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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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