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.


Schmendro said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! I have not read that one yet but I think I might have to pick it up on my next book buying trip. I loved Nabokov's short stories and Lolita but haven't read much of his other fiction, at least not yet. :)

Tasha said...

I like the quote you chose to share. I started this book a few years ago but did not finish it. Your post has inspired me to pick it up again soon.

Kathleen said...

I've not read any Nabokov and this one sounds intriguing. A puzzle within a puzzle will hold my interest!

bermudaonion said...

Wow! I imagine this book is way over my head!

caite said...

Ok, my reading of Nabokov stopped at Lolita. And I must share Kathy's fear that this one might be more than I want to tackle.
But I am rather intrigued...

Anonymous said...

Your review is excellent, and has my mouth watering to buy the book.

Anonymous said...

Like Nabokov? Try R.M. Koster's 'The Dissertation.' It's an oldie (1976) but there are none finer -- or more hilarious, or more clever. The book won lots of awards when it was first out.

There is one novel in the novel, there is another novel in the footnotes, and you have to read them both at the same time to understand either one.

And did I mention it's hilarious? The narrator is a graduate student in history. His dissertation is a history of his family. He does research by interviewing his dead ancestors and cites them as sources.

One of the graduate school professors is trying to get next to the protagonist's wife. But that's just one of the many stories you find in The Dissertation. My own favorites are the story of Rebecca Fuertes and the war story from Italy.