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Vladimir Nabokov: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Nabokov’s first novel in English was mainly written in Paris. He had considerable difficulty getting it published when he came to the United States but New Directions eventually published it in 1941, more than two years since he had finished it. The book features many of the themes that will be found in his late American novels – references to chess, the question of identity (not surprising, in this case, for a Russian living in France and writing in English), flashbacks galore and the issue of literary talent and recognition.

The story is apparently a biography of the writer Sebastian Knight, written by his half-brother, identified only as V (according to Nabokov, V is for Viktor and not for Vladimir). Sebastian, who had recently died, was the author of novels and short stories which had a certain reputation in literary circles but were not very well-known to the general public. Sebastian and V had not been particularly close. Sebastian, like Nabokov, left Russia in 1918 and then went to Cambridge University. They had met occasionally since then but not much. Sebastian had an affair with a woman called Clare Bishop (like Sebastian, she has a chess name) and had made his career. V who, by his own admission, is not literary and not fluent in English, interviews the various people who have known Sebastian, including his agent who has, himself, already written a hasty biography of Sebastian but, significantly enough, does not initially interview Clare. Eventually he sets out to find Clare and ends up on something of a wild goose chase, finding clues to further women in his brother’s life. As this is Nabokov, it is not always clear who is who. Indeed, V at the end says that he is Sebastian and that Sebastian is him. It may not be masterpiece but this is certainly a novel well worth reading, particularly if you like conundrums about identity.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by New Directions