Ed Note: But like all the best Russian authors whom I have read, including Nabokov, the gray of the title is so gray that it is a thing of brilliance. And this is after all, the first novel of Nabokov which he wrote in English
As Michael Dirda points out in his introduction this story is like all Nabokovian fiction, a sort of mis-reflecting(ed) autobiographical tale.
This edition is a republishing. Republished, because the initial print run was released two weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, and has thus been oft under-appreciated. Dirda suggests that it is perhaps Nabokov’s masterpiece.
One line early in the story which caught my attention was when Nabokov described Sebastian’s father natural vitalness. He was known to pounce upon a “thing he wanted or a creature he loved.” ((pg, 7) Although, unmatched in Sebastian’s own physical existence, this aspect of his father was perfectly represented through his writing. Discussing the opening of one of Sebastian’s books the narrator writes compares this vitalness of the father to the way “Sebastian’s prose sweeps the reader off his feet”. I noted this passage especially because this idea of vitalness seemed to closely match the character of Henderson in Bellow’s Henderson and the Rain King. Henderson too was full of vitalness but still searched for the real essence of life. Something to stop the incessant “I want, I want, I want”….
Another passage I noted as a sort of meta commentary on Modernity. Nabokov, therein puts forth the position (through his character) that “Super-Modern things have a queer knack of dating much faster than others.” (pg, 28). This position is taken in examining the life and happenings of futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife, Larissa.
While the tale may be as Dirda suggests a meta-narrative by Nabokov on his own life as well as the practice of fiction-making, the work is also grounded in a knowledge of the classic of literature.On pg 64 the narrator relates the fact that Sebastian’s first novel (un-published and destroyed) essentially tells the tale of Hamlet. The narrator relates this in the course of taking down Mr. Goodman an ex-secretary of Sebastian who was a dullard, thief and thus he “misses the joke”.
The title for my post refers to a conversation young Sebastian and a lover had. Early, on, in his writing career. The brother (for the narrator is the brother, or even perhaps Sebastian himself…) informs us that Clare proclaimed “A title must convey the color of the book, not its subjects” (pg 77).
The tale begins to develop and the narrator starts to piece together the mystery of his brother’s life. We are treated to passages from Sebastian’s writings throughout. One particularly of note, is used by the brother to abstract Sebastian’s own approach/feelings regarding the end of his first significant relationship. With Clare. It is a very suggestive yet common letter. The end though “Please, don’t write. L” (pg, 112-114) The “Please” is emphasized (bolded/italicized) and this strikes a chord.
There were two references made that I’ve meant to look up. The first a word used by Dirda in his introduction (preterist). The second is used while the brother is trying to locate a lady from Sebastian’s past. Nabokov refers to a “Bottin masterpiece where addresses are arranged according to streets”. An amazing concept…
Twice also, mentions are made of the East. one of the possible lady suspects (but incorrect) had a fondness for Lhassa and bhang (pg, 147-150).
The end reads as a disappearance. With Sebastian’s trail growing cold.As his brother nears the instance of his death. His brother does first, find the women. A vain, then and now, haunting husk of beauty. The brother wants to ask her but doesn’t, whether she ever realize that “tedious wan-faced man was one of the most remarkable writers of his time.” (pg, 174)?
The book ends with the narrator’s journey. Or rather, it dissolves, into the mist and memory of the past.