The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is the first book Nabokov wrote in English. It’s not quite the leaping, dazzling style of Lolita or Pale Fire — it is a little more brittle and fragile than that — but it is beautiful. And perhaps more importantly, this book is interesting, a set of complicated origami folds that look like one thing and are, or at any rate may be, quite another.
This book purports to be the biography of Sebastian Knight, a Russian-born English novelist and author of such books as The Prismatic Bezel, The Funny Mountain, and The Doubtful Asphodel. (These titles all sounded to me as if they could have been written by Edward Gorey, but let it pass.) The author of the biography is Sebastian’s six-years-younger half-brother, who goes unnamed except for “V.” (“I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible,” he says.) The biography follows Sebastian from the author’s childhood memories in Russia all the way to the French hospital in which Sebastian dies.
The book has four threads (or probably a lot more), all of which play with the ideas of identity and fictitious biography. V describes each of Sebastian’s books, after which the form of the novel takes the shape of the book just described: a parody of a detective story, “the exact way in which two lines of life were made to come into contact,” “a counting of things and souls lost” on a journey of literary discovery, a dying man as the hero of a dying story. V discovers that Sebastian himself was interested in fictitious biography. At one point, he had placed an author’s query in the newspaper:
Author writing fictitious biography requires photos of gentleman, efficient appearance, plain, steady, teetotaller, bachelors preferred. Will pay for photos childhood, youth, manhood to appear in said work.
At this point (if not before), we begin to question the authenticity of the photos, the details, the very memories of V. What is identity and what is literature?
Another large part of the book is spent in prolix attacks on an earlier biography written by Sebastian’s former secretary Mr. Goodman. This biography (“slapdash and very misleading”) is The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight. Again, what is true and what is false? We sense a trial run for Charles Kinbote, though perhaps without the malice.
V spends the last part of the book trying to find the two women with whom Sebastian spent his days: one with whom he was happily “almost married,” and one whom he loved passionately and miserably. This part of the book is dreamlike (and indeed there is an actual, horrible dream in it, just before an equally terrible dreamlike train journey): a slow transformation. V is less and less himself; is he Sebastian or some third, fictitious character? The man who tried to put as little of himself as possible into the biography has become the subject of the biography altogether, merged with his brother completely, or perhaps become something new.
There is a point in the book when a stranger in a hotel tells V that he doesn’t like Sebastian Knight’s fiction: “Knight seemed to him to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.” It’s true, and you might as well say Nabokov instead of Knight; it’s a bit like playing croquet with flamingoes to read something like this. But like that game, even when I don’t fully grasp it, it’s always beautiful, and it’s never dull.