This is Vladimir Nabokov’s first English language novel, whereas he previously published 8 or so Russian language novels living in various countries, publishing under a pseudonym, and living the life of a political (but rich) exile. He also grew up learning multiple language including Russian, French, German, and English and so while a departure from his previous novels, it’s still quite in sync with other parts of his life.
The novel is written as a kind literary memoir, or more precisely almost as a set of writer’s notebooks as the narrator searches for the title character, Sebastian Knight, his dead brother. The story is that he grew up in the shadow of this brother, who is six years his senior and an author of minor fame. Subsequent to his death, the narrator decided to write the biography that would prove definitive, but someone scooped him and now he’s left trying to correct the record.
The book is both that attempt to write the book, a detailed history of the search itself, and some level of the writing of that book.
Nabokov plays with book form in this book, as he tends to do, by having us read a book describing a book someone intends to write about an author whose books we get glimpses of. It’s also about knowing someone or not knowing someone, recognition, representation, and a lot other things along the line.
This is not a book I’ve ever heard a lot about, but it was referenced several times throughout Reading Lolita in Tehran, and so I was interested in it. I’ve read a little more than half of Nabokov’s books, and this was instantly one of my favorites. It’s in some ways a proto-Pale Fire, in a good way.