Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Reading Notes: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

As you may have gathered from seeing some of the photos I've been posting lately, I am sorting through files for material that I had set aside or forgotten about. Maybe I'm searching for the place where I lost the thread that will lead my out of the labyrinth. Maybe I'm just trying to impose a sense of order on my "archives", which have truly gotten out of hand in the past half decade of emotional and, to some extent, emotional paralysis. Either way, I hope to get inspiration to resume projects that have been lying dormant, such as the idea of keeping regular notes on the reading I do, whether for pleasure or work (which are really the same thing for me, since I do love what I work on).

I found this entry about a book that profoundly affected me during my second year in Tucson. It's difficult -- and rather painful -- to put myself back in the mental space of that summer, before I had the semester from hell in the fall, which set my professional life on a downward course, and the disillusionment that beset me the following spring. But I remember the novel well enough to know that I can still stand by my words. It has actually been a while since I approached the analysis of literature in this way, since I teach mostly new media these days, so it's good to be reminded that I undertook this task on my own back then, without any pedagogical or professional reason. Anyway, here it is:
Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)

(New York: Vintage, 1992)

Thursday, July 25, 2002

This was Nabokov’s first book in English. I began reading it last summer as preparation for teaching Pale Fire in my undergrad postmodernism class, but only this week mustered the energy to read the last fifty or so pages.

But I liked it a lot. It’s another one of those faux author books (not unlike Pale Fire, of course) in which the narrator relates his search for information about his recently deceased half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight, who was, like the narrator, born and raised in Russia, but emigrated to England and became a writer of beautiful prose in a second language. . . just like Nabokov.

The writing is really beautiful, particularly in the lyrical passages (including those tour de force bits where Nabokov has his narrator “quote” from Knight’s novels). Here’s a nice sentence from early in the novel, picked mostly at random:
“I could perhaps describe the way he walked, or laughed or sneezed, but all that would be no more than sundry bits of cinema-film cut away by scissors and having nothing in common with the essential drama (16).”
These details, in other words, are, if not for the birds, then at least for the cutting-room floor, as the trope goes.

When the narrator looks through the possessions Knight has left behind, he gets a glimpse into his half-brother’s attitude towards language:
Between some legal documents I found a slip of paper on which he had begun to write a story -- there was only one sentence, stopping short but it gave me the opportunity of observing the queer way Sebastian had -- in the process of writing -- of not striking the words which he had replaced by others, so that, for instance, the phrase I encountered ran thus: “As he a heavy A heavy sleeper, Roger Rogerson, old Rogerson bought old Rogers bought, so afraid Being a heavy sleeper, old Rogers was so afraid of missing to-morrows. He was a heavy sleeper. . . ” (37)
The “found” sentence reads almost like Beckett. I really like the way it gives us both insight into Knight’s character and a sense of distance between him and our narrator.

The end of the novel is, of course, much fresher in my mind. I know from reading Nabokov’s later comments that he took a dim view of psychoanalysis. Yet the passage in which the narrator describes the dream he had right before Knight’s death shows a lot of overlap with Freud, though with a pretty sharp turn away from the idea that every part of a dream is laden with massy portent:
I was sitting on a crate or something, and my mother was also in the room, and there were two more persons drinking tea at the table round which we were seated -- a man from my office and his wife, both of whom Sebastian had never known, and who had been placed there by the dream-manager -- just because anybody would do to fill the stage (185)
For Freud, of course, the “dream-manager” would be understood in relation to the unconscious. It’s not clear that we’re dealing with a person or a thing here, but it’s certainly possible to conjecture the latter. The dream, incidentally, goes on for several pages, giving a really good feel for the sudden shifts in narrative and character that occur in dream life.

The conclusion of the book turns on a “reading” of Knight’s last novel, The Doubtful Asphodel, itself about a dying man. The narrator’s dream, coming on the heels of a discussion of the novel, reprises the theme of a last word that promises to reveal everything. The feeling is very similar to the one you get reading the description of being on the verge of revelation in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, particularly the scene with the dying sailor. And, since Pynchon took at least one course with Nabokov at Cornell I believe, it wouldn’t be remiss to read that scene in Pynchon’s novel as a reference to Nabokov.

At any rate, the description of the end of the dream, which parallels the end of Knight’s last novel, has a truly wonderful sentence that captures the essence of the problem:
I know that the common pebble you find in your fist after having thrust your arm shoulder deep into water, where a jewel seemed to gleam on pale sand, is really the coveted gem, though it looks like a pebble as it dries in the sun of the everyday (188)
Water here seems to stand in for the artistic medium in two senses. It changes the color and appearance of the pebble. But the pebble wouldn’t look the same in a plastic cup of water, either. It’s what the water does to the light hitting the pebble, the distance it puts between us and what we desire, that makes the pebble really shine. The abstract implications of the metaphor aside, I just love the way it captures something we’ve all experienced as disappointment and then turns it back into delight.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

When he learns that his brother is near death, the narrator boards an overnight train for Paris. His description of the limbo between sleep and wakefulness is great. I especially liked this part:

The train moved on again. My spine ached, my bones were leaden. I tried to shut my eyes and to doze, but my eyelids were lined with floating designs -- and a tiny bundle of light, rather like an infusoria, swam across, starting again from the same corner. I seemed to recognize in it the shape of the station lamp which had passed by long ago (192)
The part about seeing those designs with eyes closed reminds me of being a little kid, shutting my eyes tightly and looking towards the light in order to see those patterns. The last bit does a great job of capturing the sensation of detecting the passage of lights in series out the train window, while trying to sleep.

The last paragraph of the novel provides some resolution, though I found it a little unsatisfying. But the conclusion definitely typifies Nabokov’s game-playing with the notion of authorship:
I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a light stage, with the people he knew coming and going… And then the masquerade draws to a close. The bald little prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. They all go back to their everyday life (and Clare goes back to her grave) -- but the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows (203).
It might be a good idea to revisit this novel sometime soon, since I often mention it in conversation and also have a suspicion that it could provide insight into the way I used to view the construction of identity and, to some extent, continue to do so. And it would be nice to rekindle the sense of awe I had when first encountering the book, realizing that it was Nabokov's first novel in English.

I should also note, rereading these reading notes, that the way I read the book, with most of it finished during the summer of 2001 and the rest in the summer of 2002, suggests that, as in other areas of my life, I felt the need to bridge the vast chasm that September 11th, 2001 opened up in my psyche. I was the same person, a year later, but entirely different.
Tags: archive, blogging, reading notes, retrouvé

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