Sebastian Knight, a Russian émigré writer of dubious artistic talent and merit. His untimely death at the age of thirty-six from congenital heart disease prompts the investigation into his life by his half brother, V., that is the subject of the novel. Beginning with his college years at Cambridge, Sebastian takes great pains to affect English manners and tastes, although ample evidence exists that he never quite masters his adopted language. Occasional ham-handed quotations from his five published books of fiction, bearing such improbable titles as The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel, attest this (disputed) shortcoming. A difficult, aloof, even contemptuous man, Sebastian pens three early works under the “inspiration” of Clare Bishop, whom he meets during his student days. A second mystery woman encountered while at a sanatorium in Blauberg, Germany, may have exerted even more influence over his final writings, as well as his physical and psychological well-being. Sebastian’s sometimes stilted and cumbrous prose ultimately belies his avowed pretensions to high art, and nagging suspicions persist as to just how autobiographically his fiction ought to be read.
V., Sebastian’s younger half brother and arguably the novel’s main character. His confessed lack of literary understanding hampers his attempt to write Sebastian’s biography two months after the latter’s demise. V. is at best a biased and unreliable interpreter of Sebastian’s life and works. His various assessments often are debatable, if not laughably inaccurate, because they frequently are colored by his personal relationships with the writer and his circle of acquaintances. V.’s most common error is to assume a direct connection between life and art in Sebastian’s oeuvre as he proceeds with his chronological research into the elusive life of this...
(The entire section is 785 words.)