The Real of Sebastian Knight is an intricate little puzzle box of its own, but it has been outclassed by Vlad’s later, more powerful, works.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-born butterfly collector and chess composer. It’s probably also worth mentioning that he wrote novels: nine of them in Russian and eight of them in English (and short stories, poetry, unfinished works etc.) and late in his career he hit superfame with Lolita and Pale Fire a consequence of which there are now more books written about him than books written by him. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight fits right in the middle of his literary career. Written in 1941, it’s the first of Vlad’s published English novels and begins his legacy of screwing with the English language.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, as the title may or may not have let on, is the biography of dead Russian-born author Sebastian Knight. The writer, V, tells us in the opening chapter: Sebastian was his half-brother and V plans to set the record straight after Sebastian’s secretary, Mr Goodman, published his own biography of Sebastian’s life. According to V: Mr Goodman’s biography is a ‘slapdash and misleading book’ written to cash in on Sebastian’s death and doesn’t pay tribute to the literary figure that Sebastian was.
So chapter by chapter, V takes us through Sebastian’s life as he interviews people from Sebastian’s past, reviews Sebastian’s books and interlaces it with his own knowledge of his brother’s life (there’s also plenty of time to rip on Mr Goodman). And as read we come to know of Sebastian’s troubled life and of his strained relationships with friends and family. The story, in sense, is V’s attempt to document the importance of Sebastian’s literary work and to discover the ‘truth’ about him, the truth about who he really was.
The book is also its own little puzzle. There’s flawed narration, human bias, buried secrets and novels within the novel that all need interpreting. Sebastian’s five novels in particular form a backdrop to the story and V’s interpretation of them provides us with clues as to how to interpret the book itself. I can’t say I walked away from the novel with everything figured it. Perhaps in accordance with all the chess imagery that the book contains, the book itself is it’s own chess problem that one needs to sit with and think about in order to solve.
On the stylistic side, the book is Nabokov’s first official foray into the English language and the sentences have the formal quality of someone picking each word very carefully (something the Russian narrator acknowledges). As such, Sebastian Knight has a restrained quality to it and doesn’t express the mastery of wordplay that Nabokov shows off in his later works. Expectations aside though: old Vlad has chosen his words well and the book stands on its own feet. The only big miss, for me, at least was Nabokov’s outlandish sense of humour. In comparison to the antics of Lolita, Pale Fire and even Pnin, Sebastian Knight feels tame, but it is a darker novel set in a darker world.
In closing, The Real of Sebastian Knight is an intricate little puzzle box of its own, but it has been outclassed by Vlad’s later, more powerful, works.