- Nabokov and Indeterminacy: The Case of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Priscilla Meyer
I love one of the very premises of this book, as found in Part II: As Nabokov is getting ready, while still in France, to become an English-writing author—either in UK or USA—and, for that purpose, completing his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, he leaves in it hints for us about the details of his painstaking preparation for successfully entering and penetrating the new literary market(s). For these clues Meyer focuses on Sebastian's fictional bookshelf, where, among Anglophone novels, one finds works by William Shakespeare, Thomas Malory, James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Lewis Carroll. She then goes outside the novel and into Nabokov's contemporaneous biography as well as existent literary criticism to complete the list of the possible subjects for Nabokov's anticipatory research, especially as it relates to his fast-evolving notion of the "otherworld": Virginia Woolf, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James.
Part II is, in fact, the most coherent and original section of Meyer's study, and my only wish here is that it could have been expanded to include more Anglophone antecedents that are already sensed in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and will be further felt in the subsequent novels of the following two and a half decades: Bend Sinister, Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire. Thus Meyer suggests Nabokov's indebtedness to Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room as well as Waves in the "British Subtexts" portion of the monograph, but does not include H. G. Wells who, unlike Woolf, is actually in evidence on Sebastian's shelf. And yet Nabokov was substantially influenced by Wells in defining the very concept of the "otherworld" that is Meyer's primary concern, with the obvious echoes of Wells's "The Door in the Wall" even finding their way into Pale Fire. When it comes to "American Subtexts" the pickings on Sebastian's shelf are much slimmer: American writers are represented by just one book: Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. When we remember that at the time of writing The Real Life Nabokov was still very hopeful that he would be able to land an academic job in England, it is not all that surprising that Sebastian's shelf is so lopsided in favor of British authors. Meyer chooses to forego Wilder altogether ("not a ghost story" ), and aptly focuses instead on Hawthorne and James.
While the common themes of the "Uncanny," "Unknowable" and "Uncertain" go through the entire book, some of the parts of Nabokov and Indeterminacy are not quite as logically delineated as Part II. In Introduction, for example, there is a very brief discussion of "Realism. Modernism. Postmodernism" whose only purpose seems to be a (hard-to- argue-with) assumption that distinguishing Postmodernism from Modernism in Nabokov—or anyone else, for that matter—can be nearly impossible. Part One ("Mirrored Worlds: This World and The Otherworld") deals with Nabokov's sense of the "otherworld" and thus in may ways prepares for the "Subtexts" of Part II, but while it features some of the clearest formulations of this particular "uncanny" in Nabokov ("hope of a transcendent force shaping human existence and the existence of an afterlife" ) the concept itself is of course not at all new to The Real Life (as Meyer herself seems to admit by adding Despair to her discussion) and can be found, in fact, in this or that form, in all his Russian novels. In Part III and IV Meyer finalizes the links between the "uncanny" (or "unknowable") and "uncertain" (which also features the Authorship) in The Real Life and the later works written in English, such as Lolita and Pale Fire, but this, again, while accurate, is not the entire story of the occurrence of these particular literary and philosophical phenomena in Nabokov's...