The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – Vladimir Nabokov (1941)

by Chingiz Ismailov

Lolita seemed like a trite and frequently stomped path into the world of Nabokov’s writing, so I set out with Pnin (1957), which I found lying at home. Pnin’s neighbour was Sebastian Knight, which I decided to read next.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is, like many of Nabokov’s novels, a Rubik’s cube, or perhaps a much more appropriate metaphor would be a collection of chess problems. By the author’s incredible genius, each character is brought to life. But this creates deliberate problems for us. Each character has their own agenda, each has a fallible memory, their own insecurities, and varying attitudes to V., our narrator, and to his half-brother Sebastian Knight. It is up to us to decide our own attitude toward Knight, with what scraps we are given, some or maybe none of which are true.

Ultimately, we end up learning more about the narrator, V., who is endeavouring to write a biography of his late beloved half-brother. We follow his quest for informants, people who were close to Knight, his loves, his awful previous biographer and secretary. We’re told very little of V.’s actual life, but his interactions, his memories, and the way he twists these about him give us much more than an autobiography could. In the end we can never find the true Sebastian Knight. Perhaps there never was such a one.

“I am Sebastian or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.”