SEE UNDER SEBASTIAN
by Gennady Barabtarlo
The Nabokovian 1990.24: 24-28
I admit that the night has been ciphered right well.
but in place of the stars I put letters.
Something in the name of Sebastian Knight has often made me pause and wonder. He chose his English mother’s maiden name for his nom de plume but he was christened Sevastian, a name regular enough among Russian commoners but extremely rare in the set into which he was born — and I say "rare" simply because I do not wish to expose my vanity to a sneer by saying that it never occurred, although I cannot think of a single Sevastian among the sort of gentry SK's father came from. There is no mention anywhere of Virginia Knight’s insisting on that name for her son. Why Sebastian of all names? Surely Nabokov could have selected one equally natural in its respective
form to both English and Russian (Andrew Knight, Stephen Knight, Victor Knight). There seems to be something deliberate about Sebastian, at least on the Russian side of it, and I think I now know what it is.
Students of RLSK have often noted that the tempo of the thematic pursuit of the hero receding to the edge of the book, slow and thoroughgoing at the onset, gains much speed toward the end, and finally changes to a breathless rush, chugging along frenetically as the slow, and wrong, train takes V. to the dying Knight over maddening obstacles (the more urgent the hurry the more obstacles V. encounters) and then stops abruptly, in a sudden hush, at the book's terminal where, athwart all expectations, there is no Sebastian Knight waiting. He is "gone . . . the room is empty" (the words of the policeman from Knight's Prismatic Bezel). One is reminded of such important lines as "But there was no Charlotte in the living-room," which is Lolita’s waterline (99) or, more to the point, "But there was no Aleksandr Ivanovich," the bottom line of The Defense. RLSK's final, oft-quoted paragraph contains an elusive confirmation: "Thus — I am Sebastian . . . They move round Sebastian — round me who am acting Sebastian, — and the old conjuror waits in the wings with his hidden rabbit .... 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 . . . I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows." Words admitting of all manner of explication, no doubt. But whatever they mean, one thing is certain: there is no Sebastian Knight at the end of the chase, and the reader is made to feel as one who, after carefully inching one's hand into the folds of the net in the hope of finding and nipping a long-hunted rare insect, at
last triumphantly grabs one's own left thumb—and wakes up.
One of the possible interpretations of the novel's meaning and workings may be that, as the wrappings around Sebastian's "real life" are being unwound, his essence becomes more vaporous, and he wanes to naught when the last layer is removed. This method is akin to one described in Knight's first novel, The Prismatic Bezel (and nutshells of Knight’s novels are all the reader's chief navigation instruments), where at first everyone is suspected of murder, then, gradually, none, then it suddenly becomes clear that no murder has been committed, and the corpse whose looming presence was taken for granted at the beginning turns out to be the chief suspect in disguise. The knot is untied, "the gradual melting process" (in V.'s words, 93) complete, the novel done.
I think that Nabokov encoded this process in the slightly uneasy name of Sebastian which carries the code on its bosom, as it were. "Sebastian Knight" can be rearranged to yield "Knight is absent" with only the indefinite article left on the emptied rack.
The possibility of Nabokov's hiding the key to the book's contrivance by working it into the hero's name and putting it at the entrance (title), or rather under its door-mat, is quite fathomable. He fashioned anagrams carrying secret messages for at least one of his Russian novels and for almost every English one that followed his first. RLSK marked the first stage of the painful tongue-transplant operation, one result of which was the sharply increased frequency and intricacy of verbal acrobatics, tricks at which a prosthesis may be defter than a natural organ. RLSK
was meant for a London literary competition, and this fact might have particularly moved Nabokov to leave a private watermark visible only through special glasses. The novel was his experimental field where he purposely tried, for the first time in his English prose, various paronomastic games: the corpse of Mr. G. Abeson reversed to good old Mr. Nosebag (the suspect), which obverted to Abeson: and the name of Jeanne D'Arc’s native village (Domremy), which V. erroneously presumes to be written in the same Russian cursive as the rest of Sebastian's letter and thus fails to decipher in meaning or allusion (186; discovered by Mme. Hélène Sikorski). V. receives this letter on a Thursday "in the middle of January" (187, 185), which in 1936 was the 16th, and that night sees a queer dream and in it Sebastian; at the end of the dream Sebastian vanishes but calls out his half-brother to tell him an important truth, "and a phrase which made no sense when I brought it out of my dream, then, in the dream itself, rang out laden with such absolute moment, with such an unfailing intent to solve for me a monstrous riddle, that I would have run to Sebastian after all, had I not been half out of my dream already .... the nonsensical sentence which sang in my head as I awoke was really the garbled translation of a striking disclosure" (190). The word absent appears ten lines below ("it was doubtful whether I could absent myself at all for the weekend"; Knight could, and did).
On Friday the 17th V. receives a telegram from Dr. Starov in which the good doctor spells Knight’s name the Russian way, with the v, and this fact is immediately thrown up. Knight expires in St. Damier that night as V. rides past St. Damier to Paris; then V. returns late on Saturday, spends the night near a
perfect stranger assumed to be Knight (their names share consonants), makes his ultimate discovery, and the novel ends on Sunday the 19th, the Eve of St. Sebastian.
A curious additional detail: when Nabokov translated into Russian the titles of his English novels for the 1966-67 editions of Priglashenie na Kazn' and Zashchita Luzhina, he retained the English b and ia (instead of the usual Russian soft sign-уa) in Sebastian and did not decline Nait in the genitive case (the Russian spelling of the surname makes an amusing gratuitous anagram of its own: Taina Naita, Knight’s Secret, half-a-century old, born to blush unseen), suffering the whole name to sound foreign, and thus perhaps preserving the cipher
Task: invent a Christian name existing in both English and Russian which would contain a clean anagram of an English phrase that, combined with the surname, would encapsulate the novel's important strategy and would be positioned as its weathercock. Given the vertiginous difficulty of this task, the superfluous a in the anagram is so minuscule a fault that it only underscores VN’s awesome glossal power, for the whole scheme, with all its restrictions and functions, is a mind-blaster, as unlikely to be surpassed in serious literature as the closing acrostic of "The Vane Sisters." The sheer complexity of the thing stretches credulity, and it is great wonder that Nabokov designed it so cleverly and cleanly, and little, that it should have a barely perceptible limp. And even that extra article can be of employment if applied to a chessman, as it is in LATH, in the phrase that may be relevant to this note: "...or the chess set (in Pawn Takes Queen) with a missing Knight 'replaced by some
sort of counter, a little orphan from another, unknown, game?"’ (my italics, p. 83).
There is no positive proof of Nabokov's having loaded the hero's name, yet this is not mere bluster. All pieces of circumstantial evidence conspire to recommend it, not the least the rule of contraries, for to suppose that this clever and meaningful arrangement is but an unsolicited coincidence would be so much more miraculous—not unlike pulling open a combination lock by dialing one's birthday. Indeed, a coincidence of such tremendous aptness would mean nothing short of just the sort of yellow-ashen magic that is recorded in that short story about the sibylline siblings.