The Real Life of Sebastian Knight1 was Nabokov’s first novel in English. He wrote it in Paris, in late 1938 and early 1939, while in the meantime making efforts towards moving to an English-speaking country. At that stage he thought of moving to England, which may in some part account for the setting of Sebastian Knight. Eventually, the novel was first published in the United States at the end of 1941 (some eighteen months after the Nabokovs had arrived there). Nabokov was of course brought up in Russia, but the family spoke Russian, English, and French in their household, and he was trilingual from an early age.
I read this novel for the third or fourth time. My previous readings — while I always enjoyed them — left me with a mysteriously incomplete feeling. As if there was something hidden in the novel that I missed by a whisker. This time I promised myself to pay extra attention.
a clumsy biographer
The narrator, only identified with the letter V (for Vladimir?), attempts to write a biography of his recently deceased half-brother. V. and his brother Sebastian had the same father, whose Russian name we never learn, but Sebastian had taken his mother’s name as pen-name. After their father’s first wife, Virginia Knight, left the family, their father married again and had a second son, six years younger. The narrator overloads us with dates, some vague, some very defined. If you read the novel superficially — which you should never do with a Nabokov novel — you are bound to get very confused with its time leaps. I gave myself the boring task to note all the time indications. The green line sweeps like the needle of a crazy seismometer: the horizontal axis gives the advancing novel, page by page, the vertical axis gives the dates between 1899 and 1936, Sebastian’s lifetime. While at first the novel juggles with decades, at the end the focus narrows to Sebastian’s last years. This narrowing of attention is shown by the converging orange lines (I feel as meaningless as a financial commentator).
This may seem ridiculous, but never underestimate Nabokov. Don’t forget that he was an avid chess-player, even more — a composer of chess problems. Chess is an obvious theme. Sebastian Knight carries the name of the most erratic chess piece. He has a long-standing relationship with Clare Bishop, another chess piece. His father dies after a duel with another lover of his first wife — two kings and a queen. At one moment Sebastian leaves Clare for a Russian femme fatale, Nina de Rechnoy, née Toorovetz — tura (тура) being the Russian word for the rook in chess. I was toying with the idea of not only registering the time leaps, but the geographical jumps as well. I suspected that this matrix (a chessboard) might show the moves of a knight. Luckily, I am too lazy to make a fool of myself.
Back to the novel. The narrator promises to write a biography of his half-brother who had become rather famous as a novel and short story writer in the English language. To his dismay, Sebastian’s literary agent very rapidly published a biography of his own, a very slapdash thing we are meant to believe. So, he wants to put the record straight, because he knows his brother, doesn’t he?
But does he? We never get to read a proper biography, because the novel — “this book I started two months after my brother’s death” — is the story of a search in his brother’s past, an account of the stumbling attempts to collect the facts and compile this would-be biography.
After the father’s death, his second wife fled Russia with the brothers in 1918. V. went to Paris with his mother and stayed there in some vague engineering job. Sebastian went to England and Cambridge and became a writer, known in literary circles. After their separation they only met or half-met a few times in Paris and V. never went to see his brother in England.
So, after his brother’s death, he tries to make up for this neglect. He visits Sebastian’s London flat, traces his steps in Cambridge and interviews all of Sebastian’s acquaintances he can find: a Cambridge scholar, a poet, a painter who had painted his portrait, a secretarial friend of Clare’s, and Mr Goodman, Sebastian’s literary agent. Then, he somehow manages not to interview Clare — surely his most vital witness — and even does the decent thing of respecting Sebastian’s instruction to destroy two bundles of love letters — one from Clare and another from an unknown Russian woman, Sebastian’s last and secret love. Decent indeed, but for a biographer, disastrous.
Clare Bishop dies suddenly in childbirth, soon after their non-meeting. This leaves V. only the mysterious Russian woman who besotted Sebastian in Blauberg, Alsace, where he spent some time in a health resort. So, V. is off to Blauberg, on a wild-goose chase. He finds the names and addresses of four women that stayed in the hotel the same period as his brother (thanks to an unreal private investigator who pops up like some deus ex machina).
The running around goes on, first to Berlin, a negative (but not without another digression), and he returns to Paris where the other women live. Finally he thinks he found this mysterious femme fatale, but at the moment he sees the truth, he walks away angry, because she had been pulling his leg, and because he was falling in love.
a hall of mirrors
Do you see Nabokov with his net? I feel like a butterfly and fly away as hard as I can — difficult with my erratic way of flying — only to end in Vera’s (his wife) net. Most writers tell a story to their readers, Nabokov plays with his reader. He and I are standing in a hall of mirrors. I plead for the way out and he points his finger in some direction, but this finger is multiplied at infinitum by all those mirrors and I can’t get out.
As part of his would-be biography V. writes about the books Sebastian wrote — his most tangible legacy. He tells their story and even quotes entire pages. Strangely, those stories mirror what is happening during V’s quest. And the quoted passages are written in the same style as V’s narrative. And one starts thinking: who is who?
There was a novel about a man and a woman meeting in a cab, which they only took because there was a bus strike on. The novel is not about the couple, but about all the mechanisms necessary for them to meet. It is as if some love gods or providence are trying to couple them, but with much difficulty. Here, it seems to other way: V. and Sebastian try to meet, but every time something comes in between, even when Sebastian is dying. At one moment I thought that V. does not really want to know his brother. But, really, he can’t. Why? Because they are one and the same person? Or perhaps the split personalities of Nabokov himself — the budding English writer and the Russian-rooted man?
a dream and a night-mare
Only in a dream some clownish private investigator will give you the names of four women. Only in a dream could Sebastian sit and think in the garden of the house where his mother died, only to hear later that she died in another place. In dreams it seems normal to run after people and things and never catch up. This attempt at writing a biography is a tale of dreamlike non-meetings.
At the end of the book, the dream becomes a night-mare. The end tells the story of Sebastian’s death, mirror-like again, because his death was the starting point for this biography. V. recounts how he was hard at work in the south of France, when he received first a letter in Russian(!) from Sebastian and later a cable from Doctor Starov, Sebastian’s heart physician, saying that Sebastian was hospitalized and that V. should better come.
V. can hardly be missed at the important project, but he suddenly feels very panicky. His brother did not contact him for years and now this. That night he has a night-mare about Sebastian dying. The next day, a Saturday, he takes the first train to Paris. But this train is a slow train, stopping in every god-damn village. And, nightmarish, he realises that he forgot to take the cable and he can’t remember the name of the hospital. Eventually he reaches Paris, but he misses dr. Starov several times. Luckily, he remembers the name: St Damier. (Damier is the French word for chequerboard, not chessboard as someone reported.) He finds a cab, but the cab-man is reluctant to drive that far in the snow. They start off, but the cab takes wrong turns, they have to seek their way, until the cab-man has enough of it and delivers Sebastian at a station where he can take a train to the clinic. Finally he reaches the hospital where, to his immense relief, “the English gentleman is better,” as a nurse said. He is allowed to stay in a dark room next to the sleeping patient and is very happy. But in the morning it turns out that the English patient is not his brother. Sebastian was hospitalized under his Russian name. He died the night before.
who is who?
- ‘Sebastian Knight?’ said a sudden voice in the mist. ‘Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?’ [p.43]2
This question is posed twice within the text of the novel, here as a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter. But there is no answer. And V., or Nabokov, warns us: “don’t be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present. […] 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.” 
There is a lot of mystification in the novel. Who is this strange private investigator? Who is Sebastian’s mother? What is she like? She rather resembles the image of the Russian femme fatale. And who is this woman anyway: Nina de Rechnoy, née Toorovetz, or is it really Madame Lecerf? Or is it Helene von Graun?
The end, the end. They all go back to their everyday life […] but the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone neither of us knows. 
The novel ends in this cryptic way. And I can’t help thinking of mirrors again. Vladimir Nabokov and Sebastian Knight, are they one and the same person? Nabokov had already written several novels in Russian and now he starts writing in English a novel about a young Russian author who wrote several novels in English, but at the end of his life writes again in Russian to his brother. Sebastian lived from 1899 (same as Nabokov) until he dies in 1936 (when Nabokov wrote his last Russian novel: Дар, The Gift).
This is Nabokov’s way of writing, and like a good chess game you want to replay, his books invite us to reread them. Reading them once is not enough to savour all the riches.