I recently finished reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov and though I’d post this quote from the closing chapter. Don’t worry – it gives nothing of the story away, so if it interests you then this spoils nothing.
I found it a great read. It’s like a detective story but instead of being about crime, the anonymous narrator is writing a book about his brother’s, Sebastian Knight’s, life, his lifestyle and the events that lead to his death.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Nabokov and I can’t but feel that parts of it are a little autobiographical, particularly with regards to how Sebastian Knight is a Russian who writes English novels. His way with the English language is uncanny, really, and he has a grasp on it that is far superior to that of many more established English language author’s that I’ve read.
I found the ending pretty moving, in particular this quote.
I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a matter of being – not a constant state – that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter maybe be full of ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden.
There’s no real way I can dissect this quote without giving the ending of the novel away, so if you do plan to read it, stop reading!
Now for the actual spoiler – throughout the novel the narrator puts a lot of research into finding out as much about his brother’s life as he can. I say brother, but it’s actually his half-brother, and the narrator and Knight are never particularly close. In fact, from what I recall the narrator only makes reference to meeting him a handful times over the course of about 20 years. He was a perplexing figure, Knight, because as a novelist he gained a large amount of popularity and after his death his publisher releases a biography of the man to great acclaim. It turns out that this biography is largely inaccurate in the narrator’s eyes and is what spurs him to write one of his own.
I felt that Knight had many of the qualities that Nabokov himself had, but more than that Knight cuts a very lonely and depressing figure. He becomes somewhat obsessed with his own mortality, with his final novel apparently about a dying man telling stories about his life. As the novel progresses the narrator finds out more and more about his brother, eventually managing to track down the lover that caused him to leave his wife and, it is suggested, perhaps played a part in his ill-health and subsequent death.
The final chapters of the novel tells the story of narrator rushing to his brother’s death bed in St Damier in France. Eventually, he arrives at the hospital and sits at his bedside while he sleeps, only to be told by a nurse that he is at the wrong bedside and that the “Russian man” died yesterday. It is in that final moment, when the narrator contemplates his brother’s life and what kind of may he was, that he realises the essential truth in the quote above – that in his search to find out about his brother he became his brother and as the novel ends, the narrator stops referring to his brother in the third person, and starts referring to him in the first person, suggesting that he has, in someway, inherited his brother’s soul and now knows more about him than anyone else ever could.
Of course, much can be said about this novel and a proper dissection of it could take years. Are, perhaps, the narrator and Sebastian Knight always one and the same person? Is Knight the narrator? Is the narrator Knight? Are they separate people? Throughout the novel there are many references to chess and this allusion is driven home when the narrator is seen echoing the moves of his brother over the course of the novel. Each person within the novel makes “black” moves and “white” moves and their characters are referred to as such by the narrator.
It is, in fact, a monstrously deep novel. A true classic, perhaps, and definitely worth reading.