Monday, December 17, 2007


"The whole place seemed to me a huge refuse heap where I knew a dark jewel had been lost. My failure was absurd, horrible, excruciating. The leaden sluggishness of dream-endeavour. Hopeless gropings among dissolving things. Why was the past so rebellious?"--Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)

The last book of the semester often seems, by the law of chronological advancement, the telos, the point to which all was tending. In some ways, it's always true: the last thing, like the first thing, sets unmistakable boundaries. And if where you end is a transition, all the more meaning accrues from the sense of finality that comes with stopping there. In historical terms, the course began before the end of the nineteenth century and ended during the Second World War. What comes after that war is the stuff of a new world unveiled. Nabokov, born in 1899, fittingly brings the years of modernism to a close. And it's a significant book to end on because it's the Russian author's only English novel -- which is to say, it's the first he wrote in English and the only one he wrote while living in England. He may have remained "an English novelist," but instead he moved to the U.S. and so became "an American novelist." No matter, he is a true cosmopolitan and this novel, about a writer, Sebastian Knight, son of a Russian father and English mother, who, a native speaker of Russian, writes all his novels in English, not only straddles the two languages Nabokov was most at home in, but also stands in that space cleared by the passing away of the modernist greats born in "the British isles" (both Joyce and Woolf died in the year of Real Life's publication).

The novel is a fantasy of Sebastian's life as pieced together -- or actually as performed, commanded, manifested, imagined, uncovered, conjectured -- by Sebastian's alleged half-brother, known only as V. V., we're told, remained Russian, growing up in the house of their common father and his second wife, after the departure and subsequent death of Sebastian's mother. The point is that Nabokov cleverly fashions one alter-ego -- his usual semi-demented narrative voice, obsessed, urbane, mellifluous, playful, arch, and absurdly verbal -- to write about another alter ego: himself as an English novelist who eschews his native language. Which is what Nabokov is doing in writing this novel, so that the numerous novels Nabokov had already published in Russian (while in exile in Berlin) become stand-ins for Sebastian's English novels.

Of course this gives our V. (the, uh, real V.--Vladimir) any number of levels of fictive fun to play with. For the "fictional" V. is composing what is ostensibly a biography of the novelist Knight, when in fact he spends as much time narrating his attempts to come to some kind of terms with Sebastian -- as a person, extremely elusive in his own right, and as a novelist, extremely clever and playful in his own write, so to speak. There are any number of quotations from Knight's novels and, like the poem of John Shade in Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), they are supreme Nabokovian performances; in this case, flights upon the fictive wings of an imaginary author whose fictions, truth to tell, become as real, or more so, than the "real life" that V. provides us with, if only because -- rather than finding the real life figures that correspond to Knight's fictional characters -- he seems instead to provide us "real" fictional characters that derive from his memories of Knight's books. The point being that he knows the books much better than he ever knew his half-brother.

In a sense, Nabokov winks at us to say, what can we ever know about a writer except his books? Who would wish to know more is bound to end frustrated. Not because people are unknowable (though they are), but because all we really can know is what the books do to our brains. And what person -- living, breathing, and taking up space -- could possibly be adequate to that secret, furtive little frisson that takes place when words on a page come to life as "something" in our minds? Nabokov is second only to Joyce (the Joyce of the most audacious passages of Ulysses and of Finnegans Wake) in his capacity for making words live with a life that is more vital, more fraught with actual relationships between letters, between sounds, than most of us, unimaginative clods as we generally aspire to be, could possibly lay claim to. In a Nabokov sentence, any word might suddenly claim a starring role and do things with its small part that are unexpected, able to invest its fellows with erratic associations that glide along "above" or "behind" (only because spatial analogies seem helpful -- actually, they're all right there together) the supposed manifest meaning that, we're supposed to think, is telling us a story. Oh, yes, there's a story alright, but it's the inevitable Nabokov story, as recurrent in its permutations as any old tale of Shem and Shaun: a man and his double, which for VN, is always an analogy (or doubling) for the situation of the world as we know it to our own minds and the world as it exists when we try to put it into words for the sake of . . . the world.

"Hopeless gropings amongst dissolving things." Many are the comparisons of Nabokov's fiction to systems such as chess (of which he was very fond) where there are numerous permutations but always within given bounds and in which "figures" or "pieces" have to behave according to predetermined rules. And it's true that his novels feel at times very much like a chess match in which you are trying to hold your own with but small idea of how many moves your opponent is ahead. Of course, in a Nabokov novel, that system or playing field is also all his, of his own devising, and you've merely stumbled into it, much as Alice tumbled down the rabbit-hole or wandered through the looking-glass. But what makes me think so highly of Nabokov, seeing him not as simply a great master game-player but, with Beckett, one of the first masters for the second half of that century we were all born in, is that "the play is the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" seems always to be in service: the game that arch narrating persona plays is out to catch "the king," i.e., the mind -- heart and soul, if you like -- or, use Hamlet's word, conscience -- of the man himself.

But what is meant by "conscience," here? For Hamlet, it's a struggle to see the king's guilt manifested. The game Nabokov's narrators play with his selves may also have something to do with guilt; at least it has something to do with sanity (which is what, it comes to seem, Hamlet himself risks by putting at hazard everything he is "in play"). In any case, call it what you like, there's not much more that can be at stake once you've decided that you will live by phantoms that you cause to occur in the minds of others more opaque to you than you are to yourself.

Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being -- not a constant state -- that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations.

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