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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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Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) lived through turbulent times. He expe- rienced first-hand the Russian Revolution and the f light of émigrés from Russia; he witnessed the inception of the Nazi regime in Berlin and nar- rowly escaped occupied France with his Jewish wife and son; he lost his father to fascist gunmen and his brother in a Nazi concentration camp; and while America gave him freedom it was overshadowed by the Cold War. Not surprisingly, these events left their mark on Nabokov’s works, notably in the antitotalitarian novels Invitation to a Beheading (1935) and Bend Sinister (1947), but also in stories like “Cloud, Castle, Lake” (1937) and “Conversation Piece, 1945”; in the harrowing experience of the Nazi death camps in Pnin (1957), and the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage in The Man from the USSR (1926), “The Assistant Producer” (1943), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974). Yet there is one episode in the history of tyranny which eclipses all others in its impact on Nabokov’s work (though this has hitherto gone unnoticed), a year when everything Nabokov wrote had an antitotalitarian theme – 1938. In 1938 the world stood on the brink of disaster as the outbreak of war loomed. In Germany Hitler made the transition from domestic con- solidation to territorial expansion by annexing first Austria and then the Sudetenland. In the Soviet Union the purge that Stalin had instigated in 1934 rose to a peak with the Great Trial in which the last remnants of poten- tial opposition to...

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