The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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9780679727262: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
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"Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." -- John Updike

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a perversely magical literary detective story -- subtle, intricate, leading to a tantalizing climax -- about the mysterious life of a famous writer. Many people knew things about Sebastian Knight as a distinguished novelist, but probably fewer than a dozen knew of the two love affairs that so profoundly influenced his career, the second one in such a disastrous way. After Knight's death, his half brother sets out to penetrate the enigma of his life, starting with a few scanty clues in the novelist's private papers. His search proves to be a story as intriguing as any of his subject's own novels, as baffling, and, in the end, as uniquely rewarding.

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"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

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The real Life of Sebastian Knight is a perversely magical literary detective story--subtle, intricate, leading to a tantalizing climax--about the mysterious life of a famous writer.

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