another, as V. misses being at his brother's deathbed in the end. Passages are quoted from Sebastian's novels throughout this book to show his unusual mind and poetic style. Although the character of V. tries to put himself in the background, saying he is only a poor businessman who has had to take English lessons in order to write the biography, it is V. who best represents his brother with his own beautiful descriptions of Russia and Sebastian's childhood. In fact, as it will be shown, V. is a double for Sebastian, and for Nabokov himself. V. is free to speak for the spirit of Sebastian, and in this pilgrimage of his to find the truth of his brother's life, he becomes a poet also.
For instance, V. says that he is not going to give a systematic portrait of Sebastian. Instead, he gives a few poignant and vivid memories. Sebastian comes to him “in a few bright patches” (Chpt. 2, p. 18);V.'s Russian soul matches Sebastian's in describing St. Petersburg or their father. V.'s biography is always vivid but not told directly or chronologically. It is refracted through many mirrors, images, memories, and through the phrases of Sebastian's books, and the interviews of people who knew him. V. is always trying to catch up to his brother and discover who he was.
Just as V. can only describe elusive images of Sebastian, Sebastian similarly seems to travel through life on one poetic impression after another. V. quotes from a novel the brilliant sensory description of a train where Sebastian sees “'the passing glimpse of a lone woman touching silver-bright things in her travelling-case on the blue plush of a lighted compartment'” (Chpt. 1, p. 10). This vivid image could be a film shot with its sparse visual details and perfect color and lighting. Nabokov is known for such lyrical description.
Though a fictional character, Sebastian is also an autobiographical sketch of Nabokov. Nabokov loves color, sound, and wordplay. This explains why he whimsically includes the name of the Russian diarist on the first page, Olga OlegnovaOrlova, “an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold” (Chpt. 1, p. 5). Nabokov was also an expert at chess, the reason he chose the name “Knight” for his character and his signature of a chess knight at the end of his poems. On the chessboard, a knight moves indirectly, leaping in an L-shape, explaining the moves of both the character through his life, and V., as he tries to follow him in the biography.