Vladimir Nabokov’s classic literary novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
(1941) tells the story of a man trying to piece together the enigmatic life of his deceased brother, a famous novelist. One of Nabokov’s most famous works, it’s the first novel he wrote in English. Critics note that the book’s goal is to show how inadequate language is to convey feelings and offer definitions, making it one of the most significant postmodernist novels. Nabokov is best known for his ground-breaking novel, Lolita
The narrator, known only as “V,” never reveals his full name. He doesn’t want the book to be about him. Rather, it is the biography
of his half-brother, the late Sebastian Knight. Sebastian is a famous writer whom no one knows very much about, even V. The book is something of a detective novel/mystery parody, in terms of how seriously V takes his investigations and the lengths he goes to uncover the truth.
This is V’s first literary work, and he’s determined to do both his own writing and his brother justice. V starts out with obvious details to set the scene. He explains that Sebastian was born on 31 December 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was a particularly cold day; V was born on a similarly cold day six years later. They are born in the same house, and they have the same father. V gives us these details to establish a connection between himself and Sebastian, and how similar they once were.
V believes that Sebastian was very like their father—an impulsive and passionate man. Sebastian hid much of his private life from V, and V suspects he had many affairs and liaisons. Their father died defending Sebastian’s mother’s honor, and V believes Sebastian never fully recovered from this. He is determined to uncover the truth to ascertain how Sebastian’s private life, and his feelings towards women, influenced his highly successful writing.
It is possible that V wants to emulate his brother’s literary talent, although this isn’t explicitly stated. V explains that Sebastian’s first biography does him no justice because it’s shallow and hollow—he’s only trying to give his brother the biography he deserves. Readers, however, may not be so sure this is the case.
V begins his investigations by looking through Sebastian’s private belongings, including his journal. He already knows that Sebastian went traveling to find out more about his deceased mother, but that he couldn’t find her hometown or her family. Sebastian’s first biographer skimmed over the significance of this time in Sebastian’s life; V wants to do it justice. However, he can’t find the words to describe how Sebastian felt, and it feels pointless even trying.
By picking apart the first biography, V—and, resultantly, Nabokov—examines and criticizes typical literary scholarship. V notes that biographers and literary critics only write for the money; they don’t handle the subject matter with care. Even as he makes these observations, V himself struggles to handle the subject of Sebastian’s life.
As V’s investigations continue, he identifies two women Sebastian had affairs with—Clare and another Russian woman. Sebastian was with Clare for six years, but he left her for another. His second relationship was very unhappy, but he couldn’t bear to leave her. V is determined to track these women down to interview them, because he can’t understand Sebastian without understanding these women first. They can offer him anecdotes which otherwise will be forgotten, and he cannot let that happen.
However, when V finds Clare, he sees that she is pregnant and happily married to another. He speaks with her, but he does not reveal who he is, or why he’s outside her home. V doesn’t feel he can rightly intrude on her new life, and so what she knows about Sebastian will forever be forgotten.
His spirits dampened, V goes searching for the Russian woman. All he knows is that Sebastian met her at an Alsatian resort. He hires a detective who traces her to Paris; V looks for her there. However, she is not home when he arrives; instead, he speaks to her friend, Madam Lecerf. Madam Lecerf is dismissive of Sebastian, saying how tiring it was to listen to his lofty ideals. V realizes that Madam Lecerf is Sebastian’s mystery Russian lover; he can see why Sebastian died still so infatuated with her.
V realizes by the end of the book that it’s impossible to capture someone’s essence in words. A person is a collection of his own memories and experiences, and how he is perceived by others, which we can never fully comprehend. There is always the danger of missing significant details, and one can’t convey in words how someone else feels.
Writing nonfiction always involves some degree of fiction or narrative invention. This realization leads readers to question whether “V” existed at all, or if he’s simply Sebastian’s attempt at writing his own biography through the eyes of a fictitious “other.” The questions readers are left with lend themselves to further discussion, which is, perhaps, the purpose of literature in the first place.