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Vladimir Nabokov as a Master of References and Allusions

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Doing a research for this thesis there were found the important details pertained to the novel of Vladimir Nabokov, which will be described at the next chapters. These facts are showing on which foundation the novel was based. First of all, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” was the first novel has been written in English in Nabokov’s oeuvre.

That creation was being written during the beginning of the Second War. While the young man who immigrated to Paris, running from Nazis with his bride and son to United States, he was trying to open the door to English society. Before 1938 V. Nabokov had written all stories exceptionally in his native language, namely in Russian. So because of runaway there was just one option to outlive abroad – speaking, writing and thinking in the language, which is dictated by the new country becoming a home. “Nabokov was both teacher and artist, and this study examines his own views about writing and reading, as contained in his published lectures and interviews, in order to approach his literary practices in the English novels”. That was reasonable fact according to Nabokov’s childhood. The young pioneer was born into Russian aristocracy, was taught three languages. Having nurtured by good manners, the juvenile went away from native land to give all his knowledge foreign finders of talents. Literary way began with translations of novels and writing small stories. London- Berlin- Paris-New York- a long road with outstanding problems, happy moments and hitches. During that travelling Nabokov wrote lots of novels and short stories, one of these was “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”. The main hero is Sebastian’s half-brother V., who decided to examine his life-line and write his biography. Doing some researches, founding Sebastian’s friends and having conversations with them, V described in his notes each step. There are some opinions how to perceive the role of V. in that novel, one of such predictions was offered in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “It is written by his half-brother, V., in response to another biographer’s belittling analysis of Sebastian. Before long, however, V.’s “biography” turns into a mystery story as he searches for the true facts about Sebastian among Sebastian’s acquaintances. Himself a mediocre writer, V. eventually has a crisis of identity, and his search for the real Sebastian becomes a search for himself.” And this theory seems to be right, as well as the novel describes an unusual summation and articulated architecture conformation between the author and his characters. The main task for us is to conduct an investigation how Nabokov used some particular devices and effects for creating and transforming his image inside the novel. All Nabokov’s characters recur throughout his career. Some critics have tried to compare earlier Russian novels with later English ones. The reason of that doubts is that the main hero always is an outsider in his milieu. They are all isolated as much by their mental conditions as by their physical environment. Nothing has to be taken assignment with Nabokov. His ingenious nature can be found even in the title of the novel “The Real Life”. The author told more about V.’ attempts to write a biography, not Sebastian’s story line. The main character, and narrator at the same time, is not an artist at all, we could know it from the first part of the novel: he is just a businessman. 

Reading and examining Nabokov’s creation we can notice how V. intruded upon Sebastian’s life. He went to Paris to find some friends of Sebastian, his girlfriend, employer, editor. V. has found lots of facts and materials, and was ready to write a book, but the most problematic thing was trying to think like Sebastian, he thought instead of him. And finally, he’s got confused. “Thus- I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and going- the dim figures of the few friends he had, the scholar, and the poet.” The use of characters in the novel is triple, because sometimes we can notice the author’ hints, namely using masks for hiding real acts in his stead, he tries to maneuver some secondary characters, which have some special destinations and aims in whole story. 

Sebastian Knight has an artist who painted a portrait of Sebastian as a face reflected in the water. “Everyone can look into the water”, says the storyteller. The artist replies: ‘Don’t you think Sebastian was particularly good at it? So the real artist is always Narcissus. In another way: art is a self-sufficient being that does not need any material outside the box; more precisely, any material is transformed by its inclusion in the structure of the work. And even the same end of the work mentioned above is reminiscent of Fellini’s brilliant finale ‘Eight and a Half’. In general, this film is a cinematic analogue of Sebastian Knight, where the artist’s real life is not his wife or mistress, but the cinema. The hints of a masquerade and the lack of privacy are also present in the text of Sebastian Knight: for example, Goodman wears a black mask during a business conversation. And here, it is necessary to tell about Nina – Nina Rechnaya, that fatal woman who has ostensibly ruined Sebastian. This is a call from Nabokov’s Russian past. Nina Rechnaya immediately calls for an association with Nina Zarechnaya of Chekhov’s “Chaika”. This is Russian literature from which Sirin, who ruins the Russian writer himself, tears himself away with pain: it is not Nina who is killing him, but Nina Rechnaya, who is also a ‘cheater’. She pretended to be French, just like Nabokov, an American. But she has, says the storyteller, a beautiful French language, so that not to recognize her Russian. But Nabokov also has beautiful English, and in this masquerade, he is quite in place.

It must be mentioned that ‘Sebastian Knight’s true life’ is not only a masquerade or a circus, it is also a chess game. Knight in English is a chess horse, Bishop (surname Claire) is an elephant, and Nina, who was a maiden named Turovets, is, of course, a ‘tour’, a rook. And the whole novel – castling: the transformation of the Russian writer in the American. Among the inconspicuous correspondences between Sebastian and Nabokov there is one that is directly related to metaliterary themes and aspirations in the writer’s work. V.’s reasoning about Knight’s novel ‘The Prismatic Facet’ can be interpreted as a hidden polemic with well-known provisions of Vladislav Khodasevich’s article ‘About Sirine’ (1937). V.’s words that the heroes of the work are ‘writing techniques’ resemble Khodasevich’s idea that the works of Sirin ‘are inhabited not only by actors, but also by countless techniques … one of his main tasks is to show exactly how the techniques live and work’.

However, from the continuation of the conversation about Knight’s work, it follows that V. is not inclined to reduce him to a set of techniques. V. cites as an example the artist who, apparently, wants to show ‘not the image of the landscape, but the image of different ways of depicting a certain landscape’. But there should be an essential caveat: it turns out that this is not an end in itself, the artist would like to believe that the ‘harmonic fusion’ of different methods of representation ‘will reveal in the landscape what I wanted to show you in it’. In other words, behind the technical perfection of Knight’s art are hidden deep convictions and a certain vision of the world. Thus, one can see in V.’s reasoning a polemic with Khodasevich, who said that the theme of Sirina is limited to ‘the life of the artist and the life of the reception in the consciousness of the artist’. Of course, there are different theories that could shed light on the conspiracy of the novel, but Nabokov’s truth is that in each work of art the creator has a role to play, reflecting all his experiences and thoughts.

The narrative begins with character performances. The name of our main character, the storyteller, we will never know, because the author left us for reflection only the initials of V. What would it mean? The beginning of the author’s name – Vladimir or a mysterious anonymous stranger, who is indeed Sebastian’s half-brother? In fact, Sebastian himself is a poet of Russian origin, who stubbornly denied the fact of his origin. Coming to his stepmother occasionally, he tried to use little Russian words, speaking only French. From time to time he kept in touch with his brother V. in letters, also in French. The whole life after the departure of the young guy to Paris became a mystery to V. Brothers have completely ceased to maintain contact between themselves and everyone began to live their lives. Until the tragedy of Sebastian’s sudden death occurred. From that moment on, the novel is gaining momentum, and the searches begin for V.

The search for V. begins with a publishing office, where Sebastian has been publishing his works many times. Hoping to find important information, V. came to a conversation directly with Mr. Goodman, who, as it turned out later, also began to write a book about the life of Sebastian, but the plot of his book is completely distorted and adheres to the ‘truth’ of Goodman. Having not found out anything important, V. decides to leave the office, as the conversation with Mr. Goodman is not very pleasant. However, when the character leaves, a young girl catches him and introduces herself as Helen Pratt. She works in this office and is also a friend of Sebastian’s beloved Claire Bishop, which gives the biographer a new thread to search for. But it was also preceded by V.’s flashback, where he remembered what he had Claire known, because they had met with Sebastian once in a Parisian café. “She was pretty in a quiet sort of way with a pale faintly freckled complexion, slightly hollowed cheeks, blue-grey nearsighted eyes, athin mouth. She wore a grey tailor-made with a blue scarf and as mall three-cornered hat. I believe her hair was bobbe.’ Unfortunately, the storyteller can’t tell us anything because Claire’s married and sick. V. did not want to bother her, soon finds out that the girl died. Therefore, the thread of the plot broke again. The search for a young brother will often be interrupted by a marriage of information. Continuing the search, V. will find that Sebastian also had casual affair, and the storyteller goes to Germany to meet with a girl who was the last love of the deceased poet. From that very moment on, we can observe the play on words that the writer hides behind the girl’s name. Sebastian’s muse, Claire Bishop, has another meaning, namely the figure of chess. Ah, because Nabokov is a chess fan, and we can see it by the constant mention and various allegories in his novels. 

What has Nabokov never written about? About the humiliating poverty in which he fell from a luxurious mansion, which has not lost its splendor to this day, about the fact that in the same poverty he was forced to contemplate his own mother, perhaps the only heiress of millions of states. Nabokov, who described all the ancestors on the father’s part up to the seventh knee, but did not mention in half a word this very merchant Mittenshik’s kin, whose money provided his golden childhood, all the luxury in which he was raised; and although the material could be found, the merchants were not the last, the writer somehow did not hurry to disturb the shadows of his ancestors. For some reason, he pretended that he could not remember his brother’s name, not a word about his sister Elizabeth, which he kept in exile. There are many such examples. Nabokov always hides much more than he tells us. The honor of the invention of this game did not belong to him, Andrew Field wrote: ‘So – every novel: the game of hide-and-seek with the reader, he. But Nabokov owns the honor of improving this game, in which he achieved such virtuosity that at the end of his life he became an invisible writer. It seems that he was helped to show off many of the clues of nature itself, and it is not for nothing that he paid so much attention and spent so much effort studying the mimicry in entomology: these lessons had practical literary meaning, helping to find ways to protect themselves from curious, but lazy readers. Nabokov requires attention: the meaning often turns out to be not there, where the author is carried away by a gullible gullible. Here seems to be a separate stroke of the form of the writer’s uncle, who made him his heir, like it is told about him all the important things, but not immediately opens the solution to the rage that comes to Nabokov’s father, seeing his son on the lap of his uncle, peacefully ‘caressing a cute child’”. Apparently, his uncle had homosexual tendencies, and this is the reason for some strange things about his fate, like the estate bequeathed to an unknown Italian manor. 

An example from another field: in the novel ‘Other shores’ there is a table of Nabokov’s color sensations from the letters of the alphabet. Then, concerning the fictional name of the heroine of Tamara’s memories, it is casually said that this name is colored in floral tones of her real name. It’s like a charade in a novel that can be found in the real name of the writer’s first love – probably Varvara? Or the novel ‘The Protection of Luzhyn’, which develops two narrative plans, the first of which is a story about the life of a brilliant chess player, the creator of “The Protection of Luzhyn”, built as an antithesis to those novels about brilliant and exemplary children, written by the hero’s father. But behind this story develops as if a chess game, built as a defense of the hero, Luzhina, from the attack of black figures, which is tried first by the king-father and then by the queen-wife. Nabokov was perfectly aware of the duality of the Russian genitive case.

One thing is as if forbidden by the rules of the game: to accept Nabokov’s novels with complete simplicity, as we are accustomed to Russian literature – when playing hide and seek, the relationship between partners should be different.

Perhaps, there was only one theme, touching which the writer allowed himself to discover something from the real system of his feelings: the family. Against the backdrop of the opening emptiness, which was at first life in exile, the family became a kind of ‘small homeland’, within which resurrected something from the lost life. In the Nabokov family believed immediately and forever, hence its passionate poetization, almost frenzied description of the father’s delight, hymns and ode to his wife, quite unexpected in the writer with a cold and restrained temperament, as is usually seen by Nabokov. Nabokov loved to discover recurring themes in destiny, just as he loved to give these repetitions to his characters. And he loved them not in vain: in his destiny, repetitions acquired consistently symbolic meaning. The fact is that on the threshold of his sixteen years, he was once announced the heir to a millionth state of his uncle, which is probably not once he had to remember living in the last pfennig in the mendicant’s furniture in Berlin. He couldn’t help thinking about the difference that existed between him, whom his uncle bequeathed everything, and the unknown Italian, to whom his uncle bequeathed only one of his Italian estate. With the inheritance Nabokov had a special score: from experience, he knew that the one who passes it to you, not always soberly assesses the possibility of such a transfer. He was one of the first in emigration to realize that nobody was following them, they were the last ones, it was an evolutionary impasse.

However, coming back to the topic of Nabokov’s passion for chess, it is worth mentioning where it all began. In 1924 Vladimir wrote a poem ‘Three Chess Sonnets’:

The masterly rook strides to iambic theme

While lady bishop’s way is anapaest.

Ballet and brain – that’s chess! Hear drunken feast

From coffee-house with fog-occluding steam

Where Philidor from Légal won his spurs.

But now a Spaniard deep in brow and scheme

Confronts a gnome, thick-lensed, an eerie dream

Of blue-veined arms and eyes Chimera’s curse.

Aha! That rook steps out in menace mien

As thought descends. ‘Caramba! Look, your queen!

You must resign!’ But shakes the gnomic neck

And gripping a purple piece with nail and claw

A bishop sacrifice, a wizard check

And there it is, it is, it’s mate in four.

Unison and flight lie hidden in problem chess

Beat and dance both. So plant the chequered field

And marvel at the chiaroscuro yield

With seven men white, three black, not more, not less.

The ebon queen by cavalry beset

And interlocking pawns in amber taut

Await the outcome floating in time caught

By clashing weapons, lord and slave, in debt.

Watch how the starburst queen with power ablaze

Buzzes the solver’s mind into a daze

To tease, to lure him away into dark.

But then this flitting nymph flies to the rescue

Clad in the lacquered garb of magic clerk

And barely hovers, pointing with her fescue.

A full-fledged sonnet, though, I failed to write

However sweetly rang the night-bird’s sighs

But fondling pawn-tops and twin castles’ thighs

I worried the enigma till the light.

I made it, haunt and hecatomb despite

With you by night lit up by joyous cries

Unstable stars swimming in streaming skies

And darkling leaves stirred by the poet’s right.

My Spaniard and my gnome, my Philidor

You see it here spread out your eyes before

Pieces, though few, with harmony imbued

By lunar glow enhancing pale and jet

While I performed enraptured, you subdued

Perfected on your chessboard my sonnet.

The writer constantly emphasized the emotional connection between literary creativity and composition. Moreover, he strove to convey feelings by purely chess means, the more familiar sphere of expression of which is lyrical poetry. In this case, there is a chess bishop in the form of a beloved poet. What girl plays a role in the novel? The role and functions of the bishop on the chessboard to understand the further actions of the novel’s heroine should be analyzed. ‘When used properly, bishops can be quite powerful. In many positions, a bishop can prove to be much stronger than the other minor piece, the knight. Open positions, where pawns – especially central pawns – have been traded, tend to increase a bishop’s potential. Place bishops on open diagonals, where they can exert control over as many spaces as possible.” The heroine has never played a major role in Sebastian’s life, but she could have influenced his decisions. Unfortunately, her strength was not enough to keep the relationship, and the distance did not pass this, it seemed to V., the perfect couple. 

And then we move on to another exciting chess game. V.’s meeting with the new narrative heroine brings us to the end of this task. Nina Rechnaya is a new acquaintance of V., who, unfortunately, does not have enough time to see her ex-husband, but to see Madame Leserf. Madame Lesserf, as the storyteller, friend of Helen von Gran, the girl who was next in line to be a candidate in love with Sebastian, is greeted by Madame Lesserf (‘little, fragile, pale face lady with smooth dark hair’), who called herself a friend of von Graun. She promises to find out everything she can. The next day, Madame Leserf (“an old black small bulldog in front of her on the sofa”) tells V. how her friend charmed Sebastian: first of all, she liked him, and also it seemed funny to make such an intellectual make love to her. When he finally realized that he couldn’t live without her, she realized that she couldn’t stand his conversations anymore (‘about the shape of an ashtray’ or ‘about the color of time’, for example), and left him. Having heard all this, V. wants to meet von Graun even more, and Madame Lecerf invites him to his village for a weekend, promising that the mysterious lady will definitely come there.

 In a huge, old, neglected house, some people are visiting, who are connected with each other in a complex way (just like in the ‘Prismatic facade’, where Sebastian was impersonating a detective). Thinking about a mysterious stranger, V. suddenly feels attracted to Madame Leserf. The feeling of love that arose is not clear and worries the hero, because there were no hints of intimacy, but V. remembers what he was told about Nini Rechnoi, and understands that Madame Lesserf and Nina is one and the same woman. Without any explanation, V. leaves. In Sebastian’s last book ‘Unclear Asphodel’ characters appear on stage and disappear, and the main character dies during the whole narrative. This theme now converges with the theme of the book ‘The Genuine Life of Sebastian Knight’, which is almost finished before our eyes by V. (it is no coincidence that this is, perhaps, his favorite book from all the books of his brother). But he recalls how in mid-January 1936 he received an alarming letter from his brother, written, oddly enough, in Russian (Sebastian preferred to write letters in English, but this letter he began as a letter to Nina). At night V. had a very unpleasant dream – Sebastian calls it ‘the last, persistent call’, but not the words. The next evening a telegram came in: ‘Sebastian’s condition is hopeless…’ With great trouble, V. reached Saint-Damier. He sits in his sleeping brother’s room, listens to his breath and realizes that he knows Sebastian more than ever before. However, there was a mistake: V. got into the wrong room and spent the night at the bedside of a stranger. And Sebastian died the day before his arrival.

This action is called castling in a chess game. The girl introduced herself as another person, thus trying to hide the past and not to spoil the present. However, anyway, in this game V. won. Despite the above example of drawing a parallel between chess and the construction of the characters in the novel, we can also remember the fleeting and secondary analogies on the lower tier of ‘True Life’ the reader can easily distinguish there and sims paronomastic contours of chess pieces, moves and positions: ‘Knight’ means, among other things, ‘chess horse’; Bishop – ‘elephant’; Turovets – ‘tour’, i.e. rook, Roquebrune – castling; Uncle Sebastian H. X. Stainton, from whom, it is believed, he learns that he visited the wrong Roquebrune, where his mother died, only with one letter in the surname differs from Govard Staunton, the famous English chess player, whose name is now accepted form of chess pieces. Sometimes the motive of the white and black confrontation breaks out, especially in chapter 15, where a suspiciously emblematic chess game is played. However, it soon becomes clear that the chess theme is a false trail that leads the hunter astray.

Different disguised signs suggest that V. knows much more than the sources of his information could have told him. In addition, despite repeated reminders of the lack of talent, ability, experience, and finally, the literary English language, V. writes perfectly, in some places it is just fine. Interestingly, the chapters where he only collects information for his book are weaker than those in which he follows his hero, using the information obtained: Here his syllable sometimes soars up to the heights of Knight, and his miraculous reconstruction of Sebastian’s first love (at the end of chapter 14) with its poetic beauty and piercing, magical power of reproduction of another’s past surpasses both the romantic excerpt from Knight’s novel ‘Success’ (given at the end of chapter 10) and the tour de force of the farewell love letter from his memoir book, with which prose by B. has much in common. Both of these observations are about a strange multi-knowledge B. and his gift to the writer, contrary to belief to the contrary, – are clearly confirmed in the amazing description of those early evenings, when Claire Bishop was printing a manuscript of the first novel by Knight at the remington to his dictation and at the same time to the dictation of the summer rain, rustling in the leaves of dark elm: only the imagination and skill of the writer could draw this picture, not the dry facts, which were reported by W. Miss Pratt. And in many other cases, V. describes the details of life and even the psychological state of his hero, which nothing but the artistic imagination, could tell him. In other words, at the next level of understanding of the book, the reader has reason to believe that V. imagined other pages of Knight’s ‘true life’; maybe, many; and after this thought involuntarily sneaks up the suspicion that the entire biography of Knight – a fiction V.

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