The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: Chapter 5,6

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Summary of Chapters Five and Six


Sebastian was not happy in college, though at first he was thrilled with the Cambridge scenes at Trinity he had always longed for—the chimes, the tea and cozy fire, the hansom cab. He realized that he would be as alone as he ever had been. He had an “inability to fit into the picture” (Chpt. 5, p. 44). Instead, he cultivated his solitude and self-consciousness.


V. goes to Cambridge and interviews Sebastian's unnamed best friend there fifteen years later. Sebastian had been poor at games, though he tried tennis. He tried to be like the others, speaking like they did, dining where they did, but he finally changed and dropped out of the college routines. He had only this one close friend who was a scholar of English literature. Sebastian stayed in bed, smoking and reading. He wrote poems in English, but the friend says that they did not sound English. Sebastian would bicycle in the country and sit on a fence looking at the sky, pondering the great truths.


As V. leaves Cambridge, walking in the rain, he feels he hears a ghostly voice asking who is inquiring after Sebastian Knight? It seems like Sebastian's ghost, but V. says it is his own consciousness reminding him that no outsider will be able to tell him about Sebastian, for V. is the man's “best friend and half-brother,” (Chpt. 6,p. 52). He feels Sebastian looking over his shoulder as he writes.


V. knows Sebastian employed a secretary, Mr. Goodman, from 1930 to 1934 because he needed help in business affairs. In 1936, V. calls on him to get some hints about who to interview for his intended biography. Mr. Goodman has never heard of Sebastian having a half-brother and does not recognize his Russian name. Goodman treats V. with hostility, informing him of his contract with Sebastian for an interest in two of the novels, The Funny Mountain and Lost Property. He tries to discourage V. from writing the biography, assuring him Sebastian was not a very great writer. As V. is leaving, a secretary runs after him, saying her name is Helen Pratt, a friend of Clare Bishop's. She says that Goodman has just written a biography of Sebastian which she loathes. She knew Sebastian.

Commentary on Chapters Five and Six


The few hints that V. turns up at Cambridge confirm that Sebastian is sensitive and lonely. He had idealized England, but it seems shallow with rowdy student life, while he has a large, romantic soul. Sebastian turns inward and writes poetry. Even his scholar friend does not understand the Russian quality of the verse. We learn something else of Sebastian in these chapters besides his romantic and philosophical nature. He also, like many young people, has a satiric streak. At this point in his youth, he seems to understand he is a genius and looks down on lesser minds. The scholar tells a practical joke Sebastian played on his dull tutor who tried to impress him with a few Russian words. Sebastian pulls his leg, saying no, he is really Bulgarian. The tutor knows Bulgarian and speaks a sentence. Sebastian lies and says that he speaks a different dialect and invents a new language on the spot.


We also hear about Sebastian's letter to his publisher when he sent in his first novel, The Prismatic Bezel. He had written a satiric passage that the publisher wanted Sebastian to withdraw, ridiculing a famous author. V. quotes Sebastian's angry reply declaring he does not want to perpetuate “this masonic bond of triteness” among authors he considers to be second-rate (Chpt. 6, p. 55). This is based on an actual incident Nabokov had with his own publisher. Here we see the young author launching into his career by taking on older established authors trying to make his own brilliant mark. V. himself satirizes the English secretary, Mr. Goodman, though he declares he is not as brilliant as Sebastian and has no right to attempt satire. Nabokov's humor is pointed. He obviously delights in satire as much as Sebastian. Goodman is a portrait of a second-rate critic.


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