While it falls short compared to later English works such as Lolita and Pale Fire, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is an underrated little gem in Nabokov's oeuvre.
There's an enigmatic narrator and plenty of postmodern play. But that's par for the course. What makes TRLOSB special is the sense of Nabokov finding his feet in his adopted literary language. That's not to say he ever succumbs to a clumsy sentence or a misplaced word - everything is as carefully written as one would expect from the Great One. What there is, though, is a certain vulnerability of tone not present in any of his other novels (including the apprentice work Mary). This is reflected in the narrator V, who does not exhibit the expressive arrogance of a Humbert or a Kinbote (or a Hermann, or a Van Veen...)
So there's a fascinating feeling of transition in TRLOSK, being as it is the bridge between the great Russian novels Despair and The Gift and the great English novels that would make Nabokov famous.
Written by any other author, TRLOSK would be considered a masterpiece - it's predictably pretty, intensely readable and highly thought-provoking. But Nabokov's best was so good, his merely 'very good' books risk being neglected.
According to the Introduction by Conrad Brenner this was written in 1938 in Paris. It was Nabokov's first book composed in English, although I understand he had translated "Despair" into English from his Russian in 1935. What stands out to me is the contrast between the English English of "Sebastian Knight" and the American English that he employed so marvelously in "Lolita." Only a master of language--which Nabokov is without doubt--could have written both novels. Yet, while the differences in idiom, spelling and expression are true and distinct, the intricate, precise composition of plot and the deliberate game-playing with the reader, which are hallmarks of Nabokov's unique style, are very much the same in both novels.
What isn't the same is the experience for the reader. In "Lolita" Nabokov plays upon the reader's sense of what is right and wrong to the extent that we find ourselves in sympathy with Humbert Humbert who, objectively speaking, is a pedophile, a rapist and a child abductor. In "Sebastian Knight" our sympathies are confused, at least in the beginning, although in the end it is hard not to identify with Sebastian's loving half-brother who does the first person narration. What Nabokov plays with is the reader's sense of who really is narrating the story. The authorial command of the book--the authentic voice behind the telling of the events--is it really Sebastian's nearly anonymous half-brother or is he just a shill for Sebastian himself? Or is this (on another level) a story of Vladimir Nabokov himself as this brilliant writer "Sebastian Knight" told by Nabokov in the guise of a supposed younger, adoring half-brother?
This is the trick of the novel. How Nabokov adores tricks! How he loves to fool and misguide the reader and play with the reader's sensibilities and perceptions! He does this because to Nabokov the novel is a deception, an art form like all art forms that relies on a representation of truth controlled by the artist. What is the truth of Sebastian's life? What is the truth about Nabokov's life? Was he in some sense the tortured Sebastian whose work was misunderstood and misinterpreted by the vain and stupid Mr. Goodman? Was he in some other sense Humbert Humbert whose shameful acts could only see the light of day in a novel?
Nabokov has answered in the negative. He insists that his characters are puppets on his--the artist's--string. And of course we must not commit the biographical fallacy--or so I was taught many years ago in undergraduate English classes. But no artist's life is completely removed from his work. And no writer of fiction can completely divorce himself from reliance on that which he knows intimately. What is marvelous about the great writers--Tolstoy, Shakespeare, et al., and Nabokov himself--is their ability to be so many characters and in those characters to display the psychological veracity that makes the characters seem truer than true.
It is interesting to know that Nabokov, after the success of "Lolita," went back and translated into English the novels he wrote in Russian under the pen name V. Sirin. It is also interesting to read at the end of Chapter 18 in "Sebastian Knight" these words: "And sometimes I tell myself that it would not be inordinately hard to translate ...[Sebastian's novel 'The Doubtful Asphodel'] into Russian." Here again the narrator is at odds with himself as to his English language abilities. Before he was poor in English; now he could be a translator from English into Russian.
This raises the further question, mentioned below, as to what extent we can trust the younger brother--perhaps with younger brother aspirations--on other matters. We might ask ourselves, is the narrator being fair to M. Goodman? To what extent is he objective about Sebastian? We can even ask are Sebastian's strangely named novels really all that good? The prose selected as quotes from those novels is striking yes, but so is the prose of our (unreliable?) narrator, who although he claims no expertise in the English language, gives the lie to that bit of modesty by writing (as far as this reader can tell) as well as his older half-brother. The sense we have about the authorial voice is further confused by how much both brothers sound alike. Normally this would be a fault, but because Nabokov's intent is to fuse the three authors--himself, Sebastian and the first person narrator--into one in such a way as to suggest to the reader that artifice and reality are not so easily distinguished.
What I also like about this novel is the sense of Europe between the two great wars that Nabokov achieves. There are no dark clouds hanging over Europe, and there is almost no mention of the senseless war that ended some twenty years before. Nabokov and his characters care not the slightest for politics or international intrigues. There is a clear, deliberate effort at showing life entirely without war or the threat or aftermath of war. Only once does Nabokov acknowledge that there is a political world beyond the day-to-day concerns of his characters. Near the end of the book as his hero is rushing madly to get to Sebastian before he dies, he asks in passing, "Who were those idle idiots who wrote on the wall, 'Death to the Jews'?..."
Few writers can use coincidence to surprise and delight the reader the way Nabokov can. One recalls Charlotte Haze conveniently killing herself off at exactly the right time by running out in front of an automobile. In Sebastian Knight we have the narrator conveniently meet on a train a man, who for unknown reasons comes to the narrator's aid and helps him find the identity of a mysterious woman that Sebastian loved and lost.
Finally I have to say that for many readers this novel will develop too slowly and too obscurely to be readily appreciated. But stay with it. It builds to a kind of intriguing lucidity and even develops into a dramatic narrative toward the end.
The narrator goes in search of those who knew his novelist half-brother with a view to writing his biography. He meets with mixed success - meeting some of the wrong people, not getting to speak to others, and sometimes just not learning anything. He concludes, in a scene that comes chronologically at the start of the narrative, with his vain attempt to see his brother before he dies - in fact, as is typical of the novel, he sees someone very sick he thinks is his brother before learning that his brother has died. This is enough, though, to give him some insight - really we are ALL the same person...he is certainly the same person as his brother.
This I suspect, is an acquired taste, for those who like indirection and will enjoy the ride for its own sake and its puzzling conclusion...
This is Nabokov's first novel in English and there is much to admire here: the shimmering descriptions; the tragi-comic misunderstandings; the rueful meditations on lost property (in this case a brother). The story concerns itself with V, who attempts to shade in the life of his recently deceased brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. Knight, the writer, is perhaps the weakest element in the book - the quoted extracts and discussed work are a tad unconvincing: something N rectified in Pale Fire with the creation of John Shade. This is not a major Nabokov admittedly, but it is interesting for its autobiographical infarction: in Speak, Memory, N would talk movingly of his dead brother for a mere 2 pages - read them, I urge you - having exorcised much of his loss in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The writing is beautiful, though its archness may put some readers off - the comedy and characteristion should put them back on track again though. Worth reading after you've finished Lolita and Pale Fire and are looking where to go next. Two and a half stars.