The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first novel in English, anticipates Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins! (1974) in being a fictional biography of a brilliant writer who has died recently. As the reader accompanies the narrator, V., on his search for knowledge about the novelist Sebastian Knight, both reader and protagonist learn less and less about their subject, until it becomes apparent that Knight’s “real life” is undiscoverable.
Nabokov parodies the formula and apparatus of the detective story. V. rushes about, interviewing people who knew Sebastian, only to amass contradictory and confusing knowledge that is highly colored by his informants’ self-interest. V.’s poise disintegrates as he spends many days learning less and less about his subject and following the obscure trails of Knight’s correspondence. The women he interviews dupe him, and he quarrels with people whose regard for Knight is less favorable than his.
Many of the novel’s stratagems resemble those of a chess game. The aptly named Knight had a mistress named Clare Bishop and a mother named Virginia—a common term for the chess queen is “virgin.” V. often believes that he has become the pawn of ambiguous circumstances. Moreover, Knight’s given name, Sebastian, alludes to the third century Christian martyr who was killed by arrows.
The novel also alludes to Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601-1602), which is crowded with mistaken identities and features twin brothers named Sebastian. Knight had a half brother, and the novel strongly implies that V. may be he. Knight’s father was Russian, and his mother was English. Thus, V. and Knight may well be divided halves of a single identity: Nabokov.
With its involuted development and inconclusive ending, the novel contrasts the duplicity of reality with the permanence of art. Real life is an infinite maze, whose center is unreachable. The one real life is that of the writer’s work. V. is on sure ground only when he analyzes Knight’s writings; everything else is quicksand.