The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

BOOK: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Vladimir Nabokov
1
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 (Réaumur) 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.
A fine soldier, a warm-hearted, humorous, high-spirited man, he had in him that rich strain of adventurous restlessness which Sebastian inherited as a writer. Last winter at a literary lunch, in South Kensington, a celebrated old critic, whose brilliancy and learning I have always admired, was heard to remark as the talk fluttered around Sebastian Knight's untimely death: 'Poor Knight! he really had two periods, the first — a dull man writing broken English, the second — a broken man writing dull English.' A nasty dig, nasty in more ways than one for it is far too easy to talk of a dead author behind the backs of his books. I should like to believe that the jester feels no pride in recalling this particular jest, the more so as he showed far greater restraint when reviewing Sebastian Knight's work a few years ago.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that in a certain sense, Sebastian's life, though far from being dull, lacked the terrific vigour of his literary style. Every time I open one of his books, I seem to see my father dashing into the room — that special way he had of flinging open the door and immediately pouncing upon a thing he wanted or a creature he loved. My first impression of him is always a breathless one of suddenly soaring up from the floor, one half of my toy train still dangling from my hand and the crystal pendants of the chandelier dangerously near my head. He would bump me down as suddenly as he snatched me up, 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. Also some of my father's favourite quips seem to have broken into fantastic flower in such typical Knight stories as
Albinos in Black
or
The Funny Mountain,
his best one perhaps, that beautifully queer tale which always makes me think of a child laughing in its sleep.
It was abroad, in Italy as far as I know, that my father, then a young guardsman on leave, met Virginia Knight. Their first meeting was connected with a fox-hunt in Rome, ill the early nineties, but whether this was mentioned by my mother or whether I subconsciously recall seeing some dim snapshot in a family album, I cannot say. He wooed her long. She was the daughter of Edward Knight, a gentleman of means; this is all I know of him, but from the fact that my grandmother, an austere and wilful woman (I remember her fan, her mittens, her cold white fingers), was emphatically opposed to their marriage, and would repeat the legend of her objections even after my father had been married again, I am inclined to deduce that the Knight family (whatever it was) did not quite reach the standard (whatever that standard might have been) which was required by the redheels of the old régime in Russia. I am not sure either whether my father's first marriage did not clash somehow with the traditions of his regiment — anyway his real military success only began with the Japanese war, which was after his wife had left him.
I was still a child when I lost my father; and it was very much later, in 1922, a few months before my mother's last and fatal operation, that she told me several things which she thought I should know. My father's first marriage had not been happy. A strange woman, a restless reckless being — but not my father's kind of restlessness. His was a constant quest which changed its object only after having attained it. Hers was a half-hearted pursuit, capricious and rambling, now swerving wide off the mark, now forgetting it midway, as one forgets one's umbrella in a taxicab. She was fond of my father after a fashion, a fitful fashion to say the least, and when one day it occurred to her that she might be in love with another (whose name my father never learnt from her lips), she left husband and child as suddenly as a raindrop starts to slide tipwards down a syringa leaf. That upward jerk of the forsaken leaf, which had been heavy with its bright burden, must have caused my father fierce pain; and I do not like to dwell in mind upon that day in a Paris hotel, with Sebastian aged about four, poorly attended by a puzzled nurse, and my father locked up in his room, 'that special kind of hotel room which is so perfectly fit for the staging of the worst tragedies: a dead burnished clock (the waxed moustache of ten minutes to two) under its glass dome on an evil mantelpiece, the French window with its fuddled fly between muslin and pane, and a sample of the hotel's letter paper on the well-used blotting-pad'. This is a quotation from
Albinos in Black,
textually in no way connected with that special disaster but retaining the distant memory of a child's fretfulness on a bleak hotel carpet, with nothing to do and a queer expansion of time, time gone astray, asprawl....
War in the Far East allowed my father that happy activity which helped him — if not to forget Virginia — at least to make life worth living again. His vigorous egotism was but a form of manly vitality and as such wholly consistent with an essentially generous nature. Permanent misery, let alone self-destruction, must have seemed to him a mean business, a shameful surrender. When in 1905 he married again, he surely felt satisfaction at having got the upper hand in his dealing with destiny.
Virginia reappeared in 1908. She was an inveterate traveller, always on the move and alike at home in any small pension or expensive hotel, home only meaning to her the comfort of constant change; from her, Sebastian inherited that strange, almost romantic, passion for sleeping-cars and Great European Express Trains, 'the soft crackle of polished panels in the blue-shaded night, the long sad sigh of brakes at dimly surmised stations, the upward slide of an embossed leather blind disclosing a platform, a man wheeling luggage, the milky globe of a lamp with a pale moth whirling around it; the clank of an invisible hammer testing wheels; the gliding move into darkness; the passing glimpse of a lone woman touching silver-bright things in her travelling-case on the blue plush of a lighted compartment'.
She arrived by the Nord Express on a winter day, without the slightest warning, and sent a curt note asking to see her son. My father was away in the country on a bear-hunt; so my mother quietly took Sebastian to the Hotel d'Europe where Virginia had put up for a single afternoon. There, in the hall, she saw her husband's first wife, a slim, slightly angular woman, with a small quivering face under a huge black hat. She had raised her veil above her lips to kiss the boy, and no sooner had she touched him than she burst into tears, as if Sebastian's warm tender temple was the very source and satiety of her sorrow. Immediately afterwards she put on her gloves and started to tell my mother in bad French a pointless and quite irrelevant story about a Polish woman who had attempted to steal her vanity-bag in the dining-car. Then she thrust into Sebastian's hand a small parcel of sugar-coated violets, gave my mother a nervous smile and followed the porter who was carrying out her luggage. This was all, and next year she died.
It is known from a cousin of hers, H. F. Stainton, that during the last months of her life she roamed all over the South of France, staying for a day or two at small hot provincial towns, rarely visited by tourists — feverish, alone (she had abandoned her lover) and probably very unhappy. One might think she was fleeing from someone or something, as she doubled and re-crossed her tracks; on the other hand, to anyone who knew her moods, that hectic dashing might seem but a final exaggeration of her usual restlessness. She died of heart-failure (Lehmann's disease) at the little town of Roquebrune, in the summer of 1909. There was some difficulty in getting the body dispatched to England; her people had died some time before; Mr Stain ton alone attended her burial in London.
My parents lived happily. It was a quiet and tender union, unmarred by the ugly gossip of certain relatives of ours who whispered that my father, although a loving husband, was attracted now and then by other women. One day, about Christmas, 1912, an acquaintance of his, a very charming and thoughtless girl, happened to mention as they walked down the Nevsky, that her sister's fiancé, a certain Palchin, had known his first wife. My father said he remembered the man — they had met at Biarritz about ten years ago, or was it nine....
'Oh, but he knew her later too,' said the girl, 'you see he confessed to my sister that he had lived with Virginia after you paned.... Then she dropped him somewhere in Switzerland.... Funny, nobody knew.'
'Well,' said my father quietly, 'if it has not leaked out before, there is no reason for people to start prattling ten years later.'
By a very grim coincidence, on the very next day, a good friend of our family, Captain Belov, casually asked my father whether it was true that his first wife came from Australia — he, the Captain, had always thought she was English. My father replied that, as far as he knew, her parents had lived for some time in Melbourne, but that she had been born in Kent.
'...What makes you ask me that?' he added.
The Captain answered evasively that his wife had been at a party or something where somebody had said something
'Some things will have to stop, I'm afraid,' said my father.
Next morning he called upon Palchin, who received him with a greater show of geniality than was necessary. He had spent many years abroad, he said, and was glad to meet old friends.
'There is a certain dirty lie being spread,' said my father without sitting down, 'and I think you know what it is.'
'Look here, my dear fellow,' said Palchin, 'no use my pretending I don't see what you are driving at. I am sorry people have been talking, but really there is no reason to lose our tempers.... It is nobody's fault that you and I were in the same boat once.'
'In that case, Sir,' said my father, 'my seconds will call on you.'
Palchin was a fool and a cad, this much at least I gathered from the story my mother told me (and which in her telling had assumed the vivid direct form I have tried to retain here). But just because Palchin was a fool and a cad, it is hard for me to understand why a man of my father's worth should have risked his life to satisfy — what? Virginia's honour? His own desire of revenge? But just as Virginia's honour had been irredeemably forfeited by the very fact of her flight, so all ideas of vengeance ought to have long lost their bitter lust in the happy years of my father's second marriage. Or was it merely the naming of a name, the seeing of a face, the sudden grotesque sight of an individual stamp upon what had been a tame faceless ghost? And taken all in all was it, this echo of a distant past (and echoes are seldom more than a bark, no matter how pure-voiced the caller), was it worth the ruin of our home and the grief of my mother?
BOOK: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
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