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Safe From Larvae and Rust: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight


“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”.  – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

Vladimir Nabokov’s birthday was two days ago, on April 22. When I first started this blog in September I looked that up on Wikipedia and made a mental note to myself to carefully prepare and post an entry dedicated to him on that day. That mental Post-it got buried under a mountain of homework, textbooks and tests. It finally did resurface seven months later today when I by chance revisited that Wikipedia page. My heart gave a jolt when I realized that I missed Nabokov’s birthday. The world was too busy with Prince’s death. Mr. Nabokov would have turned 117. Happy birthday, sir.

But anyway, I haven’t read nearly enough of his books to do justice to Nabokov’s whole career. That blog post would have to be saved for next year. But I did just finished reading his novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, so that’s a step.

Before Lolita brought Nabokov the recognition as one of the greatest English prose stylists of the 20th century, the Russian native had penned Sebastian Knight, his first English novel, a decade earlier. In the book, the unnamed narrator is the brother of Sebastian Knight, a deceased author. Throughout the novel, he attempts to piece together Knight’s life by tracking down people who knew him and soldering their stories about Knight into a cohesive chronicle. Gradually, a vague portrait of the writer begins to form, and secrets begin to be unraveled.

This was the most fun and exciting book I’ve read by Nabokov. It reads like a delightful, deep and well-written detective novel. The narrator didn’t know much about his brother at all during his lifetime, so finding out about his life was like solving a mystery. He had to start from scratch, traveling all over Europe to collect clues and unravel the narrative. It reminds you of film noirs and the film Citizen Kane, which is also about piecing together a man’s life story through people he once knew.

Nabokov, as always, infused his own ideas and personality into this book. He detested pretentiousness. He hated ready-made expressions and cheap “literature” that try to pass themselves off as real art. He hated crude generalizations. And he opened fire on these atrocities in his novel. One of the characters, the secretary of Sebastian Knight, wrote and published a slapdash biography of him right after his death to appeal to the public and make quick money. The narrator took to this vilely written biography and pointed out all its errors and bogus pretensions, exposing the biographer as a fraud. Nabokov parodied the numerous real-life biographies written in a similar manner, pretending to be “insightful” and generalizing a person’s life.

On the other hand, Agatha Christie fans may be shocked and appalled at how Nabokov ridiculed her works. One of Sebastian Knight’s books is called The Prismatic Bezel, which parodies a Christie-esque whodunit novel, with twelve people staying on a private island, and everybody is mysteriously killed off one by one, and it turns out that everyone is related in some way to another person on the island, and then the murderer turns out to be a person who was thought to be murdered but actually alive the whole time. And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express much? Nabokov geniusly shunned the formulaic plots, overuse of surprise endings and lifeless characters as ridiculous and banal, all without mentioning Christie’s name. But readers at that time would have picked up on this, and Nabokov’s point would have gotten through.

More than anything, Nabokov paints a picture of his own way of writing and feelings as an artist. The narrator describes Knight as such: “He had no use for ready-made phrases because the things he wanted to say were of an exceptional build and he knew moreover that no real idea can be said to exist without the words made to measure.” I believe this describes Nabokov exactly, because every painstakingly chosen word and every well-chiseled sentence of his combine to form something that shines with exceptional brilliance and beauty.

I laughed when I read this sentence about Knight: “He had a queer habit of endowing even his most grotesque characters with this or that idea, or impression, or desire which he himself might have toyed with.” When the author creates a character to express his own ideas about creating characters to express his own ideas – haha.

But then again in the same paragraph Nabokov writes: “The light of personal truth is hard to perceive in the shimmer of an imaginary nature.” So maybe all of this is Nabokov’s game, who knows…

Again, happy belated birthday, Mr. Nabokov. Thanks for the infinite pleasure in the art of literature that you have painstakingly brought to the world.

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