Ron Scheer reviews The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) by Vladimir Nabokov.
The risk of talking about anything by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) is the opportunity it offers to reveal one’s ignorance. Nabokov was born into a wealthy St. Petersburg family that was later driven from Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. I’m willing to bet he knew more languages than everybody reading this and English better than anyone.
A man of cosmopolitan sensibilities and some learning, at home among the boulevards and cafés of Paris, he had maybe only one interest that may be said to be even remotely related to my own as a writer about western and frontier fiction. The year 1956 found him in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, hunting butterflies.
Nabokov is one of those few writers (like Dickens, Hemingway, and Shakespeare) who have a style of storytelling named after them. Look up “Nabokovian,” and you find frequent use of the word “playful,” not just in the use of language and literary forms, but in the way he has fun with your expectations.
His first novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is (or pretends to be) a literary detective story. Its narrator tells of his attempt to uncover the final years of Sebastian Knight, a respected novelist who is by chance his half-brother. I say “pretends to be,” because the narrative is knee-deep in ironies. There is much for a serious reader to take seriously, but with Nabokov, you never can be sure when he is pulling your leg.
Let’s say we give it a serious reading. The novel concerns itself with the phenomenon of celebrity and authors whose loyal readers want to know the intimate details of their lives. In the absence of that intimacy, they presume to find autobiographical self-disclosure in the pages of the author’s fiction. Think of the fuss over the reclusive J. D. Salinger, the fans who stalked him, and the recent documentary project digging up reminiscences from former friends and lovers, all of it an effort to find the “real” person behind the man’s published work.
Such is the case in Nabokov’s novel as his narrator, like a private detective, attempts to piece together the scattered clues he finds of his now-dead half-brother’s private life. The mystery grows as he becomes more obsessed with it, even while what he uncovers turns out to be of little more value than cheap gossip.
Like the mystery surrounding Salinger, there seems to be a lover at the heart of it. And the narrator’s story becomes one of his tireless efforts to determine the elusive identity of a married woman who may or may not have had an affair with Knight in his last years. The irony is that when we finally meet the woman, she illuminates nothing about the author or his fiction.
Nabokov is saying (to me at least) that the search for an author’s “real life” outside of their work is not just a hopeless task. It is meaningless. In the case of Sebastian Knight, we learn that the life of a brilliant writer can be as shabbily ordinary as anyone else’s. What an author writes has a life of its own and is arguably more real than the personality, character, or life experience of the person who created it.
The real life to be found in Nabokov’s novel is in fact that of its narrator, a nameless man, with writerly aspirations of his own. We learn that he once held an unspecified job for a company in Marseille, where he disliked his work and was disliked in turn by his boss. He is an earnest fan worshipping at a shrine of his own making, whose biographical tribute to his half-brother seems little more at times than a sad hope to illuminate himself with reflected glory.
He elevates Sebastian Knight to a level far above others, claiming for him powers of perception so highly developed that no one can hope to meet him on any common ground. No one, that is, but the narrator. Viewing an artist’s portrait of Sebastian, he notes that it’s a picture of a reflection in a pool. It is Sebastian as Narcissus gazing upon himself with the adoration no one else deserves because there is no one with sensibilities sufficiently refined to fully appreciate him.
From the start, you are free to suspect you are in the hands of an unreliable narrator, and to the end, it’s hard to know what’s playfully ironic and what’s not, which I’d argue is Nabokov’s intention. Sebastian Knight remains an elusive figure. The more the narrator discovers about him, the more urgent becomes his need for a final revelation, which he hopes in the last pages to get from the lips of the dying man himself, who lies in a hospital bed somewhere outside Paris. Here Nabokov ramps up the suspense by sending the narrator by slow-moving train and cab to his half-brother’s bedside, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way.
This final sequence is inspired by cinematic melodrama, chase scenes, and races against the clock. It sets up both the narrator and the reader for a blissfully recounted epiphany that is cathartic and soul satisfying for the narrator, while—to me at least—illusory and deeply ironic for the reader. Like I said, with Nabokov, you can’t be sure when he’s pulling your leg. For anyone who knows Lolita and Nabokov’s other fiction, this first novel is full of entertaining surprises and conundrums, worthy of an enormously gifted writer who, among other things in his “real life,” collected butterflies in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.
Nabokov’s work has been collected in an excellent multi-volume annotated edition by Viking.
Ron Scheer reviews frontier fiction and westerns at his blog, Buddies in the Saddle. He’s gathered these reviews in a two-volume set titled How the West Was Written, the first of which was recently published by BEAT to a PULP. A retired teacher, he holds degrees from UCLA and has taught most recently in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He and his wife Lynda currently reside in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.