Retrospective: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

While it can be relaxing to read a book that doesn’t require a tableside dictionary, often more challenging books allow a reader to engage fully with the text, even if we feel that the author is trying to parse out uncommitted readers. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Vintage International 1992, originally published in 1941) delicately walks the line between these two types of reads. The format of the book makes it highly readable, even addictive, but the mind-boggling details and layers of narration challenge a simple comprehension. Nabokov combines the page-turning aspect of a great detective story with complexity characteristic of highbrow literature, making the rare book that is suitable for both classroom and beach house.

The format of the book is enough to induce a mild headache: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is the narrator, V.’s, biography of his recently deceased half brother, the renowned author Sebastian Knight. Nabokov’s book is supposedly written by V., who is writing about the works of another author, forming a dense, three-layered cake of authorship. While this could potentially weigh the book down, V. fortunately serves as a deft and lively narrator, splicing his often-humorous commentary with keen observations of his subject and the world around him. Describing a childhood memory:

I remember peering over the banisters and seething him come up the stairs, after school, dressed in the black regulation uniform with that leather belt I secretly coveted, mounting slowly, slouching, hugging his piebald satchel behind him, patting the banisters and now and then pulling himself over three steps at a time. My lips pursed, I squeezed out white spittle which falls down and down, always missing Sebastian; and I do this not because I want to annoy him but merely as a wistful and vain attempt to make him notice my existence.

While Sebastian’s plight has a familiar trajectory (tortured, talented artist who dies young), Sebastian’s fascinatingly surreal novels make him into an engaging subject; they truly seem like real books from a real, talented author. By creating such careful detail, Nabokov ensures that the fictional world of the faux-biography is compellingly realistic. Even more, Nabokov keeps the search for truth as taunt as a classic mystery tale, gradually revealing more and more until V. uncovers the story of Sebastian’s life and death.

However, the relationship between V. and Sebastian is more complex than writer and subject. Details from Sebastian’s own novels reappear in V.’s narrative, challenging the reader’s notions of V. and Sebastian’s roles. But with each vexing question, Nabokov pulls the reader further into the world of his book with elegant detail, such as a lovely segment describing Sebastian’s first heartbreak. The novel is not afraid to tackle subjects such as mortality, family and, as Sebastian calls it, “the absolute solution” of life. But it just as energetically lampoons Mr. Goodman (a target of V.’s hatred), describing his face as “remarkably like a cow’s udder.”


Filed under: Book Review, Prose