Who is Sebastian Knight?

The Real Life of Sebastian KnightThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

A fun, if intentionally confusing book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a nice slice of vintage Nabokov. On the surface, it’s a farce of a detective story: the half-brother (known only by the last letter of his last name: “V.”) of a famous novelist tries to reconstruct a life and track down a mysterious women Knight had a disastrous affair with. And, of course, it quickly spirals out of control, with V. passing judgement on other writers, breaking down his brother’s prose and supplying lots and lots of conjecture.

With V., Nabokov plays around a lot with the idea of truth. The narrator of this book spends most of it insisting that everyone else got the story of his half-brother wrong, while being just twisted enough to seem like a convincing liar, like when he opens a chapter by saying:

“As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible. I have tried not to allude (though a hint now and then might have made the background of my research somewhat clearer).

Coming from the narrator of a book, it’s a curious statement. And like so much of what V. says throughout, it’s misleading at best.

By book’s end, it becomes a question of who exactly Knight is? And for that matter, who is his half-brother, who nobody’s ever heard of before? Who is the mysterious plainclothes cop that helps V. for no concrete reason? And why do so many people have names corresponding to chess pieces?

Here, Nabokov spends time poking fun at everything from literary critics to detective novels. It’s obtuseness makes it a little maddening sometimes, but it’s also pretty funny, too: the last scene made me laugh out loud. And like just about everything Nabokov wrote, it’s his language is gorgeous. It’s amazing to realize this was his first novel written entirely in English! Not to mention under stressing circumstances, with World War Two just on the horizon and a sudden flight to the United States shortly before it’s publication.

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s not one of the Big-And-Famous Nabokov novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight still a blast and probably makes a good starting place for people who feel daunted by Pale Fire, Lolita or The Gift. It’s clever, funny and will really make you think about what you’re reading. Plus, it’s likely the best novel ever written on the back of a bidet.




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