The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Chapter 3,4

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Summary of Chapters Three and Four


In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, V.'s mother took him and Sebastian out of the country. V. describes the dangerous scene of their leaving with a Captain Belov who helped to smuggle them out on a train to Finland. V. and his mother sat on the train waiting for Sebastian. If he did not come on time, the train would leave him behind. At the last minute he came running and boarded but said Captain Belov had been arrested, and later they found out he had been shot. Sebastian wrote in one of his books of the hellish country where “'Every man in the land was a slave, if he was not a bully; since the soul and everything pertaining to it were denied to man” (Chpt. 3, p. 26).


Mr. Goodman argues this is a description of Russia, but V. denies this, saying that Sebastian does not mean a particular country but any country that has a hypocritical government. Sebastian's love for England and other countries never equaled what he felt for his home. V. and his mother settled in Paris, and Sebastian went to Cambridge. They did not visit or write often. It was from his mother that V. learned of Sebastian's adventure of running away when he was seventeen, about which he knew nothing. Sebastian decided to travel with a Futurist poet, Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa, who went town to town trying to earn enough money from poetry readings to live. When they got into trouble with the police, Sebastian came home, not at all passionate about this affair, but as though he had been an observer of it. This made V.'s mother feel she had never known or understood Sebastian.


Sebastian came to Paris for his step-mother's funeral, and V. thought he looked like a foreigner speaking Russian. Sebastian had plenty of money and offered to give V. as much as he ever needed if he asked. As usual, the younger brother felt awkward trying to converse with Sebastian and actually felt sorry for him, wishing he could say something real.


Two months after Sebastian's death, V. has an overwhelming desire to do justice to his brother. He feels sorry he never told him how much he enjoyed his books. Though he will have to do research on the outer details of his brother's life, he feels he has the inner knowledge of him to put the pieces together.

In some ways, he feels like his brother's twin, with “some kind of common rhythm” (Chpt. 4,p. 34), though he admits his brother was the genius, and he is not.


Sebastian had left a request that V. destroy certain papers of his, so he goes to his London flat to cold rooms where the author had not spent much time. There are many books, but the whole place has an impersonal feel. He finds the two bundles of letters that Sebastian wants destroyed, and though he is curious, he is dutiful and burns them without reading. As one sheet is burning, however, he sees a few words before they are destroyed. He is surprised to find the words are Russian, for Sebastian had become English and had written in English. The letter appeared to be intimate with the word,“thy.” He knows one bundle of letters is to Clare Bishop, Sebastian's English mistress and partner, but the other bundle seems to be to a Russian woman. V. wants to find out about the mysterious Russian woman but finds nothing.


Commentary on Chapters Three and Four


Sebastian is a curious mix of spontaneity and coldness. He runs off with a poet and his wife but feels no passion about it. His rooms are impersonal. Only the letters, which V. dutifully burns, contain anything about his feelings. His brother's outward life is not exciting, but V. turns up a mysterious Russian woman in his past. Sebastian does not seem to fit anywhere and appears awkward to V. in Paris, neither English nor Russian. He is not easy to talk to, though generous, offering his brother as much money as he wants. Clare Bishop is mentioned and will become a major character. Now,  turning into a detective determined to find the mysterious Russian woman Sebastian apparently was in love with.


Nabokov has fun bringing up the writing course that V. takes to improve his English. He satirizes the kind of creative writing classes that teach formulas to students so they can write like “Mr. Everyman” (Chpt. 4, p. 35). Nabokov also likes puzzles and leaves the beginning sentence of an unfinished novel on Sebastian's desk. Sebastian had a way of writing a draft without crossing out the words he did not want, so the reader has to look at all the words to figure out the final sentence. Thus we see that Sebastian and V. (and Nabokov) love word play. It will be brought out, as in the passage above on the creative writing course, that Sebastian hates what is sentimental or hackneyed. He likes originality.

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