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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)

de Vladimir Nabokov

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Spurred on by admiration for his novelist half-brother and irritation at the biography written about him by Mr Goodman ('his slapdash and very misleading book'), the narrator, V, sets out to record Sebastian Knight's life as he understands it. But buried amid the extensive quoting, digressions, seeming explanations and digs, Sebastian's erratic and troubled persona remains as elusive as ever. Nabokov's first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knightis a nuanced, enigmatic potrayal of the conflict between the real and the unreal, and the futile quest for human truth.… (més)
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5. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
Introduction: Michael Dirda, 2008
published: 1941 (written January 1939)
format: 215-page paperback
acquired: October
read: Jan 24-30
time reading: 7 hr 44 min, 2.2 min/page
rating: 4½
locations: pre-Soviet St. Petersburg, 1920’s & 1930’s Cambridge, London, Paris, Berlin and other places throughout France, Germany and England
about the author: 1899 – 1977. Russia born, educated at Trinity College in Cambridge, 1922. Lived in Berlin (1922-1937), Paris, the US (1941-1961) and Montreux, Switzerland (1961-1977).

I'm reading through Nabokov's novels, and this was his first English language novel. My copy comes with an excellent introduction by [[Michael Dirda]], who explained that Nabokov wrote this novel in Paris, on a desk laid on a bidet, for a competition in England with a January 31, 1939 deadline. He got the manuscript sent off just in time and later regarded as a tour de force. But it didn't win, and didn't get him a position in England. It was later published in the, then, pre-war US in 1941, and may have been lost to history if Nabokov did not later become famous.

[[Thomas Pynchon]] fans should take note. Dirda also describes the book this way: "V. travels from England to Switzerland to Germany to France in his quest for the identity of the elusive femme fatale who wrecked his brother‘s life.” Fans of [V.] might be quite struck by that sentence. A little googling will show that Pynchon took classes from Nabokov at Cornell, and highly regarded this novel, which influenced all his work.

So, I knew all that before I had read the first word. And I knew this was a complex novel, an unreliable narrator writing a biography of his older half-brother, a Russian born English-language novelist who died young of a heart attack, and who has a few parallels to and a few key opposites from the life of Nabokov. And, Dirda emphasizes, it's a novel to reread.

I reread only chapter one. I did this when I was about half way through the novel and struggling to get in tune with a flow. (It did help) It's a difficult book to read, but also fascinating on many levels. Nabokov is playful and clown-y with language, structure, story, purpose, everything. Paragraphs end on topics completely different from where they began, routinely. Grammar is stretched, and playfully inconsistent. And nothing is as it seems. As readers we know our narrator, V., is unreliable. We aren't even sure he likes his older half-brother, his subject. We might doubt he is even actually who he says he is. So we aren't wondering whether to trust him, we are wondering what he is actually doing and why. What is V. actually searching for? And, maybe, what is wrong with him? Also I was left wanting to know more about this Sebastian Knight, author of several novels, all of which Nabokov goes into in some detail and all of which left me wishing they were real (and some elements were real). Mixed in all this play are a few notes on how this author thinks about writing...I mean, of course, maybe. How Sebastian Knight "used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion", as if he was, "a clown with wings". Or later, V. commenting on all Knight's aspects, he says, "It's not the parts that matter, it is there combination". And he has interesting things to say on how an author struggles writing in English as second language, searching for words or expressions that he can't find or don't exist in the language. And the novel has moments of seriousness, but is quick to undermine them. The two most moving parts of the novel are each based on a humorous error. And they're still moving. This is a difficult but enjoyable novel.

Nabokov has a clear theme of having a character or narrator talk about what he's doing in way that makes sense to him, and that also thoroughly undermines him to the reader. It's a difficult trick he has kind of mastered, or was mastering. He touches on this in 3rd person in [Laughter in the Dark], and pushes it heavily when the narrator becomes a murderer in [Despair], or a pedophile in [The Enchanter]. It's where I'm expecting [Lolita] to go, which I hope to read for the first time this April.

2021
https://www.librarything.com/topic/328037#7406148 ( )
1 vota dchaikin | Jan 30, 2021 |
no one is reliable ( )
  stravinsky | Dec 28, 2020 |
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… ( )
3 vota 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.
( )
1 vota evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Vladimir Nabokovautor primaritotes les edicionscalculat
Dirda, MichaelIntroduccióautor principalalgunes edicionsconfirmat
Brenner, ConradIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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To Véra
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Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, in the former capital of my country.
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[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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(Clica-hi per mostrar-ho. Compte: pot anticipar-te quin és el desenllaç de l'obra.)
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Spurred on by admiration for his novelist half-brother and irritation at the biography written about him by Mr Goodman ('his slapdash and very misleading book'), the narrator, V, sets out to record Sebastian Knight's life as he understands it. But buried amid the extensive quoting, digressions, seeming explanations and digs, Sebastian's erratic and troubled persona remains as elusive as ever. Nabokov's first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knightis a nuanced, enigmatic potrayal of the conflict between the real and the unreal, and the futile quest for human truth.

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