Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Capital of Imperial Russia that is the birthplace of both Sebastian and V. The novel initially depicts the city in winter in poetic terms, down to the shade that horse dung colors the snow. V.’s description, which compares his own memories of the city with a view of it on a postcard, introduces the theme of the disparity between “reality” and memory, with neither privileged at any one time. This theme is reinforced when V. visits their old governess, who, although her personal experience of living in Russia is minimal, has turned it in her memory into “a lost paradise.” Her recollections, according to V., are equally inaccurate.


*Russia. St. Petersburg also introduces the idea of being Russian. V., who is half English, sees Sebastian as fully Russian. Goodman, Sebastian’s spurious biographer, sees Sebastian as repudiating his Russian heritage. Since the novel itself is, in a sense, Nabokov’s working out of his own emotions over abandoning his rich Russian language for what he initially thought was the poor substitute of English, the reader cannot be sure how correct V. is. At any rate, Russia remains a “dreamland” for both brothers, more overtly so for V. This becomes more apparent later in the novel when V. learns the identity of the girl whom Sebastian loved in his youth, Natasha Rosanov. Admitting that by now his quest for the secrets of his brother’s identity had grown into a “dream,” V. constructs out of his imagination (there is no evidence he witnesses any of this) a scene between Sebastian and this girl in a “Russian summer landscape.” The first scene includes the obligatory river, aspen and fir trees, flowers, and grass. The deflationary transformation of what at first seems to be a naked girl emerging from the river into a Russian priest blowing his nose after a swim is a clue to the thumbprint of the ultimate author, Nabokov himself, as is the presence in the second scene of a Camberwell beauty butterfly as Sebastian and Natasha meet for the last time. Russia remains only attainable by art.


Roquebrune (ROHK-brewn). French village near the Riviera where Sebastian’s mother supposedly has died. Sebastian seeks it out, finds the pension in which she died, symbolically named “Les...

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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Dismantles the widespread critical view that Nabokov is first and foremost a metaliterary writer. Suggests, instead, that an aesthetic rooted in his intuition of a transcendent realm is the basis of his art.

Hyde, G. M. Vladimir Nabokov: America’s Russian Novelist. London: Marion Boyars, 1977. Discusses Nabokov’s novels as parodies of realism and parodies of themselves. The novels reveal the author’s continuity with classic Russian literature, and they reevaluate that tradition.

Maddox, Lucy. Nabokov’s Novels in English. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983. Thorough investigation of narrative structure, characterization, and theme in Nabokov’s novels.

Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Insightful analysis of Nabokov’s fiction. Discusses formal innovation, as well as theme and characterization. Includes bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Roth, Phyllis, comp. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Excellent collection of essays on the play of language in Nabokov’s works. Discusses the relationship between the life and art of Nabokov. Includes annotated bibliography.