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.


V. wants to write a biography of his deceased half brother, Sebastian Knight. Writing the book is V.’s act of homage, or commemoration, for Sebastian, whom he believes to be an unjustly forgotten novelist. V. has a rival, a Mr. Goodman, who had previously written a biography of Sebastian. V. objects to Goodman’s book on the grounds that it is false, insensitive, and full of clichés in its portrayal of Sebastian and his unique genius.

The true reason for V.’s disgust with Goodman’s biography, however, slowly emerges: jealousy. Goodman beat V. in writing the biography, and in the process, Goodman experienced what V. never had: four years of close contact with Sebastian. Goodman’s book is commercially successful, and some of Sebastian’s manuscripts had been left with him—which results in a lawsuit.

When V.’s attempts to gather information from several of Sebastian’s friends and acquaintances prove unsuccessful, he, like Goodman, turns to Sebastian’s novels for information. For his first novel, as a protest against the conventionality of second-rate authors, Sebastian wrote a parody of a detective novel titled The Prismatic Bezel. The secret of Sebastian’s success with this novel is his use of formal innovation, and V. assimilates some of his half brother’s techniques in his own biography. The heroes of Sebastian’s detective novel are called “methods of composition” because Sebastian sought to convey a way of seeing a personality rather than the essence of a personality.

In his examination of Sebastian’s next book, Success, V. notes that Sebastian elevates chance and coincidence into mystical, significant forces. The most significant element in Success, however, is the conjuror, who figures prominently in the work. This character makes an appearance in V.’s life in the form of a Mr. Silbermann, whom V. meets on a train. In V.’s search for a mysterious woman whom Sebastian had pursued just before he died, V. needs to obtain a list of the women who had stayed at the resort hotel that Sebastian visited the summer he met the woman. Silbermann...

(The entire section is 871 words.)