Mystery #7 for Literary Snobs: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

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The_Real_Life_of_Sebastian_Knight_1_300_462[1]Conrad Brenner, writing in The New Republic, describes this book as “the most perverse novel you are ever likely to encounter.” And John Updike wrote, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically”

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then go back to your annotated Finnegans Wake and leave us alone.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a spoof on literary biographies (which, of course, are themselves a form of detection). Our narrator’s mission is to ferret out the real story of his half-brother, Sebastian Knight, an obscure Russian emigre writer who died early in his career. Although V, our narrator, lost contact with his half-brother years before his death, he is determined to write the definitive book that will insure Sebastian Knight’s place in the literary world and, just as important, refute The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, the second-rate biography written by Knight’s former secretary and V’s nemesis, Mr. Goodman, who’s “large soft pinkish face,” our seething narrator tells us, “was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder.”1101690523_400[1]

The plot itself sounds straightforward enough: an amateur biographer’s search for the real story of a minor 20th-century author. But this is Nabokov country, which means that we soon find ourselves within a hall of mirrors as baffling and beautiful and infuriating as a Pynchon novel — and all deliciously conducted by the maestro of English prose. The novel is a spoof of the very idea of the definitive biography, a parody of literary critics and their bag of tricks, and a surreal mystery within a mystery.

“Don’t be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present,” our narrator warns us. “Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.”

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