Monday, July 7, 2014

How real is The Real Life of Sebastian Knight?

When I was selecting books for the 15/15/30 project, I wanted to select female authors only, 2014 being the 'Year of Reading Women'. But I was short by three books (which was a reminder that I must read more female authors) and looking around the shelf in the last days before the challenge I came across this Nabakov novel which I'd just bought from States and I decided to add it to the reading pile along with Wodehouse and Thurber. 

It wasn't a good idea. 

Before I go on I want to make it clear that I have nothing against Nabakov. Some of his books are amazing reads (Laughter in the Dark, King, Queen, Knave) while others are a punishment (Pale Fire). I had great expectations from this book especially after reading the blurb, which started off saying:

'The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a perversely magical literary detective story - subtle, intricate, leading to a tantalising climax - about the mysterious life of a famous writer'.

So I fell in the trap. Wouldn't you? 'Magical literary detective story', 'tantalising climax', 'mysterious life' and finally, 'famous writer'. All the ingredients that make a perfect read. But in reality it turned out to be a very odd sort of detective story with a climax which was far from tantalising about a writer who was not in the Rowling or Gaiman category. The blurb, however, failed to mention that this novel was partially autobiographical and full of nerdy chess references. 

The first mystery in this detective story is the detective/narrator who is the half brother of the dead writer Sebastian Knight. He has made it his mission to write a book on Knights' life although he has no experience in writing whatsoever. Besides love and admiration for his half-brother, what is driving our narrator to write this book? Guilt? Or a desire to set the record straight about his half-brother's life? We never really find out. While filling in the gaps, our narrator stumbles upon information about a 'femme fatale' who destroyed Knight - personally and professionally. The hunt for this wanton woman and the subsequent meeting with her provides some interesting moments in the book. The end was indeed 'baffling' and  far from being 'uniquely rewarding' as the blurb promised. 

Even though I couldn't understand a lot of references Nabakov was trying to make, the beauty of his prose did leave me in awe at some places. Also, his dark humour was very entertaining especially the summary of Knight's first novel, The Prismatic Bazel.

What I loved and laughed over the most was this perfect description of 'the whimsical wanton that ruins a foolish man's life'. 

'Books mean nothing to a woman of her kind; her own life seems to her to contain the thrills of a hundred novels. Had she been condemned to spend a whole day shut up in a library she would have been found dead about noon'.


This was Book #2 of the 15/15/30 project. For a review of Nabakov's 'King, Queen, Knave' read here