Places: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1941

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Parody

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*St. Petersburg

*St. Real Life of Sebastian Knight, ThePetersburg. Capital of Imperial Russia that is the birthplace of both Sebastian and V. The novel initially depicts the city in winter in poetic terms, down to the shade that horse dung colors the snow. V.’s description, which compares his own memories of the city with a view of it on a postcard, introduces the theme of the disparity between “reality” and memory, with neither privileged at any one time. This theme is reinforced when V. visits their old governess, who, although her personal experience of living in Russia is minimal, has turned it in her memory into “a lost paradise.” Her recollections, according to V., are equally inaccurate.

*Russia

*Russia. St. Petersburg also introduces the idea of being Russian. V., who is half English, sees Sebastian as fully Russian. Goodman, Sebastian’s spurious biographer, sees Sebastian as repudiating his Russian heritage. Since the novel itself is, in a sense, Nabokov’s working out of his own emotions over abandoning his rich Russian language for what he initially thought was the poor substitute of English, the reader cannot be sure how correct V. is. At any rate, Russia remains a “dreamland” for both brothers, more overtly so for V. This becomes more apparent later in the novel when V. learns the identity of the girl whom Sebastian loved in his youth, Natasha Rosanov. Admitting that by now his quest for the secrets of his brother’s identity had grown into a “dream,” V. constructs out of his imagination (there is no evidence he witnesses any of this) a scene between Sebastian and this girl in a “Russian summer landscape.” The first scene includes the obligatory river, aspen and fir trees, flowers, and grass. The deflationary transformation of what at first seems to be a naked girl emerging from the river into a Russian priest blowing his nose after a swim is a clue to the thumbprint of the ultimate author, Nabokov himself, as is the presence in the second scene of a Camberwell beauty butterfly as Sebastian and Natasha meet for the last time. Russia remains only attainable by art.

Roquebrune

Roquebrune (ROHK-brewn). French village near the Riviera where Sebastian’s mother supposedly has died. Sebastian seeks it out, finds the pension in which she died, symbolically named “Les Violettes” (symbolically because she had given him a pack of violet sweets at their last meeting), and meditates on the surroundings so intently that he has a vision of her. Later he learns that the village he visited was the wrong Roquebrune–another case of imagination triumphing over reality. The appearance of a naked old man on a balcony of “Les Violettes” (similar to the later appearance of the naked priest) alerts sensitive readers to the fact that Sebastian’s vision emerges not from the landscape around, but from the mind, as does V.’s vision of Sebastian and his young sweetheart.

*Cambridge

*Cambridge and *London. English cities that, for the most part, are described in stereotypical terms of fog and rain. Sebastian writes about an exile’s vision of a landscape “with its unofficial rose,” a phrase from English poet Rupert Brooke’s poem of a nostalgic expatriate, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” (1912), and V. talks about his own “Rupert Brooke moods.” However, several details indicate a deeper pattern, including Sebastian’s address in London, 36 Oak Park Gardens–a number and location that reappear throughout the work.

Blauberg

Blauberg (BLAW-berg). Small French town in Alsace, where Sebastian goes to recuperate for his heart ailment. There, at the Beaumont Hotel, he meets the last love of his life, whose identity V. is so anxious to learn. The hotel is minimally described, but its grounds mark a garden motif that begins in the account of Sebastian’s vision at “Les Violettes” and concludes with V.’s realization in Madame Lecerf’s garden. That this repetition is intentional is shown when V. elsewhere mentions Sebastian’s liking for an otherwise mediocre film, The Enchanted Garden, which he sees three times.

*Lescaux

*Lescaux (LEHZ-coh). French town in which Madame Lecerf lives. V. eventually comes to believe that Madame Lecerf is Sebastian’s last, and unwisely chosen, lover. Although her house seems run down and old, it has been built relatively recently; its garden, in which V. has an epiphany about her identity, is a mixture of signs of life–green leaves on black branches–and death–a pile of earth that reminds V. of a grave.

St. Damier

St. Damier (sahn DAH-mee-ay). French town in whose hospital Sebastian dies. Guided to Sebastian’s supposed location in the significantly numbered Room 36, V. feels that before his brother dies he will impart to him the ultimate secret of life and death. However, V. finds himself in the wrong room, and Sebastian has died the day before. Nevertheless, V. feels that he has learned from his erratic, often mistaken quest. His biography is written partly to counter Goodman’s erroneous life–erroneous because it reduces Sebastian’s life to the mere product of his environment and times, against which his achievement is weighed and often found wanting.

V.’s search, although perhaps equally doomed to viewing Sebastian from the outside, at least recognizes and acknowledges the patterns and symbols of another’s life, which, in Sebastian’s butterfly image, “unfurl eyed wings.” Indeed, the nature of the secret that V. is so close to attaining is described by Sebastian in one of his novels as the realization that “the wild country” around a traveler is not really a landscape but “a page in a book.” Certainly, this is what Sebastian and V. ultimately are, creations in the pages of Nabokov’s book, but what echoes beyond the covers of this novel is the possibility that perhaps everyone is.

BibliographyAlexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Dismantles the widespread critical view that Nabokov is first and foremost a metaliterary writer. Suggests, instead, that an aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm is the basis of his art.Hyde, G. M. Vladimir Nabokov: America’s Russian Novelist. London: Marion Boyars, 1977. Discusses Nabokov’s novels as parodies of realism and parodies of themselves. The novels reveal the author’s continuity with classic Russian literature, and they reevaluate that tradition.Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov’s Novels in English. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983. Thorough investigation of narrative structure, characterization, and theme in Nabokov’s novels.Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Insightful analysis of Nabokov’s fiction. Discusses formal innovation, as well as theme and characterization. Includes bibliography of primary and secondary works.Roth, Phyllis, comp. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Excellent collection of essays on the play of language in Nabokov’s works. Discusses the relationship between the life and art of Nabokov. Includes annotated bibliography.
Categories: Places