The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New Directions Paperbook)

Nabokov, Vladimir

Published by New Directions, 2008
ISBN 10: 0811217507 / ISBN 13: 9780811217507
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Nabokov's first novel in English, one of his greatest and most overlooked, with a new Introduction by Michael Dirda.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov's first novel in English, was completed in Paris in 1938, first published by New Directions in 1941, reissued in 1959 to wide critical acclaim and now relaunched again, with an appreciative introduction by Pulitzer-Prize winning critic Michael Dirda.

This, the narrator tells us, is the real life of famous author Sebastian Knight, the inside story. After Knight's death, his half-brother sets out to penetrate the mystery of the famous English novelist's life, but he is impeded by the false, the distorted, the irrelevant. Yet the search proves to be a story quite as intriguing as any of Sebastian Knight's own books, as baffling, and, in the end, as uniquely rewarding. On one level, this literary detective story has pungent points to make about the role of the artist in a society basically hostile to the creative spirit. On another, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight probes the essential problem of the ambiguity of human identity: Just who was Sebastian Knight?

Review: "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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Title: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New ...
Publisher: New Directions
Publication Date: 2008
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Very Good

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