I’ve read Nabokov’s work, in English, with care and wonder. I’ve read it, I hope, with the coolly passionate attention he demands. But I don’t know Russian, and “One cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name.” More insistently, and famously: “None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions – which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.” In a 1942 letter to his wife, Nabokov says the same thing; and here the emotion is not recollected in tranquillity: “On the way a lightening bolt of undefined inspiration ran right through me, a terrible desire to write, and write in Russian – but it’s impossible. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced these feelings can properly appreciate them, the torment, the tragedy. English in this case is an illusion, ersatz. In my usual condition – busy with butterflies, translations or academic writing – I myself don’t fully register all the grief and bitterness of my situation.”
I’ll never be able to fully enter the heart of Nabokov’s work, because the central fact of his artistic life – the agonising change of language mid career – is closed to me. (Almost all his later work thematises, in some way, this change: most obviously, and movingly, Pnin – which is, for me, his masterpiece. But think also of Ember’s efforts to translate Shakespeare in Bend Sinister; the English-Russian novelist Sebastian Knight; and Lolita, the record, he tells us, of “his love affair” with “the English language.”)
Plus, I’ve hardly read any Nabokov criticism. There’s acres of it; I’m not an academic; life is (notoriously) short. When I feel the urge to write about Nabokov I remind myself: it must, by now, have all been said before. But, you know, it’s a blog. I’m allowed to indulge myself. So: a few years ago I read Michael Wood’s ‘The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risk of Fiction,” and there’s a passage that’s been nagging at me. It’s graceless of me to complain about the book (what insecurity, exactly, makes me phrase even praise (of Nabokov) as an attack (on Wood)?) But I want to correct a misreading. It’s been said before (it must have been). But it’s my dime, here; my party.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Nabokov’s first novel in English. He wrote it in the bathroom of his Paris flat, his suitcase resting on the bidet as a desk. Nabokov’s public persona is one of gaudy triumphalism; it’s easy to forget that for many years he was the exemplary struggling artist. The leading writer of the Russian emigration had an audience scarcely big enough to provide for his family. His books were banned in the country of his language. The shift to English – as the Nazis destroyed the European heart of Russian émigré culture – was driven by economic necessity.
Sebastian Knight [spoilers ahead (of Lolita too)] [though, to be fair, we don’t really read Nabokov for the plot twists] is about a Anglo-Russian novelist writing in English. It’s a remarkable book, because we see a writer at the height of his powers forced to return to first principles. Nabokov’s anxiety is vivid: Knight, the novel implies, has harmed his talent by writing in a second language.
The agony of being caught between two languages is also the focus of the novel’s plot. Sebastian Knight has two muses. He leaves his faithful English partner Clare Bishop for a passionate romance with a mysterious Russian woman – who breaks his heart, sending him to despair and death. The metaphor is hardly obscure. Nabokov may be almost overwhelmed by the draw of his own language, but his future – his survival – demands English. In Sebastian Knight it is almost as if Nabokov is killing off the novelist in him who would succumb to the allure of Russian. (Though of course there’s infinitely more to the novel’s characters and plot than that schematic allegory.)
The book is narrated by Sebastian’s (Russian) half-brother – referred to only as ‘V’. In a key scene V burns the dead Sebastian’s papers. He discovers among them two separate bundles of love letters. This is how he – and we – become aware of the existence of Sebastian’s Russian love.
“For a wild instant I struggled with the temptation to examine closer both bundles. I am sorry to say the better man won. But as I was burning them in the grate one sheet of the blue became loose, curving backwards under the torturing flame, and before the crumpling blackness had crept over it, a few words appeared in full radiance, then swooned and all was over.
I sank down in an armchair and mused for some moments. The words I had seen were Russian words, part of a Russian sentence – quite insignificant in themselves, really (not that I might have expected from the flame of chance the slick intent of a novelist’s plot). The literal English translation would be ‘thy manner always to find…’ – and it was not the sense that struck me, but the mere fact of its being in my language.” (p. 32).
V becomes determined to track down Sebastian’s Russian lover – and much of the rest of the book will focus on this attempt. But let’s stay here, with the momentarily visible Russian phrase.
In his book Michael Wood quotes the end of this passage. He writes: “Whenever Nabokov mentions chance we probably need to wonder what he is up to, but the game here seems to be a kind of double bluff: the words are less significant than the language they are in.” (p. 40).
No they’re not. Obviously the Russian vs. English thing is at the heart of Sebastian Knight. But Wood is bafflingly blind to the significance of the Russian words.
In the book’s last chapter, V. has rushed to the dying Sebastian’s hospital, convinced that Sebastian has a great metaphysical secret to impart. He is taken, in the dark, to Sebastian’s bed, and listens to his breathing. “If I could have smoked my happiness would have been complete.” Only later does V. discover that there has been a mistake: Sebastian died the previous night… “and you’ve been visiting Monsieur Kegan…” Now here are the first lines of the book’s great last paragraph.
“So I did not see Sebastian after all, or at least I did not see him alive. But those few minutes I spent listening to what I thought was his breathing changed my life as completely as it would have been changed, had Sebastian spoken to me before dying. 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. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden. Thus – I am Sebastian Knight.”
In his Afterword to my Penguin edition, John Lanchester calls this “one of the strangest passages in the book”. And it is strange; but it’s also, in its own way, very straightforward. Despite his reputation for trickery and misdirection, Nabokov is in some ways a very candid writer. He tells us what he’s up to; we just have to believe him. Sometimes, I think, people take Nabokov’s expression of his real views as stylistic flourish. Take the last sentence of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And that is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” Lolita is going to heaven; Humbert is going to hell. That’s what Nabokov believes; that’s what he has Humbert say. We have to ignore Nabokov’s protestations (in interviews; in the book’s afterword) that Lolita has no moral in tow. Humbert dies in prison, and his life beyond the grave will be a prison. Lolita dies in a town called Gray Star; that name not only evokes heaven – it contains the word ‘Grace’.
Here, in Sebastian Knight, as in Lolita (as in so many of his books) Nabokov ends by alluding to the life beyond the grave. This is the Nabokovian theme, as Brian Boyd rightly emphasises in his outstanding critical biography. In Nabokov’s metaphysics, only consciousness exists. The body dies, but thought and feeling survive; in death, our world is revealed as an illusion. But consciousness comes in many forms; and in Nabokov’s moral universe the fundamental difference is between those capable of empathy, and those who remain trapped within their own selves. Humbert’s prison after death is the prison of his own mind in life – incapable of adequately understanding Lolita’s suffering. But for those who can “find and follow” the thoughts of others, “any soul may be yours”; and, if the body has been left behind, another’s soul – any soul – can be wholly inhabited.
“the soul is but a manner of being”… “any soul may be yours if you find and follow its undulations.” Now return to the burning letter. “thy manner always to find…” It’s not a coincidence – or a double bluff – that these words in Nina’s letter so precisely echo the book’s conclusion. We indeed have here “the slick intent of a novelist’s plot.” Although not in the sense that the narrator mocks.
There’s so much more that could be said about this. But I’ll make a quick end. In trying to navigate his way between languages (“like moving from one darkened house to another on a starless night during a strike of candlemakers and torchbearers”) Nabokov invokes the aid of his metaphysics. The Russian narrator is able to write his English book because he has found and followed the undulations of its subject’s soul. And this is the “real life” that lies beyond language – the source of art. This is what underpins Nabokov’s attempt to move from Russian to English; what matters most in his art, he believes – the link between his soul and other states of being – transcends language. In an early scene the narrator imagines Sebastian sitting on a fence in Cambridge. What was he thinking? “The old, old question of Who are you? to one’s own self grown strangely evasive in the gloaming, and to God’s world around to which one has never been really introduced. Or perhaps, we shall be nearer the truth in supposing that while Sebastian sat on that fence, his mind was a turmoil of words and fancies, incomplete fancies and insufficient words, but already he knew that this and only this was the reality of his life, and that his destiny lay beyond that ghostly battlefield which he would cross in due time.”