Nabokov and Indeterminacy
The Case of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Imprint: Northwestern University Press
In Nabokov and Indeterminacy, Priscilla Meyer shows how Vladimir Nabokov’s early novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight illuminates his later work. Meyer first focuses on Sebastian Knight, exploring how Nabokov associates his characters with systems of subtextual references to Russian, British, and American literary and philosophical works. She then turns to Lolita and Pale Fire, applying these insights to show that these later novels clearly differentiate the characters through subtextual references, and that Sebastian Knight’s construction models that of Pale Fire.
Meyer argues that the dialogue Nabokov constructs among subtexts explores his central concern: the continued existence of the spirit beyond bodily death. She suggests that because Nabokov’s art was a quest for an unattainable knowledge of the otherworldly, knowledge which can never be conclusive, Nabokov’s novels are never closed in plot, theme, or resolution—they take as their hidden theme the unfinalizability that Bakhtin says characterizes all novels.
The conclusions of Nabokov's novels demand a rereading, and each rereading yields a different novel. The reader can never get back to the same beginning, never attain a conclusion, and instead becomes an adept of Nabokov’s quest. Meyer emphasizes that, unlike much postmodern fiction, the contradictions created by Nabokov’s multiple paths do not imply that existence is constructed arbitrarily of pre-existing fragments, but rather that these fragments lead to an ever-deepening approach to the unknowable.
Chapter 1 - Mirrored Worlds:
1. This world and the otherworld: TheReal Life of Sebastian Knight and Despair
2. The Real Hound, The Real Knight
Chapter 2 - Britishsubtexts
1. Lewis Carroll
2. Virginia Woolf
Chapter 3 - Americansubtexts
1. Godfrey Goodman, Bishop of Gloucester and Samuel Goodrich, a.k.a. Peter Parley
2. Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James
Chapter 4 - The Unknowable
1. Spiritualism: from America to Russia
2. Dolores Haze, Hazel Shade
IV. Binaries subverted
Chapter 5 – Uncertainty
1. Lolita and The Genre of Literary Doubles: Does Quilty Exist?
2. Parallel structures: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Pale Fire
"Priscilla Meyer’s book is the product of a highly accomplished and knowledgeable scholar, one who brings a comprehensive awareness of Nabokov’s full body of work and life that very few can match. This is a major contribution not just to Nabokov studies, but to the study of literature in general." —Stephen Blackwell, author of The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov's Art and the Worlds of Science
"One of the most attractive features of the book is its thick-description component—comments on details of the text that enliven these details for the reader by shining on them unexpected rays of light . . . the book's methodology has clear pedagogical leanings. Its theoretical terms are explained and contextualized, discussion of analogies is supplemented by that of differences, annotation-type excursions always return to their starting points in the text, and the polygeneticism of Nabokov's texts is taken into account by a survey of their creative transformation of the materials and ideas traceable to British and American precursors." —Leona Toker, Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas
"Meyer’s study, full of specific analyses and relying on a clear theoretical and conceptual framework, demonstrates an impressive mastery of Nabokov’s
bilingual career as well as a thorough knowledge of recent research in Nabokov studies. As she progresses through her exploration of the challenging notion of indeterminacy, Meyer also unearths many a fascinating link to other literary works. The arcane references illuminated by this study are anything but a new
set of annotations, however. Rather, they serve a deeper impulse to relocate Nabokovian indeterminacy from the broad cultural context of postmodernism and show how Nabokov, marked by loss and tragedy, dramatized his very private sense of uncertainty through his art." —Yannicke Chupin, Slavonic and East European Review