The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Chapter 15,16
Summary of Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen
In Paris, V. goes to the home of Paul Rechnoy, looking for his wife, Madame de Rechnoy, one of the women on the list. The husband opens the door of a seedy flat, holding a black knight chess piece. He is playing chess with his cousin, as his young son plays on the floor. They all speak Russian. Rechnoy explains that his cousin is a genius, an artist, a violinist, and he can write upside down. This will be important later.
It turns out the woman V. seeks was Rechnoy's first wife, Nina, long gone, and Rechnoy says V. will never find her, and that will be lucky for him. She is a Mata Hari type, untrustworthy, living the high-society life. Her name was Nina Toorovetz when he met her. She always had men around her. V. cannot imagine this type of woman would be attractive to his brother.
The next stop is at the fashionable house of Madame Helene von Graun in Paris, another on the list. She is not in, but the maid says she can speak to her friend, Madame Lecerf. The friend says yes, Helene von Graun is Russian but married to a German. Madame Lecerf chats with V. in French, and he tells her his errand. He looks at a mysterious photo of Helene von Graun in shadow, and thinks she looks seductive and cunning. V. is told to come the next day to see Helene. Meanwhile, V. pays a visit to another woman on the list, Lydia Bohemsky. She is big and fat and vulgar, so V. leaves quickly and crosses her off.
When V. calls the next day, Madame Lecerf says Helene von Graun is still out of town and won't be back for days. She mentions that on the phone Helene laughed when she heard of V.'s errand. V. is upset by this, and asks if she knows Sebastian is dead? Madame Lecerf says we do not know if she loved him enough to be sad by his death. The more V. tells Madame Lecerf of his attempts to find the Russian woman his brother loved, the more she laughs and calls V. charming and naïve. She tries to give a portrait of her friend Helene and all the love affairs she has had, mentioning in particular one man that sounds like Sebastian. The account of the affair is very satirical and makes the Sebastian character into a big bore who would make “an obscure speech about the form of an ashtray or the colour of time” (Chpt. 16, p.160). Finally Helene dumped this boring intellectual. Madame Lecerf tells V. to come to her country house on Sunday where he can meet Helene von Graun for himself.
Commentary on Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen
We get an important character sketch of Nina (Madame de Rechnoy) and her wild life from her first husband, a poor Russian exile in Paris. Nina even invented illnesses for herself so she could go to sanitariums like the one Sebastian was in. Her ex-husband says of her that she “sucked me dry . . . Money and soul” (Chapt. 15, p. 145). He claims that you can find her type in a cheap novel or film. The next meeting ominously concerns a woman that has a lot in common with his ex-wife.
The interview with Madame Lecerf, standing in for Madame Helene von Graun, is very strange and surreal, like an avant-garde film by Fellini. Madame Lecerf is cool and cynical and essentially makes fun of the relationship between Sebastian and the Russian woman. One wonders how she knows about it at all, but her portrait of the Sebastian character (she never names him), though satirical and flippant, seems real enough to upset V. Madame Lecerf justifies Helene's cruel behavior to men, implying they are all stupid. He takes this as the French view of marriage, and again, cannot understand why his brother would be attracted to some woman who was so insincere. He agrees to go to the country house to meet Helene.