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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.
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This isn't regarded as one of Nabokov's best work. It's not even among his better. But as his first book in english, and as a story about introspection and identity, it speaks to the writer profoundly. One has the sense Nabokov is taking the reader through the experience of entering a new language and a new identity. The novel is almost instructional in that it reads as a guide to discovering the self through writing. The performance was clear, engaging, and excellent overall. Certainly a fulfilling six hours.
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