“It is one thing to be an author's secretary, it is quite another to set down an author's life; and if such a task is prompted by the desire to get one's book into the market while the flowers on the grave may still be watered with profit, it is still another matter to try to combine commercial haste with exhaustive research, fairness and wisdom” (Chpt. 2, p. 15).
The narrator, V., is always harping on Mr. Goodman's bad and hasty biography, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, as full of error, prejudice, and the desire to make money on the fame of his employer He, on the other hand, tries to do justice to Sebastian's inner life.
“Sebastian's constant aloofness . . . never allowed my affection either recognition or food” (Chpt. 2, p. 18).
V. paints a portrait of his brother as solitary and constantly observant and reflective, as writers frequently are, instead of interested in social interaction. V. genuinely loves Sebastian and Sebastian is generous to him, but they do not spend much time together.
“'I cannot help thinking that he will always remain an enigma'” (Chpt. 3, p. 31).
V.'s mother, Sebastian's stepmother, remarks to V. that even though she raised Sebastian from boyhood, she still does not know him or understand his motives.
“The slush of streets gleaming wet in the misty darkness with its promised counterpoint—a cup of strong tea and a generous fire—formed a harmony which somehow he knew by heart” (Chpt. 5, p. 43).
V. describes Sebastian's love of England and how he looked forward to being a student at Cambridge, as if it were all familiar to him. This is also an example of the many poetic descriptions Nabokov likes to write.
“Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale. Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?” (Chpt. 6, p. 52)
This points out Nabokov's interest in metafiction, or fiction about the act of making and interpreting a story. Even though V. criticizes Mr. Goodman's erroneous account of his brother's life, he reminds that no account can be perfectly accurate because of the differences between the individual point of view of writer, reader, and subject.
“The Lethean Library, for all its incalculable volumes, is, I know, sadly incomplete without Mr. Goodman's effort” (Chpt. 7, p. 61).
This satirical comment by the narrator, V., is one of many against Goodman's clumsy and inaccurate biography of Sebastian Knight. The river Lethe, in classical mythology, was a river of forgetfulness in hell that made one forget the previous life. V. wishes to say the book deserves oblivion.
“'. . . in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day . . .This state of constant wakefulness was extremely painful . . .'” (Chpt. 7, p. 67).
V. quotes Sebastian's book Lost Property in which he confesses to having a wide-awake associative ability of the mind that never slept. Colors, sights, and sounds, along with old memories, were constantly recombining in his mind in a creative slide show that was only pleasant when he was alone or writing. It was a handicap when he tried to be with others.
“. . . she was one of those rare, very rare women who do not take the world for granted and who see everyday things not merely as familiar mirrors of their own femininity. She had imagination—the muscle of the soul . . .” (Chpt. 9, p. 83).
V. describes Clare Bishop, who became Sebastian's perfect companion and shared his literary interests and creative efforts. This could be a description of Nabokov's own wife, Vera, who was his literary helpmate.
“There seems to have been a law of some strange harmony in the placing of a meeting relating to Sebastian's first adolescent romance in such close proximity to the echoes of his last darkest love. Two modes of his life question each other and the answer is his life itself, and that is the nearest one ever can approach a human truth” (Chpt. 14, p. 137).
V. does not try to explain why Sebastian threw away his happiness with Clare to be miserable with Nina. There is no real explanation. He feels, however, that juxtaposing a scene about his first love in the Russian countryside with his last love as he is dying, exposes the fact that Sebastian was alive, and life is full of contradiction. The passage shows Nabokov's love of poetry, for poetry does not explain; it illuminates. Sebastian is a romantic, always looking for something, restless, and never satisfied. We see this in his youth and in his time before death. The woman stands for that something he seeks.
“Her idea of life was drinking cocktails, and eating a large supper at four o'clock in the morning, and dancing the shimmy or whatever it was called, and inspecting brothels because that was fashionable among Parisian snobs, and buying expensive clothes . . .” (Chpt. 15, p. 146).
Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy, the first husband of Nina (Helene von Graun) describes the shallow woman Sebastian fell in love with at the end of his life. Sebastian had always loathed this type of woman, but even V. is almost seduced by her, because of her charming intelligence.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Top Ten Quotes