Rich Moreau Russian 263 Motif paper
Gray and Grey in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
In the novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, both the color gray and the color grey appear numerous times throughout the text. The American Heritage Dictionary defines gray as a “color of any lightness between the extremes of black and white.” It also defines grey as a “variant of gray.” Thus, we are left with the question: Why are two forms of the spelling gray used, and what does this mean, in relation to the novel? I argue that the color gray is symbolic of three things: physical death, Sebastian’s physical reality, and Sebastian’s beginnings as a writer. The color grey is also symbolic of three things: transcendence of physical death into eternal spiritual existence, Sebastian’s artistic world, and Sebastian’s growth as a writer. The color gray is most abundant in the beginning of the book. The very first reference links gray with the physical death of SK’s and V.’s father, when he falls “face downwards on a blue-gray army-cloak spread on the snow” (11). He had died in a duel defending the honor of SK’s mother. This was an important event for both boys, evoking “estatic worship” (16) for the fallen father from SK. The next reference to gray comes when “the house on the Neva embankment” fades out “gradually in the gray-blue frosty night” (18). This association of gray with nighttime on the Neva at their Russian house further strengthens the link between gray and physical death because after SK and his family are forced to flee Russia, their house fades out of physical existence to them forever. This association also establishes gray as the color of their Russian fatherland. When SK goes to England, where he “had done his best to be a standard undergraduate,” gray turns to grey. For breakfast, he ate “porridge as grey as the sky” (44). Here Sebastian begins to break away from his gray Russian past. He begins to write in English, and form a new artistic world, a variant of his old Russian one. The gray is beginning to change to its variant grey. But this change for Sebastian does not come easily. V. tells us that SK’s “struggle with words was unusually painful for two reasons” (81). That second reason is that “Sebastian’s Russian was better and more natural to him than his English” (82). Examples of this struggle between languages, between past and present, between gray and grey, are apparent in Sebastian’s early works. One of the main character of SK’s first book, The Prismatic Bezel, is “old Nosebag,” who is actually G. Abeson in a “gray wig” (92). The fact that the wig is gray and not grey, shows that SK is still at the initial, or childhood stages of his English literary career. We are also told by V. that when this book, The Prismatic Bezel, was initially published, it “fell completely flat” (83). This of course associates the grayness of SK’s first work with the grayness of his childhood reality, where his father fell dead in the same manner. Thus, the use of gray in The Prismatic Bezel signifies the infancy of SK as an English writer, still with hints of his past link to Russia. V. tells us that Clare Bishop is the only one who understood “every detail of Sebastian’s struggle” (82). It is for this reason, because she is so in touch with his struggle to go from gray to grey, that she herself is described as having “blue-gray near-sighted eyes” (69). She also has a “blue-gray figure” (72) and wears “gray suede” gloves (71). This association of gray and Clare symbolizes her profound understanding of SK as a writer, and establishes her as a key reality of SK’s life. Although Sebastian, with the help of Clare, matures as a writer and gradually proceeds deeper and deeper into the grey of his artistic world, he never fully breaks with the original gray world of his reality and his childhood. When he first breaks the news to Clare about his inherited “heart disease” (87), feelings and memories of his mother and childhood return. He knows this disease will eventually cause his physical demise. The description of the weather outside reflects these feelings and memories; the sea being a “steely gray” and the light a “pale gray” (86). As SK grows as a writer, the color grey becomes more abundant. It begins to appear in place descriptions and in random characters. When SK’s characters from his later novels come to life to aid V. in his quest, the color grey is used in the physical descriptions of all of them, be it the grey in their hair or their beards, or in their clothing; grey is a part of all of them. The manager of the Beaumont Hotel (located at “the foot of a soft grey mountain” 119), is “grey-haired” (120). Mr. Silbermann, has “old mouse-grey spats” (130) on when he boards the train to assist V. The fact that the spats are “mouse-grey” ties SK and his art even closer to the color grey, because when V. has a dream on the train to St. Damier, the contents of SK’s glove are “a number of tiny hands, like the front paws of a mouse” (187). If one views these mouse paws as potential or future novels, the color of these “mouse-grey” paws links SK’s novels and his artistic world with the color grey. The Russian man at Madame Lecerf’s who aids V. in detecting Lecerf’s trickery had a “queer grey streak in his fair sparse hair” (165). The fact that the color grey appears in all of these characters and places is a symbol of SK’s success in becoming an English writer. His grey artistic world has transcended the physical restraints of reality and come alive. Another character of Sebastian’s, “a fat Bohemian woman” from his last book, The Doubtful Asphodel, has a “grey streak showing in the fast colour of her cheaply dyed hair” (173). V. describes this book as a collection of images (thoughts and memories) of a dying man:
“now rolling up this image, now that, letting it ride in the wind or even tossing it out on the shore, where it seems to move and live for a minute on its own and presently is drawn back again by the grey seas where it sinks or is strangely transfigured” (173). These “grey seas” are the books and artistic world of Sebastian. His gray memories and images from reality are transformed in his books and are cast from these seas in the form of what seems to be alive. Such images include the birds of the “pearl gray” Arc de Triomphe. “When some of them fluttered off . . . it seemed as if bits of the carved entablature were turned into flaky life” (72). “‘That stone melting into wing'” eventually becomes part of SK’s grey artistic world. Thus one has an image that was initially a gray reality transformed and incorporated into SK’s grey world. Some of the grey world characters even return to the world of reality. Such obvious examples include Mr. Siller coming to life with his mouse-grey spats as Mr. Silbermann, and the fat Bohemian woman with the grey streak in her dyed hair coming to life as the fat Lydia Bohemsky “with waved bright orange hair” (151). Perhaps the most interesting gray/grey is Helen von Graun, the lady responsible for breaking Sebastian’s heart. How does she fit into the gray/grey scheme? I argue that her grau is gray for two reasons: she is a native Russian and she removes SK from his grey artistic world and brings him crashing into the gray of reality when she refuses to return his love. This point can be further supported from observations of Roy Carswell’s painting of Sebastian. The clue is in “Sebastian’s eyes for all the sadness of their expression. The painter has wonderfully rendered the moist dark greenish-grey of their iris” (117). This painting was done in 1933, four years after SK had met von Graun. The reason that SK’s eyes are not completely grey (symbolizing full envelopment in his artistic world) is because of von Graun, who is represented as the green in SK’s eyes. In the last paragraph of the book, she is associated with the color green: “Nina sits on a table in the brightest corner of the stage, with a wineglass of fuchsined (a dark green synthetic) water” (203). Thus, the green in SK’s eyes in Carswell’s portrait is a pollution marring SK’s vision. This pollution is his obsession with von Graun. As the novel draws to a close, V. rushes to be at SK’s bedside. On his way there, the train window grows a “grey beard” (191) and “the darkness” fades “into a greyish dimness” (194). This grey dimness which V. perceives is the foreshadowing of the conclusion, that V. has successfully entered into SK’s grey artistic world. V. has followed the undulations of SK’s soul, and that the two have merged into one. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this union is that V. also went through a gray period in his dawning as a writer. He recalls the day he met Clare and Sebastian in Paris as a “dull gray afternoon” (69). And it is V. who describes the initial St. Petersburg night as “gray-blue” (18). But V.’s world, like his brother’s, becomes more grey as he follows Sebastian’s life and as his skills as a writer increase. Thus by the end of the book, a single spiritual grey unison exists between the brothers, and perhaps also with the reader. But everything always goes back to the original, including Sebastian. For although he achieves great success as an English writer, his gray past can not be forgotten. Grey is a variant of gray. At the end of the novel, Sebastian prepares for his physical death, the death of his reality, by returning to the original source of all that is gray in his life: his memories of Russia. He has an affair with a Russian woman, and seeks treatment from his mother’s Russian doctor. At the hospital, when V. asks for “Knight,” and tells the nurse, “It is an English name” (198), he is mistakenly placed in the wrong room. Only later does the nurse realize the mistake, and tell him that, “Mon Dieu! The Russian gentleman died yesterday” (202). The fact that Sebastian is known to the nurse as a Russian gentleman signifies that Sebastian had already returned to the gray roots of his past. Thus, over the course of the novel we follow the transition of gray to grey. Each spelling of gray symbolizes three different parts of Sebastian’s life, but all are interconnected. The only real number is one. As we trace SK’s life through the course of the book, we begin with an inexperienced writer, whose physical reality is filled with death. Gray represents all three of these traits: his inexperience as a writer, his physical reality, and death. But as SK grows as a writer, his gray physical world is left behind and he enters into his grey artistic world, a world which transcends death. Grey represents all three of these traits: his growth as a writer, his world of grey artistic seas, and his transcendence of death. This change can be observed by looking at his novels, as well as V’s book, which both initially use the spelling gray, and then, as they grow as a writers, use the variant spelling, grey.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin. 1992.
1 Thanks to Brion Winston for this observation.