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Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Penguin…

Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Penguin Modern Classics) (original 1941; edition 2007)

by Vladimir Nabokov

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Title:Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Penguin Modern Classics)
Authors:Vladimir Nabokov
Info:Penguin Books (2007), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov (1941)

  1. 00
    Going West by Maurice Gee (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both books feature two different men writing biographies of the same man.
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    Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: a character seeks to understand the life of a recently deceased fictitious author whom he knew peripherally
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    The Death of David Debrizzi by Paul Micou (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels feature antagonistic pairs of biographers writing of the same subject.
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    Flaubert's Parrot / Talking It Over by Julian Barnes (KayCliff)

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» See also 26 mentions

English (13)  French (1)  All languages (14)
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
This was Nabokov's first novel written in English, and it's startling to learn that he only switched from Russian because he decided to enter it into a British literary competition. Famously, he wrote most of it perched on a bidet in his Paris apartment so as not to disturb his young son, a detail it is impossible to learn without trying to pin down a certain gushing, purgative quality to the prose…

It is, in fact, just as typically (if embryonically) Nabokovian as his later work, and in theme as well as language. Sebastian Knight is full of pre-echoes of the kind of things that will eventually dominate Nabokov's bigger, more famous books: identity, memory, literary pastiche, linguistic playfulness, formal games, and a direct, witty, elaborate narrative voice. It takes the form of a biography of a deceased writer (Sebastian Knight) written by his anonymous half-brother, identified only as ‘V.’ (recall that all of Nabokov's previous books had been written under the pen name of ‘V. Sirin’) – but it is quickly obvious that in fact we'll be hearing less about Knight himself than about V.'s attempts to research and write the book we are reading. The end result comes over as something like a cross between Tristram Shandy and Steve Aylett's Lint (though not as funny as either).

There are copious quotations from and comments on Knight's oeuvre (he was, we are told, the author of such bestsellers as Lost Property and The Doubtful Asphodel), and these allow Nabokov to outline a theory of literature from, as it were, a safe distance. Many of the effects Knight is credited with – words and phrases that almost mystically convey an impression of something, though you can't understand how – are effects that you can recognise in Nabokov's own writing, if not here then certainly later. Meanwhile a very funny subplot consists in our narrator's keen desire to rubbish the author of a previously-published biography of Knight which, V. insists, has got things all wrong. These sections allow for some sly pastiching of academic prose, as well as giving voice to Nabokov's distaste for the whole process of examining writers through their personal lives or their supposed relation to ‘world events’.

The bulk of the plot resides in those sections where the narrator is chasing down leads in the real world, trying to locate women that his brother had been involved with, and these sections at times play with the conventions of detective fiction. Sebastian Knight and the narrator, like Nabokov himself, grew up in Russia and had to flee after the Revolution, and there are some beautiful early descriptive passages that deal with St Petersberg:

the pure luxury of a cloudless sky designed not to warm the flesh, but solely to please the eye; the sheen of sledge-cuts on the hard-beaten snow of spacious streets with a tawny tinge about the middle tracks due to a rich mixture of horse-dung; the brightly coloured bunch of toy-balloons hawked by an aproned pedlar; the soft curve of a cupola, its gold dimmed by the bloom of powdery frost; the birch trees in the public gardens, every tiniest twig outlined in white; the rasp and tinkle of winter traffic…

But ultimately Nabokov is never very interested in plot, and nor am I when I read him – what I'm interested in are the aesthetic effects. There are plenty here, but they still feel like they're looking forward to what's to come. Partisans of this novel say, a little defensively, that it can be enjoyed for its own sake and not just as an early curiosity, but I couldn't help feeling that the most interesting aspects of Sebastian Knight are things seen to more triumphant effect in Pale Fire, Lolita or Ada. But Nabokov being Nabokov, there is still lots to enjoy and to be suspicious of – the stress on mistaken identity and authorial secrecy make you wonder if, perhaps, Sebastian Knight and ‘V.’ are really one and the same, engaged in a perpetual game of mirrors that ultimately points back to the puppeteer behind both of them, hunched gleefully on his bidet in 1930s Paris… ( )
2 vote Widsith | Feb 12, 2019 |
probably the most straightforwardly readable and immediately pleasurable Nabokov I've read yet. this book would be an ideal introduction to VN's work - it contains in miniature some of the themes that would be addressed in more complex form in his masterpiece Pale Fire; and while it's full of Nabokov's usual paradoxes (both wonderfully clear and maddeningly obscure, both crystalline in its structured perfection and hazily ambiguous in its ultimate conclusions - and replete with language which is powerfully emotionally rich and yet never, never sentimental), it presents them in a friendlier way than one might expect. highly recommended! ( )
  haarpsichord | Nov 5, 2018 |
I've now read this four times. Still love the lavender-tinged sadness that lies at this story's heart. Very clever, very sad, very very.

I've read this three times and love it more with each re-reading. The novel's real climax comes about three-fourths of the way in, but you won't know about it until you've read the book once.
( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
A slight confection in comparison to his later novels but enchanting all the way through. Notable as the first Nabokov novel I've found that not even a single hint of sexual luridity to it. ( )
  jhudsui | Dec 16, 2013 |
Nabokov's first foray into English, a story about a novelist, his brother, and the search to discover the 'real life' of the former. Nabokov's prove is not as sparkly as usual, as he is still becoming accustomed to English, but it still shines. Recommended to those who know the struggle of an artist's life, or Nabokov fans. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vladimir Nabokovprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dirda, MichaelIntroductionmain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brenner, ConradIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, in the former capital of my country.
[Writers' common struggle with words]: the bridging of the abyss lying between expression and thought; the maddening feeling that the right words, the only words are awaiting you on the opposite bank in the misty distance, and the shudderings of the still unclothed thought clamouring for them on this side of the abyss.
A language is a live physical thing which cannot be so easily dismissed.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679727264, Paperback)

"I am very happy that you liked that little book," wrote Vladimir Nabokov to Edmund Wilson in 1941. "As I think I told you, I wrote it five years ago, in Paris, on the implement called bidet as a writing desk--because we lived in one room and I had to use our small bathroom as a study." The book in question was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. And despite its humble origins, Nabokov's first novel in English showed him to be in absolute command of his adopted language.

Like many of the author's later triumphs, this one revolves around a question of identity. The late Sebastian Knight, we discover, was a transplanted Russian novelist whose taste for linguistic trickery bears a certain resemblance to Nabokov's. Now his half-brother is attempting to reconstruct the existence of this elusive figure. As he readily admits, the raw material isn't exactly the stuff of melodrama: "Sebastian's life, though far from being dull, lacked the terrific vigour of his literary style." But even the most mundane facts prove difficult for the narrator to nail down. He does, on the other hand, describe Sebastian's creative processes in exquisite and accurate detail:

His struggle with words was usually painful and this for two reasons. One was the common one with writers of his type: the bridging of the abyss lying between expression and thought; the maddening feeling that the right words, the only words are awaiting you on the opposite bank in the misty distance, and the shudderings of the still unclothed thought clamouring for them on this side of the abyss.
Sebastian's real life--or anybody's, for that matter--refuses to yield up a verbal equivalent. Still, the narrator manages a kind of fraternal fusion with his subject on the book's final page, which suggests a fluid and very Nabokovian view of identity itself. For this reason, and for the splendors of its prose, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a necessary read. It's also safe to say that it's the very best novel ever written on a bidet. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:05 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Following the death of a famous novelist, his half brother sets out to uncover the truth behind the two great loves of the man's life -- and uncovers more than the enigmatic legacy of the writer.

(summary from another edition)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141185996, 0141196998

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