The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
The test of how much you’ve been involved with a book is the hangover it gives you, and I really had a massive one after finishing “Glory”! I spent a day humming and hawing, picking up books, reading a few pages, putting them down again and just being incapable of deciding what I wanted to read next. In the end I gave in – and picked up another Nabokov!
“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is Nabokov’s first major work to be written in English, and according to online sources, he wrote it sitting in the bathroom with a suitcase balanced across the bidet to lean on… The story is narrated by V,. apparently the half-brother of the late famous author Sebastian Knight (they share the same father). V. is unhappy about a book written about Sebastian by his former secretary, Mr. Goodman, which he declares is misleading; and so he sets out to put the record straight and write about the real life of Sebastian Knight.
The trouble is, of course, that V. himself has only had limited contact with his brother over the years, owing to the difference in ages, loss of parents, displacement because of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and so on. So he begins a journey to piece together the facts of Sebastian’s life by tracking down those who knew and loved him. Childhood years are relatively easy, as there was some common contact at that time, but once they’d all fled the country Sebastian decamped to Cambridge; V. tracks down his friends from that time, followed by his long-time love Clare Bishop (who was also something of an amanuensis).
“Real Life…” is scattered with references to Knight’s few published works, and V. treats us to extracts at times, also tying in the events in those narratives with Knight’s real life and feelings – and some of them do indeed sound rather fascinating. Succumbing to ennui and a heart condition, Sebastian eventually splits with Clare and his last years are blighted by an affair with a mysterious Russian woman. V. makes it his task to find out her identity and much of the rest of the book is taken up with this chase.
His struggle with words was unusually painful and this for two reasons. One was the common one with writers of his type: the bridging of the abyss lying between expression and thought; the maddening feeling that the right words, the only words are awaiting you on the opposite bank in the misty distance, and the shudderings of the still unclothed thought clamouring for them on this side of the abyss.
Despite sounding relatively straightforward, this book is anything but – we are dealing with Nabokov here! “Sebastian Knight” is a many-layered work with Nabokov playing with all our perceptions, and the narrative is quite brilliantly put together. As the book goes on and V. gradually begins to unravel his brother’s life, we undergo the same experience as he does – instead of a simple, linear biography, a ‘real life’, we are in fact reading the story of V’s life as he tracks down the truth about his brother!
What Nabokov is doing is deconstructing the whole narrative structure so that the reader ends up totally wrong-footed. How do we actually *know* the narrator really is Knight’s half-brother? (Goodman expresses surprise when V. introduces himself as the former was unaware Sebastian *had* a brother). Can we accept anything he says, or indeed anything he reports others as saying? Did Knight ever really exist or is he simply a wild figment of someone’s imagination? That’s perhaps taking the meta element a little far, but the unreliability of Nabokov’s storyteller has you questioning literally everything – and certainly the ending is rather ambiguous.
I’ve seen several of Nabokov’s books described as “detective stories” and in many ways “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is just that. As we follow V.’s attempts to find out the truth about Sebastian, what he was really like, who the last love of his life was, we become as involved in his quest to sold the mystery as he does. But there are so many layers to this short book that I think a second reading would definitely reveal more; for there are digs at best-selling authors whose books really aren’t so good, while the good authors sell little; wry comment on the shady behaviour of literary agents; and even hints that the capricious behaviour of Knight himself is not necessarily the best way to behave…
All in all, this was another masterpiece by Nabokov, wonderfully written, evocative and very, very clever. It’s going to take a lot of willpower to not just pick up another one of his books…