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Issue Vol.X, issue 2 (25.) L'auteur et son imaginaire: l'élaboration de la singularité / The author and his imaginary: the development of particularity

A Conjuror's smile: Vladimir Nabokov in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Author: Irina Marchesini
Published: June 2009

Abstract (E): V., a minor businessman in Marseilles , is trying to write a faithful biography about his prematurely deceased brother, the poet Sebastian Knight. A kaleidoscopic, multicoloured gallery of characters hovers about his hopeless search; by using these masks, together with the exploitation of some metafictional devices, as the mise en abyme, Nabokov manages to create a hypnotic yet elusive image of himself inside his novel.

Abstract (F): V., un petit marchand de Marseille, est en train d’écrire une biographie fidèle de son frère prématurément disparu : le poète Sebastian Knight. Dans sa recherche sans espoir il voit flotter une galérie kaléidoscopique et multicolore de personnages ; à travers l’utilisation de ces masques et de certains procédés métanarratifs comme la mise en abyme, Nabokov réussit à inscrire, à l’intérieur du roman, une image de soi aussi hypnotique que fuyante.

keywords:Metafictional characters, Vladimir Nabokov, Mise en abyme, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Self-consciousness

To cite this article:
Marchesini, I., A Conjuror's smile: Vladimir Nabokov in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], Vol.X, issue 2 (2009).


“Stop moping!” she would cry: “Look at the harlequins!”
“What harlequins? Where?”
“Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins.
So are situations
and sums. Put two things together – jokes, images –
and you get a triple harlequin.
Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!”


He hoped, furthermore, that Sebastian – whoever that was –
Might still be coming for the grape season or lavender gala.

(Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!)



See under real


The real life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Vladimir Nabokov’s first English novel, shows an unusually complex and articulated architecture set up between the author and his puppets, his characters. It will be therefore appealing to investigate how the writer uses some particular devices and effects in order to create his own image inside the book.


A careful analysis of Nabokov’s novel, which already carries all the main features of his writings, will show the fundamental importance of this topic, not only in order to gain a better understanding of the book, but also in the perspective of the self-conscious novel genre study.


Nothing has to be taken for granted with an author like Nabokov. His witty nature can be found even in the first half of the novel’s title: “The real life”. In fact, already from the first pages, a careful reader notices that what he is reading doesn’t meet his expectations: the book is not about Sebastian Knight’s biography. Rather than this, The real life of Sebastian Knight deals with V.’s attempt to write his brother’s biography, an artist that died just before completing his last novel, the fictitious biography of Mr. H. The narrator is not an artist at all: he’s just a minor businessman. Apparently he decides to write this biography in order to discredit Sebastian’s secretary, Mr Goodman, who started writing a book on his life before his death.


The confusion of ontological levels, especially in the play with the protagonists and other characters enriches the narrative’s texture creating a hell of mirrors. The reading becomes much more engaging: it is extremely difficult to untie all the knots made of connections, similarities, cross-references. On these grounds I decide to narrow down my path concentrating only on characters, rather than on some other elements which can help Nabokov in the process of creation of his own image inside the book.


It is important though not to muddle up the character with the real, physical writer. Characters are only the writer’s creation; for this reason I’ll adopt Booth’s term “implied author” when referring to Nabokov’s figure inside the text.


The use of characters in Nabokov’s The real life of Sebastian Knight is threefold: sometimes the implied author employs the protagonists, V. and Sebastian, sometimes he uses masks that have the specific task of acting in his stead. In other instances he manoeuvres some characters, especially the secondary ones, which display marked traits of bidimensionality: this is the case of the first person interviewed by the narrator, an old Russian woman.



I. Egg-like alliterations


Olga Olegovna Orlova has got no particular function in the plot: she doesn’t help V. in his quest for knowledge, being incapable of giving precise hints, and she doesn’t perform any action in the novel. Apart from learning that she is an old Russian lady who kept a diary in the past, there is no information about any other particular of her physical appearance or temper; in this sense it is possible to consider her as a bidimensional character.


For unknown reasons she even doesn’t want V. to disclose her identity; the narrator is not of the same opinion, so he reveals that “[h]er name was and is Olga Olegovna Orlova - an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold.” (5). Besides its evident sound peculiarities, this name conceals some images and meanings that deserve to be mentioned.


On a graphic level, it is evident that the first letter in each noun is “O”; this “egg-like” shape could also be read as a number, zero. This detail acquires more importance in relation to the context in which it is placed: the beginning of the text, which is, in a certain sense, the origin of the book. It must have been in Nabokov’s intention to mention, through Orlova’s diary, that Sebastian was born on one fine winter day, with twelve degrees below zero. This dense web of references and interpretations could be complicated even more, as Jane Zwart suggests in her “Nabokov’s primer: letters and numbers in The real life of Sebastian Knight”. Here, while widely discussing the importance of letters and numbers in the novel, she gets to the conclusion that in Olga’s empty monogram “each (…) letter is a circle around [Sebastian’s] non-existence”. (220)


A fundamental intuition on this matter comes from an article by Alexandr Vladimirovič Ledeneu, “ Англоязычный дебют Набокова ” (“Nabokov’s English debut”). According to Ledeneu, these three letters form the scheme of a chess move, the so-called “castling”, in its long variant: O-O-O. This observation raises a central question in the novel, which has already been discussed from different point of view by some critics like Janet K. Gezari and W.K. Wimsatt (“Vladimir Nabokov: More Chess Problems and the Novel”): the importance of chess.


So far the discussion has been centred on graphic and technical aspects; nevertheless it is possible to find other meanings in the old woman’s name. Boyd argues that Olga reminds of a princess of the Russian Kiev’s state, which lived between 890 and 969 D.C. (note to Novels and memoirs, 675). Her patronymic is significant too: Olegovna, meaning “Oleg’s daughter”, again carries the flavour of ancient time, since Oleg was prince of the Kiev ’s state. An eagle, symbol of Russia , can be found in the surname Orlova, that comes from the Russian “ орёл ” (“ orel ”).


Plays on surnames are frequent in The real life of Sebastian Knight; leaving Sebastian aside for the moment, Mr Goodman and the old doctor Starov can be regarded as good examples. In particular, Starov has got an abounding name: in Russian старый -staryi means old, therefore the old doctor old. This character shares with Olga Olegovna Orlova his two-dimensional nature: as per the old woman, he is only sketched. The only important things the reader should know are that after meeting him by chance he became Sebastian’s doctor, and that he sent V. a telegram.


This brief analysis tries to supply an explanation to the introduction of bidimensional characters in the novel: they serve Nabokov’s wish to construct his own identity, and to assert his authority. In fact, games and plays are the key to comprehend the double-headed image of himself he constructs inside the book. On one side, he is the ruler: by packing his characters with bizarre and tangled allusions he challenges the reader, giving the impression of “constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.” (152) This composer-solver relationship, to call it in Gezari-Wimsatt’s terms (115), shows that it is upon the reader to find relevant elements, and then to understand in which way the author wants them to be interpreted. But, at the end of the days, it is Nabokov the one who directs the game, and the only one that will always win.


On the other side, he is a magician, an illusionist: with his witty tricks, funny games, repeated alliterations and archaic stories contained just in few words, he is able to create magic. This humorous tone strongly reminds of a quirky, mysterious traveller V. encounters during his trip to find the last woman Sebastian loved in his life.



II. An extraordinary little man.


“(…) a little man with bushy eyebrows got in, greeted me continentally, in thick guttural French, and sat down opposite. (…) All of a sudden, I noticed that the passenger opposite was beaming at me.” (103-104).


The physical description, together with other elements that come afterword in the text, allow to suggest that Mr Silbermann, this eccentric man so similar to Mr Siller in Knight’s The Back of the Moon, can be considered as an authorial mask. This character owes to Nabokov some of his peculiar features: he is a little bit bald, he is an expert in different qualities of papers, and when he was young he played football. Moreover, he can speak French, a language that Vladimir learnt in his childhood. He even remembers few Russian words, especially the expression “Braht, millee braht – dear brodder” (105). It is highly meaningful that in this context a stranger utters such words; this element indicates that there must be an important connection between him and the narrator. In the words of Begnal, “(…) Silbermann is a construct and a mirror of whom we should be suspicious from the very first.” (4)


An element that deserves further attention is Silbemann’s winking large smile. Symptom of Nabokov’s irony, it is a recurring element in his novels, and is often associated to the characters that are closer to the implied author. It is mandatory in this context to bear in mind that the most important feature of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in wonderland is his mocking though hypnotic smile: “[t]he only things in the kitchen that did not sneeze were the cook and a large cat which was sitting on the hearth and grinning from ear to ear.” (62)


Irony is present not only in Mr Silbermann’s smile, but also in his surname. In fact, some of its letters form Nabokov’s nome de plume, “Sirin”. Brian Stonehill stresses the importance that anagrams have in the writer’s narrative (76); he maintains that this particular play on words, so frequent in many novels, is to be considered as the artist’s trademark which confirms his authority and paternity. Stonehill’s assertion receives confirmation by Nabokov himself, in the “Postscript” to Lolita’s Russian edition: “The anagram of my name and surname in the name and surname of one of my characters is a memorial of that hidden authorship.” (qtd. In Stonehill 170).


Even if Sirin is not Silbermann’s perfect anagram it is still an important element that connects this character to Nabokov’s presence in the book.


The translation from German of the funny man’s surname discloses another important aspect: it means “silver man”. This particular colour ought to be linked to “(…) an extraordinarily nice new notebook enclosing a delightful silver pencil.” (106-107), Silbermann’s special gift for V..


A strong contrast with Silbermann’s notebook, “this time a very worn one, with some of it bescribbled pages falling off like autumn leaves.” (107) provides another confirmation of this character’s status as an authorial mask; these worn out pages can be interpreted as an image, inside the book, of Nabokov’s manuscript of the book itself. By the means of this new pocketbook, therefore through the act of writing, V. metaphorically takes the control of his actions again.


Moreover, Silbermann’s present reveals his real intention, which is to help the narrator in his quest for knowledge. From the very first moment of his arrival he tries to engage a reluctant V. in a conversation; when he manages to do so, the narrator surprisingly opens up his mind and confesses the reason of his travels and of his sufferings: his search has reached a deadlock. At this point of the narration, Mr. Silbermann proves to be providential (a “narrational necessity”, as Begnal observes):


‘Anyfing,’ he said. ‘Ledder-belts, purses, notice-books, suggestions.’ ‘Suggestions,’ I said. ‘You see, I am trying to trace a person… a Russian lady whom I never have met, and whose name I don’t know.’ […] ‘Better leave her alone,’ said Mr Silbermann, promptly. […] ‘Forget her,’ he said. ‘Fling her out of your head. It is dangerous and ewsyless.’ […] ‘You find, found her build, her picture, and now want to find herself yourself? Dat is not love. Ppah! Surface!’ (p. 106)


How can this funny little man know so many things? How could he possibly know that V.’s efforts were vain? Despite advising him against his ideas, Mr Silbermann decides to help him, giving him all the information he could, because he has “all the hotel-gentlemans here [he shows his palm] (…)” (107). It is quite obvious that this amusing, strange man knows much more than a character should; he could reasonably be a personification of the implied author in the novel, guiding the narrator in his hopeless search. A cameo of the puppet’s master, a magician - as an image immediately following his disappearance prompts: “A bunch of snow-wet chrysanthemums lay on the table between two solemn top hats” (111) - are the pictures of himself which Nabokov manages to create exploiting this character.


In this case the implied author chooses to help V.; in other situations he plainly ignores or deceives him.



An old conjuror waits in the wings with his hidden rabbit


At the end of the tenth chapter it is possible to read “a passage so strangely connected with Sebastian’s inner life” (82) reported by V. from the Sebastian’s Prismatic Bezel. In this episode the hero, William, after taking his girlfriend home, decides for no particular reason to visit his neighbour. A strange conversation takes place:


‘May I buy you a rabbit?’ asked William. ‘I’ll hire one when necessary,’ the conjuror replied drawing out the ‘necessary’ as if it were an endless ribbon. ‘A ridiculous profession,’ said William, ‘a pick-pocket gone mad, a matter of patter. The pennies in a beggar’s cap and the omelette in your top hat. Absurdly the same’. ‘We are used to insult,’ said the conjuror. (83)


William considers his neighbour’s job as absurd; the old illusionist, though, despite this judgement, won’t drop his tricks out, because artists are used to insults. On the grounds of this attitude, and of other common elements like their foreign origin and their status of artists looking for a job in an inhospitable country, it is feasible to suggest that the conjuror is another mirror for the author’s image.


On a deeper level of interpretation, it is possible to infer that the character, by the means of interaction with the implied author, discusses and criticizes his techniques; in a postmodernist reversal, so typical of Nabokov, the character tries to abuse the author’s powers, to go beyond the limits. The implied author, in the conjuror’s guise, prevents him from doing so simply by ignoring him and his questions. Once again, Nabokov’s image of the novel’s ruler is safe from attacks.



Talking in a whisper to a blinking man


Subsequent to his arrival to the hospital to visit Sebastian, V. encounters another puzzling character, probably the porter. After an initial resistance, this enigmatic figure decides to listen V., but instead of helping him he creates a jumbled situation. At first, he couldn’t (or didn’t want to? Or pretended not to?) understand the poet’s name, forcing V. to repeatedly spell it for him. Then, he remembers that someone died just the day before, and for a short while lets V. think that he’s talking about Sebastian. Soon after, though, he corrects himself saying that the English monsieur is not dead. This is his last trick: at the end of the book the narrator tragically finds out that Sebastian was the one who died the day before, and that he spent his night attending the wrong person. In this episode, V. completely lies in the cruel tyrant’s mercy.


An interesting detail that emerges from this maze of misunderstandings is V.’s spelling of Sebastian’s name: “K, n, i, g” (p. 169); he has got the time to tell only the first letters, since the old man abruptly stopped him. Here again Nabokov plays, as he very often does, with Russian language; in this case, “knig”, apart from being a segment of Sebastian’s surname, means in Russian « книг » (knig), which stands for “book”. The identification of the man, and in this case of Sebastian, with the book, is the central theme of Nabokov’s novel.



III. A robinsonnada – a marrvellous trick


The most important masks Nabokov uses in order to enter the book, and to create an image of himself inside it, are the ones of the protagonists, V. and Sebastian. This could be considered as an expected choice; the author, though, manages to play with them in a very original way, using a typical self-conscious genre’s device: the mise en abyme.


Sebastian and V. are a kind of imperfect doubles, being closely knit by a complex and dense net of similarities and references. The narrator himself perceives this closeness to his brother, as he confesses in “his” book:


“(…) when I imagined actions of his which I heard of only after his death, I knew for certain that in such or such a case I should have acted just as he had. Once I happened to see two brothers, tennis champions, matched against one another; their strokes were totally different, and one of the two was far, far better than the other; but the general rhythm of their motions as they swept all over the court was exactly the same, so that had it been possible to draft both systems two identical signs would have appeared.” (28-29).


In order to increase the complexity of the mise en abyme which lies in the heart of the book and constitutes its profound structure, Nabokov deliberately decides to give the narrator V. and Sebastian several traits of his life and thought. “It is as if each of these lives is a dream of, or a misremembered version of, the other”, to put it in Lanchester’s words (177-178).


It is a fairly easy task to find elements in the text which suggest a marked similarity between the Russian writer and his protagonists. Even if V. tries not to enter the narration (“[…] I have tried to put into this book as little of my own as possible.” 117) and Sebastian is dead, some details of their personalities leak out. Some instances of what Carosso defines “non-identical similarities” (102) and Lanchester calls “seem like-but-unlike” (177) will be given here, but only as an exemplification.


Sebastian and Nabokov were born in the same city and same year, yet in different days; they attended the same University in Cambridge. Nabokov liked to write his works in bed, as he recalls in and interview for Playboy in 1964: “(…) when I was young, in my twenties or early thirties, I would often stay all day in bed, smoking and writing.” (Strong Opinions, 29).


A mysterious smiling informant, “(…) Sebastian’s best college friend (now a prominent scholar)” (37), tells V. about a similar episode: “Missing him in the lecture hall, I would go to his rooms and find him still in bed, curled up like a sleeping child, but gloomily smoking, with cigarette ash all over his crumpled pillow and inkstains on the sheet which hung loosely to the floor.” (40).


The narrator too shares with Nabokov many ideas, mainly on literature. In an interview for Vogue in 1969 Vladimir once declared that: “The best part of a writer’s biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style.” (Strong Opinions, 154-155). In his biography V. doesn’t give space to the enumeration of Sebastian’s experiences, he lets his books speak for him, since “(…) the heroes of the book are what can be loosely called ‘methods of composition’. It is as if a painter said: look, here I’m going to show you not the painting of a landscape, but the painting of different ways of painting a certain landscape, and I trust their harmonious fusion will disclose the landscape as I intend you to see it.” (79)


This exchange of thoughts and biographical data between the author and his protagonists ought to be of no surprise, because “[i]t is also true that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas.” (Strong Opinions, 18).


The picture gets more and more muddled up if considering the status of the narrator.


A particular shade is given to the text by V.’s swinging between being extra-diegetic hetero-diegetic and extra-diegetic homo-diegetic, to say it in Genette’s words. The creation of this movement takes place also thanking the lack of precise information about the protagonists. Nabokov deliberately chooses to create a halo of uncertainties around these characters, starting with their names.


Talking about the narrator, the first thing that strikes our attention is his name, or rather its surrogate. His complete name is never openly told; the only information given by the implied author is that it starts with the letter V.. Another element that has to be taken into account is that it appears, in its only occurrence, in his recollection of an accidental meeting with Sebastian in Paris , 1924. It is the artist who calls him using his “name” in one of the most important parts of the book (60). Furthermore, V. never says his name, even when he is directly asked to, as the following examples illustrate: “ ‘I am,’ I answered, ‘Sebastian Knight’s half-brother.’ ” (48). “ ‘But what is your real name,’ she asked peering at me with her dim soft eyes which somehow reminded me of Clare. ‘I think you mentioned it, but today my brain seems to be in a daze. … Ach’, she said when I had told her.” (112). “ ‘My name is so-and-so,’ I said.” (118). “My name is [I mentioned my name].” (172).


It is a strong temptation to associate V. with Nabokov’s name, Vladimir . This is just one of the author’s tricks; in fact, in his letter dated 3 rd February, 1967, Nabokov writes to Andrew Field: “V stands for Victor” (qtd. in Novels and Memoirs, 677). This is what the writer says; is it possible to trust him fully?


The repeated and deliberate absence of the narrator’s name, expressed in such an evident way, performs two functions: the first one is to stress the ambiguous similarity with his creator’s name; in the second place it introduces the theme of the absence.


Sebastian Knight belongs to the category of characters that have particular meanings and tricks inside their names. In fact, his surname has got the flavour of a chess problem, as the Russian critic Gennadij Barabtarlo maintains: “We’ve got the impression to perceive that there is something particularly thought in his name”. In fact, by anagrammatizing Sebastian’s name and surname he discovers that: “Sebastian Knight = Knight is absent”. Here it seems to be obvious that Nabokov, by using Sebastian, asserts that the implied author is physically invisible. Nonetheless he’s anyway traceable by some signs he leaves on purpose in the text, like his style and his technique.


The theme of absence, as many critics have pointed out (“[The novel] is full of absence” Lanchester, 175), is central in this particular novel: Yona Dureau, for example, in the seventh chapter of her Nabokov ou le souriredu chat, describes it as an allegory of emptiness.


Manganelli, an eminent critic and Italian writer, wrote one of the most enlightening comments on this matter:


This short and “light” book – it seems to have the cork’s deceitful consistency – is in fact a truly ambitious book; to me it seems that its aim is to create a texture of words – it disgusts me to call it “a novel” – around an empty point, an absence, an indefinable mental place. Moreover, this absence contains another pun-like game, a verbal artifice. Sebastian Knight’s life, the real one, is lost, because no clue brings the reader to the centre; the writer is a phantom, an image so similar to the ones one can see near the sleep’s precipice. (Afterword, in The real life of Sebastian Knight, 228-229).


Sebastian’s physical non-existence paralleled to a phantom-like figure, is supported by pivotal and evident instances in the text. The artist is often compared to a ghost, as V. writes:


For a moment I seemed to see a transparent Sebastian at his desk (…). (32)

(…) Sebastian’s spirit seemed to hover about us with the flicker of the fire reflected in the brass knobs of the hearth. (38)

(…) I am sustained by the secret knowledge that in some unobtrusive way Sebastian’s shade is trying to be helpful. (84)

Rotting pacefully in the cemetery of St Damier . Laughingly alive in five volumes. Peering unseen over my shoulder as I write this (although I dare say he mistrusted too strongly the commonplace of eternity to believe even now in his own ghost). (44).


Sebastian’s supposed absence doesn’t prevent him from expressing his ideas and thoughts; he finds his voice mainly in his books. This fact is particularly important because it casts the lights on the primary interests of the novel: the man is the book.


The theme of the book is simple: a man is dying: you feel him sinking throughout the book; this thought and his memories pervade the whole with greater or lesser distinction (like the swell and fall of uneven breathing), now rolling up this image, now that, letting it ride in the wind, or even tossing it out on the shore, where it seems to move and live for a minute on its own and presently is drawn back again by grey seas where it sinks or is strangely transfigured. A man is dying, and he is the hero of the tale; but whereas the lives of other people in the book seem perfectly realistic (or at least realistic in a Knightian sense), the reader is kept ignorant as to who the dying man is, and where his deathbed stands or floats or whether it is a bed at all. The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying, and drawing up a ghostly knee. (146-147).


These lines, written by Sebastian in The Doubtful Asphodel, provide another authorial image: there is a complete identification of the author with his creation.


Despite the halo of vagueness and uncertainties which surround Knight and all the doubts connected with his figure, the implied author manages to create an “astonishingly vivid” character (Lanchester, 175). All the works attributed to the fictitious artist are so well written that, as Nabokov reports in the preface of Invitation to a beheading, Knight as been criticized by scholars as if he were a real writer. Once again, Nabokov’s art proves to be highly deceptive.


The last image that deserves attention is the one of the author seen as a God. This isn’t a new fact in literature: Brian McHale, for instance, defines the author that arrogates himself godlike powers like almightiness and omniscience is typically postmodernist (210).


Inspired by Flauber’s and Joyce’s works, this picture comes out in a crucial scene: “The door opens. Sebastian Knight is disclosed lying spread-eagled on the floor of his study. Clare is making a neat bundle of the typed sheets on the desk. The person who enters stops short. ‘No Leslie,’ says Sebastian from the floor, ‘I’m not dead. I have finished building a world, and this is my Sabbath rest.’”(75)


In this passage the biblical metaphor of the Universe creation is clearly traceable. It is possible to infer that the act of writing is comparable to the one of inventing a world, in this case purely fictional. Furthermore, the context suggests that the artist’s deserved rest could be also read as death; once more, the implied author returns to the central point of The real life of Sebastian Knight: a man is dying.



The Dare


Patricia Merivale has correctly observed that “Vladimir Nabokov never lets his readers forget that he is the conjuror, the illusionist, the stage-manager, to whom his characters owe their existence.” (294). From the present analysis it clearly emerges that Nabokov chooses these guises in order to create his own image.


This picture, though, changes according to the context; he’s an illusionist and a magician when making some plays on words up; he’s ruler when deliberately decides to help or to sidetrack his characters by using some others. Maria Malikova, in her Auto-bio-grafia talks about “author’s tyranny”, while Brian McHale sees in his direct presence inside the book as as a typical postmodernist feature (199).


This playful and witty attitude was already manifest in Nabokov’s childhood, as he recalls in an interview for the BBC in 1962:

You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter, but in your books it seems to me that you seem to take an almost perverse delight in literary deception.

The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror’s magic: I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks – turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I’m in good company because art is deception and so it is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. (Strong Opinions, 11)


A fundamental question remains still unanswered, due to the evasive and elusive nature of Nabokov’s writing: who is the author of The real life of Sebastian Knight?


“Le jeu du je”, as Brian Stonehill calls it, (81) contained in the structural mise en abyme is so complex that it is nearly impossible to give an answer. Many scholars tried to solve this Gordian knot, but a unanimous thought on the matter is a chimera.


With regards to this problem, Benedetti introduces the concept of “Apocryphal effect”. In a typically postmodernist style, this device takes place “when the author (…) invents a fictitious author who is going to become the author of his book.” (188) The mixture of different styles and the use of irony determines a sense of bewilderment and the inability of understanding with certainty which style is authorial.


Nabokov wants the reader to think about who is the real author of the book, by directly, repeatedly questioning the reader: “Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight? repeats that voice in my conscience.”(44). “Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?” (55).


A plausible answer is: Sebastian Knight himself. This hypothesis has been advanced by critics like Dabney Stuart, Andrew Field and Brian Boyd, even if none of them tried to fully explain the reason; in this case, the present article can be of some help. The in-depth analysis of characters, in relation to their creator, has highlighted some elements that can prove this supposition.


First of all, it is Sebastian that names V. in the only occurrence of the text; it is still Sebastian that behaves like a ghost hovering above his creation. Besides being a variation of postmodernist cliché, this image can be directly connected to the above mentioned episode of the grinning Cheshire Cat: both Sebastian (or better, his projection in the book, that is his ghost) and the cat appear on the scene near a hearth. I think that this parallel is crucial, even if it could seem marginal at a first glance. Nabokov’s literary art has always shown its strict connection with the writer’s activity of lepidopterist: sometimes small things, if seen through a magnifying glass, show their fundamental, revealing importance.


Last but not least, it is Sebastian’s part which V. feels to be performing:


I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted 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 (…) 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.” (172-173).


A complete study devoted to The real life of Sebastian Knight is still missing; it is desirable for the future to have such a volume published. Nabokov’s magic will never be completely disclosed, but through an accurate and precise use of theory it will be hopefully possible to grasp, at least for a breathless instant, some of the shining sparkles of this ambitious, beautiful, strange novel.





Vladimir Nabokov’s works


Look at the Harlequins! , USA , Vintage, 1990.

Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951, New York , The Library of America , 1997.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight , London , Penguin books, 2001.

La vera vita di Sebastian Knight, Milano, Adelphi, 2005.

Strong Opinions , New York , McGraw-Hill, 1973.



Other references


Benedetti Carla, L’ombra lunga dell’autore – indagine su una figura cancellata, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1999.

Boyd Brian, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. London , Vintage, 1993.

Carosso Andrea, Invito alla lettura di Nabokov, Milano, Mursia, 1999.

Carrol Lewis, Alice ’s adventures in wonderland , Chatham, Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

Dabney Stuart, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, Baton Rouge , Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Dureau Yona, Nabokov ou le scurire du chat, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.

Field Andrew, Nabokov: his Life in Art, Boston , Little Brown, 1967.

Genette Gérard, Nuovo discorso del racconto, Torino , Einaudi, 1987.

Gezari Janet K. & Wimsatt W. K., “Vladimir Nabokov: More Chess Problems and the Novel”, Yale French Studies, n° 58, 1979, pp. 102-115.

Lanchester John Afterword, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight –By Nabokov, Vladimir, London, Penguin books, 2001, 175-184.

Malikova Maria, Vladimir Nabokov – Auto-bio-biografija, Sankt Peterburg, Akademičeskii Proekt, 2000.

Manganelli Giorgio, M istificazione e incantesimo , in: Nabokov Vladimir, La Vera Vita di Sebastian Knight, Milano, Adelphi, 2 005.

McHale Brian, Postmodernist fiction, New York-London, Methuen , 1987.

Merivale Patricia, “The Flaunting of Artifice in Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges”, Winsconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8, 2, 1967, pp. 294-309.

Stonehill Brian, The Self-conscious novel, Philadelphia , University of Pennsylvania Press , 1998.

Zwart Jane, “Nabokov’s Primer: Letters and Numbers in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”, Philological Quarterly, 2, 82, 2003, pp.213-234.



Electronic sources


– Online Journal: Критическая Масса, (Kritičeskaja Massa) 3 (2003). 01/06/2009.

Barabtarlo, Gennadij. “ Сверкающий обруч ”. ,

– Zembla – a site devoted to the life and works of author, translator, and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov. 01/06/2009

Begnal, Michael. “ The Fledgling Fictionalist”

– Online Journal: Ярославский Педагогический Вестник (Jaroslavskij Pedagogiceskij Vestnik) 01/06/2009

Ledeneu, Alexandr Vladimirovič. “Angličeskij debut Vladimira Nabokova”, accessible at:


Irina Marchesini has got her second-level degree in Theory of Literature, at Bologna University ( Italy ), where she is now researching as a PhD student in Comparative Literatures. Her research is focused on the problem of the relationship between the author and his characters in the postmodern self-conscious fiction. She has published the article “ Un caso particolare di bilinguismo: La vera vita di Sebastian Knightdi Vladimir Nabokov ” for the online journal Linguae &. Rivista di lingue e culture moderne2007-1.

Contact :



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