V. nabokov – the real life of sebastian knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight


Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December 1899, in the former capital of my country. An old Russian lady who has for some obscure reason begged me not to divulge her name, happened to show me in Paris the diary she had kept in the past. So uneventful had those years been (apparently) that the collecting of daily details (which is always a poor method of self-preservation) barely surpassed a short description of the day’s weather; and it is curious to note in this respect that the personal diaries of sovereigns – no matter what troubles beset their realms – are mainly concerned with the same subject. Luck being what it is when left alone, here I was offered something which I might never have hunted down had it been a chosen quarry. Therefore I am able to state that the morning of Sebastian’s birth was a fine windless one, with twelve degrees (Rйaumur) below zero… this is all, however, that

the good lady found worth setting down. On second thought I cannot see any real necessity of complying with her anonymity. That she will ever read this book seems wildly improbable. Her name was and is Olga Olegovna Orlova – an egg-like alliteration which it would have been a pity to withhold.

Her dry account cannot convey to the untravelled reader the implied delights of a winter day such as she describes in St Petersburg; the pure luxury of a cloudless sky designed not to warm the flesh, but solely to please the eye; the sheen of sledge-cuts on the hard-beaten snow of spacious streets with a tawny tinge about the middle tracks due to a rich mixture of horse-dung; the brightly coloured bunch of toy-balloons hawked by an aproned pedlar; the soft curve of a cupola, its gold dimmed by the bloom of powdery frost; the birch trees in the public gardens, every tiniest twig out., lined in white; the rasp and tinkle of winter traffic… and by the way how queer it is when you look at an old picture postcard (like the one I have placed on my desk to keep the child of memory amused for a moment) to consider the haphazard way Russian cabs had of turning whenever they liked, anywhere and anyhow, so that instead of the straight, self-conscious stream of modem traffic one sees – on this painted photograph – a dream-wide street with droshkies all awry under incredibly blue skies, which, farther away, melt automatically into a pink flush of mnemonic banality.

I have not been able to obtain a picture of the house where Sebastian was born, but I know it well, for I was born there myself, some six years later. We had the same father: he had married again, soon after divorcing Sebastian’s mother. Oddly enough, this second marriage is not mentioned at all in Mr Goodman’s Tragedy of Sebastian Knight (which appeared in 1936 and to which I shall have occasion to refer more fully); so that to readers of Goodman’s book I am bound to appear non-existent – a bogus relative, a garrulous impostor; but Sebastian himself in his most autobiographical work (Lost Property) has some kind words to say about my mother – and I think she deserved them well. Nor is it exact, as suggested in the British Press after Sebastian’s decease, that his father was killed in the duel he fought in 1913; as a matter of fact he was steadily recovering from the bullet-wound in his chest, when – a full month later – he contracted a cold with which his half-healed lung could not cope.

V. nabokov – the real life of sebastian knight