Thursday, November 19, 2009

REVIEW: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov. Published 2008 by New Directions Books. Literary Fiction.

Anticipating Tuesday's publication of Vladimir Nabokov's final work, The Original of Laura, I decided to pick up one of his novels a few weeks ago, and chose The Real Life of Sebastian Knight because I hadn't read it before and because it happened to be available in the bookstore when I was out shopping one night. A little walk on the cerebral side, it's a great choice for readers of modern fiction looking for something a little unusual.

The book purports to be an attempt at a biography of a deceased writer named Sebastian Knight, written by his half-brother, known only as "V." But is it? Is V. who he says he is? What are his real feelings towards Sebastian? And how can we know what someone's "real" life is, or was?

If you pick up this particular edition, don't skip critic Michael Dirda's excellent introduction. He lays out a number of important issues presented in the book, a puzzle within a puzzle. "Remember," V. tells us early on, "that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale." In other words, take everything with a grain of salt, question everything and don't trust anybody to tell you the truth.

I had a great time reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; I can't remember the last time I read something so enigmatic, something that shrank from my grasp so even as I got closer and closer to the core of the narrative. I loved the puzzles, the misdirections and the ambiguity, and just the sheer beauty of Nabokov's prose. I always enjoy unreliable-narrator stories and nobody does that better than Nabokov. And I loved reading this book just before the publication of The Original of Laura, basically a rough draft that was salvaged by Nabokov's son- in The Real Life, the narrator makes comments and raises issues that made me think of the phenomenon of Laura coming to light. So if you would like a book that's going to make you work a little, remember that there's more to Nabokov than Lolita and think about The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

Rating: BUY


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.