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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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Part 1 1938


It is hard, I submit, to loathe bloodshed, including war, more than I do, but it is still harder to exceed my loathing of the very nature of totalitarian states in which massacre is only an administrative detail. — Foreword to The Waltz Invention Chapter 1 January, and Chapter 5 of The Gift I In January 1938 Nabokov and his family were living in Menton on the French Riviera in a pension called Les Hespérides (11 rue Partouneaux), where they had been since mid-October 1937 (RY 445). Nabokov told Andrew Field the only thing he remembered about the pension was that another Russian was staying there, “a secret agent who was very nice to Dmitri” (VN 187). The Nabokovs were in the South of France because it was cheaper to live there than in Paris, and they were in Menton because of its mild win- ters (RY 445, 479). Menton has been referred to as the “last resort” on the Riviera, not only because it is a stone’s throw from the Italian border, and has the warmest climate on the coast, but also because in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it provided a winter refuge for the chronically ill – Robert Louis Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence among them (Stirton 295–96). The Nabokovs themselves were at the end of the road in Menton: they had no money, no work permits in France, nowhere to go, and no prospect of improving their circumstances. The outlook in the...

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