“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” Vladimir Nabokov
His genius always seemed to me a miracle utterly independent of any of the definite things we may have both experienced in the similar background of our childhood. I may have seen and remembered what he saw and remembered, but the difference between his power of expression and mine is comparable to that which exists between a Bechstein piano and a baby’s rattle. (Ch. 4)
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a few words about a book. It’s time to change that!
This is a curious case of Sebastian Knight. The narrator, called V (it may be Victor), is Sebastian’s half-brother, trying to write his biography. He investigates Sebastian’s past, and tries to collect and recollect all kinds of memories, events and information about his brother. At the same time, he constantly and persistently praises Sebastian’s genius as a writer and artist. V is awfully subjective even to the point of obsession with the persona of Sebastian. He’s also an awkward investigator, who has more blind luck that reason. And finally there’s an element of a game of deceit with a reader, who doesn’t know till the end if V is not Sebastian by any chance.
As a literary experiment it is very successful; however, I can’t say I like this book so much. I was irritated by those fragments when V lauded and almost worshipped Sebastian as an ultimate genius. I didn’t enjoy the excerpts from Knight’s books either – for me, it was a philosophical jabber, and a very tedious one. Moreover, I sometimes found myself lost attempting to find any point or meaning in this novel. On the other hand, there were a few interesting moment, particularly when V interviewed Sebastian’s past lovers or coworkers.
There were two curious things I noticed. First, the issue of digging up the past to recreate somebody’s life reminded me of Citizen Kane. In both cases, the life of the person is presented by means of other people’s accounts. Second, Sebastian as a character reminded me of Kilgore Trout from Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. They are both writers; their works are named and quoted in the novels; and they can be viewed as the authors’ alter ego. Of course, I like Trout much better.
Briefly about the language and the style. I had a hard time reading this book. It felt a bit artificial and stiff. I somehow couldn’t relish the language. It had this air of antiquity, but in the negative sense of the word. This was another element that discouraged me.
Reading the Nabokov’s first English novel was like a roller-coaster ride – enjoyment intermingled with irritation and disappointment. Yet, I wouldn’t go as far as to claim it’s bad. On the contrary, it is very good, but I obviously have a different (literary) taste. Since it’s my first Nabokov book, I need to read more before I pass judgment – I don’t want to give up on such an author. Maybe the rest of his works will suit me better.
Long days, pleasant nights,