The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Metaphor
Metaphors of Consciousness
V./Sebastian uses a lot of different metaphors for consciousness, since he is not only describing the sensitive perception of a writer but also the process of writing itself. He speaks of thought being naked and invisible until clothed with words. Sebastian does not want ready-made clothes. He has to find an original way to display his thought. Clare sees the words she types as the “gaps and zigzags” of Sebastian's thought (Chpt. 9, p. 84), for literary expression does not come in a logical straight line. Writing is the only way Sebastian can become visible. He describes himself as a ghost at Cambridge. No one knows him. He feels his inner self is in hiding “'huddled up in the darkness'” (Chpt. 7, p. 69).
Sebastian likes to make themes and words clash to express hidden meaning “in a succession of waves” (Chpt. 18, p. 176). Flowing water is one metaphor for the movement of consciousness. Light is another common metaphor he uses for awareness. The doors of his mind are always open to impressions, and using the imagination, which he calls a muscle of soul, he builds a world in words to show how he perceives the environment. He builds both a world and his own self in his books: “At times he felt like a child given a farrago of wires and ordered to produce the wonder of light” (Chpt. 9, p. 84). This last metaphor makes the writer sound like an inventor, or perhaps the consciousness of a writer is like the consciousness of God, producing light and life through language.
V. says that he sees the life of Sebastian like a light under the door in the next room. He keeps trying to open the door. One way he finds Sebastian is in his books. In his last book, for instance, The Doubtful Asphodel, V. says, “The man is the book; the book itself is heaving and dying . . . [a thought wave] breaks on the shore of consciousness, and we follow the thing” (p. 175). The author makes the book fade into darkness with its language, mimicking dying, but always there is the light showing where the mind is disappearing. Consciousness, the author says, is a knot of time and space that is being untied as he dies, and this is the moment “a wave of light suddenly floods the book” as Sebastian seems to dissolve on the hidden boundaries of truth (p.178). A critic reviewing the book does not know if Sebastian is a patient or a doctor in this story. Sebastian's consciousness is all-pervasive in this book and can take many guises, since it is so flexible it can flow into any other thing. V. ends by saying that any soul can live the life of any other soul in this way, through the consciousness preserved in language. The last image is that of Sebastian's life as a lighted stage where V. has been acting his brother's part while the other actors come and go. At the end, V. cannot go or take off Sebastian's mask, his consciousness, for it has become V.'s own.
Metaphors of Movement
Sebastian is restless like his mother, never satisfied, moving from place to place. Sebastian's mother left the family “as suddenly as a rain-drop starts to slide tipwards down a syringaleaf. That upward jerk of the forsaken leaf . . . must have caused my father fierce pain” (Chpt. 1, p. 9). Sebastian's prose, says V., is also like his father's sudden movements as he came into a room. His father would lift him off the floor and then bump him to the floor, “as suddenly as Sebastian's prose sweeps the reader off his feet, to let him drop with a shock into the gleeful bathos of the next wild paragraph” (Chpt. 1, p. 7).
V. was always trying to catch up to his brother to get his attention. He illustrates how he was never able to be Sebastian's companion with a scene where Sebastian is riding a bicycle on their Russian estate, and the little V. tries hopelessly to run after and catch him. In another scene, the child V. tries to drop spit off a landing to hit Sebastian walking down the stairs, without luck. V. is always trying to follow Sebastian's life but frustrated with the slippery past. He says the past is rebellious and dissolves, as though it has a will and movement of its own. Sebastian describes the present as always gliding immediately into the past. V. grasps a few moments and from that memory has to reconstruct the rest of Sebastian as a person. V. does not catch up to Sebastian until his last book and the deathbed scene. And there, when the other actors move around and off the stage of the drama, V. alone does not move, for he is finally in the center with Sebastian.
Because Nabokov is interested in chess problems, he uses many chess and game metaphors in his work. A game is commonly a metaphor for life or fate, but in this book, Nabokov is interested in moves. Sebastian, for instance, writes about how lovers come together as though it is a game problem. Looking at the board, one could imagine two lovers coming together as two lines converging in a triangle. In reality, they are wavy lines constantly coming together and going apart, for small reasons. Some tiny counter-move, like a beesting, will keep them apart. The game changes with every move and breath. The overall implication is that life is a game played in the dark. Sebastian does research in his novels, like a scientist, trying to discover the moves and the rules. When he plays with Nina, though, he has no clue, for she is ruthless, and he loses. V. finally unmasks Nina's cheating tricks. A critic similarly complains after Sebastian dies that “Knight seemed to him to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules” (Chpt. 18, p. 181).
Metaphors of Art; Mixed Metaphors
Nabokov uses many metaphors from the arts (literature, painting, and music) for life, since there is a relationship between art and life. Art is life intensified and made conscious. Sebastian refers to his harmonious life with Clare by saying “Our life together was alliterative” (Chpt. 12, p. 112). The interpretation others place on Sebastian is illustrated as a painting metaphor. Roy Carswell paints Sebastian as a giant head looking at itself, like Narcissus. V. thinks there is a lot missing in the picture: “the face is only a chance reflection” (Chpt.12, p.120). Carswell is unable to capture the dynamic and full life of the subject. Similarly, when Natasha Rosanov describes the first romance with Sebastian during a Russian summer on their estates, V. first imagines her story as a play, then as a painting: “The lights go out, the curtain rises and a Russian summer landscape is disclosed (Chpt. 14, p. 137). The girl is a mere outline in a painting: “a white shape not filled in with colour by the artist” (Chpt. 14, p. 138), and “The painter has not yet filled in the white space except for a thin sunburnt arm [of Sebastian]” (Chpt. 14, p. 138). This implies either that Sebastian has only begun to live his life, or that Natasha was unable to supply enough of the story for V. to fill in the blanks. At Cambridge, Sebastian felt he had “an inability to fit into the picture” (Chpt. 4, p. 44), so this is another reason there is no satisfactory portrait of him. Nabokov uses an interesting metaphor to show why Sebastian cannot fit into any picture. He tries, but he does not see as others do: he was “a colour-blind chameleon” wanting to blend in but unable to do so (Chpt. 7, p. 67).
V. is as sensitive as Sebastian and hears a musical phrase when he looks at the order of the titles of Sebastian's books on the shelf. This is a moment when he is examining Sebastian's flat and notes his love of strange combinations and associations, as well as his love of art and beauty. Sebastian liked “mixed metaphors” (Chpt. 4, p. 39) because they were like nightmares. A graphic metaphor of these mixed metaphors is a pair of photographs juxtaposed on the wall: a half naked Chinese man being beheaded, and a child playing with a puppy. One reason Sebastian cannot communicate with others is because of his hypersensitive and strange power of association. When he visits an editor, for instance, he associates the man's stutter with distorted chimneys, flaws in the glass windows, and a musty smell in the room. He is distracted by these associations to utter something inappropriate. These mixed metaphors also show up in Sebastian's writing, a strange and incongruous habit, when he is also fond of describing the beauty of nature and place. Certain passages in this book have a surreal power of association, as when V. is trying to get to Sebastian's deathbed.