Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Vladimir Nabokov explores the origins of creativity, the relationship of the artist to his or her work, and the nature of invented reality. A brilliant and controversial prose stylist, Nabokov entertains, inspires, and shocks his readers with his love of intellectual and verbal games. His technical genius, as well as the exuberance of his creative imagination, mark him as a major twentieth century author.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a study of the complications that ensue when V. tries to sort out the details of the life of a person he hardly knows. The book reveals the complexities involved in any attempt to present a self in language—Nabokov’s chief subject in the novel. By focusing on the conflation of life and art, by designing the reader’s quest to mimic the quest of the narrator, Nabokov foregrounds the issues involved in making fiction.

Sebastian’s “real life” is elusive; that is, the conventional means of reconstructing his life and writing his biography—interviewing friends and acquaintances, tracking down different accounts of relationships, and examining letters and documents—only lead to a series of comic dead ends in Nabokov’s novel. Not only do fictional characters pop into existence out of nowhere, thereby disorienting the reader, but Nabokov further confuses readers by forcing them to ask continually, Who is speaking?

A major theme of Nabokov’s novel is the theoretical and practical possibility of biography. V.’s warning to the reader to remember that what is told is shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, and concealed from both by the dead man of the tale suggests that Nabokov’s conception of the relationship between a life and a biography is complex.

Nabokov’s novel also is a detective story and a quest for self-knowledge. The title itself points in both these directions, and the clues that accumulate as the novel progresses lead the reader toward the identity of a man who has been re-created through the process of observing himself reflected in a mirror. This mirror is actually many mirrors, since the narrator gets many glimpses of the identity of Sebastian, and of himself, from a variety of sources. In this respect, the characters of Nabokov’s novel are similar to the characters in one of Sebastian’s novels, The...

(The entire section is 956 words.)