We hold a dead book in our hands

by Kelvin Smith

In Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight being published is what the narrator yearns for, when, in Paris, he first sees his half-brother’s new book “The Doubtful Asphodel announced in an English paper”.

“And as I sat there alone in the lugubriously comfortable hall, and read the publisher’s advertisement and Sebastian’s handsome black name in block letters, I envied his lot more acutely than I had ever envied it before.”

As is the case with many books about writers there is little mention of publishers and publishing, although we do hear something of Sebastian Knight’s lackadaisical dealings with the profession. What a lark that “The Funny Mountain was published simultaneously in two American magazines, and Sebastian was at a loss to remember how he managed to sell it to two different people”. The first publisher of The Prismatic Bezel spotted an obvious libel and “advised Sebastian to modify the whole passage, a thing which Sebastian flatly refused to do, saying finally that he would get the book printed elsewhere – and this he eventually did”. When the book was published it “fell completely flat” and “was appreciated at its true worth only when Sebastian’s first real success caused it to be presented anew by another firm (Bronson), but even then it did not sell as well as Success, or Lost Property.” Bronson is the only publisher mentioned, and the author’s successes are not attributed in any way to publishing expertise.

Books are central to the story V unfolds, and his view of The Doubtful Asphodel obliquely presages now overworked predictions of the death of the book: “The man is dead, and we do not know. The asphodel on the other shore is as doubtful as ever. We hold a dead book in our hands. Or are we mistaken?”

Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941