The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first novel Nabokov wrote in English, is a tantalizing literary mystery in which a writer’s half brother searches to unravel the enigma of the life of the famous author of Albinos in Black, The Back of the Moon, and Doubtful Asphodel. A characteristically cunning play on identity and deception, the novel concludes “ I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.”
©1941 Vladimir Nabokov (P)2011 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
“Witty and sad at the same time. Profound and dazzling." (Chicago Sun-Times)
But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - J.D. Salinger ^(;,;)^
Nabokov's tenth novel and first published novel written in English, 'The Real Life of Sebastian Knight' for me seemed like a dry run at big, complex themes he would later use in Ada (funky plot structure) and Pale Fire (meta-fixation on another 'artists' literary work) along with a complex, Möbius-like narrative. Is this a story written by literary author Sebastian Knight about a real or imagined younger brother's search for himself? OR is it (as it first seems) a story about a younger brother writing a biography about a dead or imagined famous writer/brother, and following clues,etc about his half brother's life? Can it be both? How much of it is a funky memoir of Nabokov's own emotional state after leaving Russia?
To me Nabokov was writing on a chiral strip that appears to have two-sides, but might just have one. Clever? Absolutely, but just not in the same league as his great English novels (Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada) or even his very very good Russian and English novels (Despair, Pnin, Glory, etc) . Still, for Nabokov's first novel written in a foreign (although no tongue for VN seems foreign), it dances and moves quite nicely.
I guess, besides the Möbius visual I got after finishing 'The Real Life of SK', I should also admit that Nabokov made it impossible to avoid chess images. Chess is a common theme in many of his novels (the Defense; King, Queen, Knave, etc.), but some novels are just shaded with opaque chess shadows, while others (like this one) seem to have every piece and the board thrown in. This novel kinda reminded me of a ruleless game of chess I played with my older brother (who died suddenly four years ago) when I was young. The pieces didn't behave (at least my Black pieces didn't behave) and at one point I drove my brother absolutely nuts because after nearly clearing the board we somehow managed to be left with just his White King and my Black King. I insisted we play till the game was over, but we just circled the board. I wouldn't let the fake game end in a draw, but the set up was impossible so I just chased him around and around and around the board. That fake game felt a lot like 'the Real Life of Sebastian Knight', just not nearly as literary and didn't end with both frustrated kings jammed up my nose.
A depressingly slight effort from a gifted author.
Flesh it out with fervor, passion, humanity.
Daniels did his best.
As always with VN there are sentences that sing.
I am a New York musician, a New York native, and a passionate reader of fiction. Audible is helping me fill in some serious literary gaps.
I chose this book because it was recommended by a musician I admire. It is Nabokov's twelfth novel but the first book he wrote in English, and as always his command of the language is breathtaking. But I was very disappointed by "Sebastian Knight," which seems to be a kind of philosophical meditation on identity, creativity, family, mortality, the very nature of biography itself. Big issues, but here presented in a navel-gazing modality that eluded me almost entirely. The book is so turned into itself that there seems to be no entry-point for the reader. I see "Sebastian Knight" as a study for "Pale Fire," which handles the "literary biography with unreliable narrator" with far greater interest and drama--and much more interesting characters.
Nabokov's work is given a singularly inept reading by Luke Daniels. The tone of his narrative completely misses the color and rhythm of the writing which is the book's great strength. It's a bit like seeing Chekkov acted by, say, John Ritter. The atmosphere is wrong. To make matters worse, Mr. Daniels makes an embarrassing mess of all the French words in the book--of which there are a fair amount. "Tant mieux" comes out as "toned mew." Tone-deaf is more like it.
I found a copy of "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" on line and started to read some of the passages I had just listened to. Though I doubt I'll ever truly love this novel, I did feel that I had missed its true colors because of Daniels. My advice: go for the print version this time. Much as I believe in audiobooks, this offering did a big disservice to Nabokov.
I love Nabokov, and relative to his other books this one is not so good. Also his use of English is so good I think reading the books instead of listening is more appropriate, so that you can go back and reread passages.
Report Inappropriate Content
If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.