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The Absolute Solution

Nabokov’s Response to Tyranny, 1938

Andrew Caulton

In 1938 tyranny attained unprecedented power: the Nazis annexed Austria and the Sudetenland, the Soviet purge reached its peak and the persecution of the Jews escalated into the horror of Kristallnacht. Nabokov frequently engaged with the subject of totalitarianism, but in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, he responded to the political situation with an intensity unmatched at any other time in his career, writing three stories, a play and a novel, each warning of the danger of leaving tyranny unopposed.
Offering fresh insights into all of Nabokov’s works of 1938, this book focuses on a major new reading of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, revealing that Nabokov’s seemingly non-political novel contains a hidden subtext of espionage and totalitarian tyranny. Drawing on the popular British authors he admired as a boy, Nabokov weaves a covert narrative reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes story, in which Sebastian Knight, a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel, uncovers a world of Wellsian scientific misadventure that foreshadows the Holocaust. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight emerges as an antitotalitarian masterpiece, in which the «absolute solution» is both a dire prediction of the future and Nabokov’s artistic answer to the problem of the time.


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This book is a study of a single year in the life of Vladimir Nabokov: a year when he was virtually unknown except among a dwindling community of Russian émigrés; a year indeed when his career hung in the balance and might ultimately have foundered in relative obscurity; but a year neverthe- less which is of vital interest in a consideration of the man and his work, since it shows Nabokov using his art – to a degree not shown at any other time in his career – to address the darkest issues of his age. In 1938 the world stood on the threshold of war. It was a time of extreme tension and anxiety, when the political situation in Europe escalated almost month by month and when all the signs of the impending disaster (in all its unspeakable horror) were falling into place. Nabokov’s writing frequently ref lects the tyranny with which he came into contact in the course of his life, but nowhere is this more evident than in his work of 1938; in that year – though heretofore this has not been realized – every thing he wrote responded to the climate of the time. This included his first English novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight which appears to have nothing to do with the contemporary political situation but which, I argue, conceals a cryptic response to tyranny, perhaps the most elaborate antitotalitarian gesture of Nabokov’s career. In three stories, a play, and even the end of The Gift,...

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