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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 2 The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Extract

Most of the stories I am contemplating (and some I have written in the past…) will be composed on these lines, according to this system wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one. — Nabokov to Katharine White, 17 March 1951 Chapter 8 Re-reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: The Covert Level Uncovered I The Real Life of Sebastian Knight purports to be the biography of the author Sebastian Knight by his half-brother V. The book takes the form of an account of V’s researches while broadly tracing the chronological course of Sebastian’s life. We learn that Sebastian Knight is born in St. Petersburg in 1899 to a Russian father and an English mother. His mother leaves the family for another man when Sebastian is about four, and dies when Sebastian is nine. His father dies when he is thirteen. At eighteen Sebastian f lees revo- lutionary Russia with his stepmother and half-brother. While the latter pair go to Paris, Sebastian enters Cambridge University. He adopts his mother’s surname, Knight, and begins to cultivate an English persona. After Cambridge Sebastian remains in England, where he begins a career as an English author and starts a relationship with Clare Bishop. His first novel, The Prismatic Bezel, is published in 1925. In 1926, on the brink of achieving fame with his second novel Success, Sebastian is diagnosed with Lehmann’s disease, an incurable heart condition from which his mother died. In spite of the acclaim Success...

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