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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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Abbott, Geof frey 196 Aldanov, Mark 19 Alexandrov, Vladimir 72, 93 n, 215 n Appel, Alfred, Jr 66 Arabian Nights, The 222 Ashenden (fictional character) see Maugham, W. Somerset Auden, W. H. 157 Austen, Edward see Knight, Edward Bader, Julia 93 n Barrie, J. M. Peter and Wendy 141, 141 n Beaumont, Francis 187 The Knight of the Burning Pestle 187 Begnal, Michael 107 n Benes, Eduard 38 “Blue Beard” (fairy tale) see Perrault, Charles Blunt, Anthony 154, 156 Bonaparte, Napoleon 42–43, 43 n, 44, 45, 46 Boswell, James 185 Boyd, Brian xii, 68 n, 72, 93 n, 140 Brooke, Rupert 140, 141 “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” 140 Brown, Father (fictional character) 67 see also Chesterton, G. K. Bukharin, Nikolai 20 Burnand, F. C. About Buying a Horse 151 Burns, Dan E. 26 n Byron, George Gordon, Lord 140–41, 185 “L’Amitié est l’amour sans ailes” 140–41 “The Dream” 194 Caine, William The Author of “Trixie” 151 Carlyle, Thomas 221 Carroll, Lewis 157, 186 Alice’s Adventures in Wonder- land 80–81, 82, 151, 157, 161, 186, 188 Through the Looking-Glass 77, 80, 81, 82, 110, 117, 129, 157, 161, 186, 203, 212 Chamberlain, Neville 37–39, 161 Chekhov, Anton “The Lady with the Dog” 151 Chernyshevski, Nikolai 11 Chesterton, G. K. “The Dagger with Wings” 168 see also Brown, Father Childers, Erskine The Riddle of the Sands 144, 180, 190 Christ 36, 107, 176–77 Christie, Agatha Death on the Nile 132 Murder on the Orient Express 125,...

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