The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight


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 irreverent. 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?


Vladimir Nabokov's backgrounds--Russia, Europe, America--break up into general clusters of twenty years' duration. Born in St. Petersburg in 1899, he left Russia in 1919, took a degree in Foreign Languages at Cambridge, and lived, prior to 1940, first in Berlin and then in Paris. He is now an American citizen and Professor of Literature at Cornell.

In exile, under the name of V. Sirin, Nabokov wrote the majority of his more than twenty books (novels, plays, poetry, criticism, a memoir). With the exception of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which was written in Paris, 1938--in the bathroom of a one-room flat--and is the first of Nabokov's books to be done in English, all of his work through 1940 had been written in Russian.

He is not the author of only one book (Lolita) and only one masterpiece. He is not a literary curiosity.

Rather, he sustains a special strength and keeps a unique trust: the art of the perverse. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a perfect model of that art. As practiced by Nabokov, it has no familiar antecedents, and the present introduction seizes briefly on its main components. Nabokov does not lend himself to some discursive approach; he seems forever a step or three from the reader's furiously cohabital strangle.

In Nabokov's art, the author is God--in a way quite opposed to the ivory tower, the leaky objectivity and the savage distance of a Flaubert. He does not write out of hate, or disdain for anything but the surface of art. In the simple but . . .

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