06 December 2011

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

I just put this book down, and as I did, I said to myself, ‘what a load of rubbish.' I was a little surprised at my own reaction.

Some of my favourite writing is by Vladimir Nabokov. Much of it is in his short stories. Of his novels, I loved Pale Fire and enjoyed its tricksiness. I read Lolita and was entertained, seduced and appalled. Other books, like Laughter in the Dark, were less captivating, but throughout it all the brilliance of the author’s style was there to compensate me when my interest in the content flagged.

Maybe I have grown old and cynical, and also perhaps a bit too much of a hack, to appreciate the art in this novel. Unfortunately, the art is all there is to appreciate – the plot is haphazard and the characters repellent or uninteresting. Sebastian Knight, the object of his own half-brother’s biographical quest, is a pretentious, neurotic snob. I found it difficult to take an interest in such a character when it is presented by the narrator as wholly admirable.

Mind you, the narrator – ‘V.’, Knight‘s half-brother – shares at least two of the above qualities. No surprise, since it is Nabokov’s humour to make us wonder whether the two are actually the same man, and if so, whether the man is Sebastian or his semi-sibling, or some monstrous literary Siamese twin. Doubtless it was also the author’s humour to portray a lonely, sick, mostly unhappy auctorial also-ran of unpleasant character as someone admirable, worthy of a biography. But that doesn’t really make me want to read any more about Sebastian Knight, and besides, I object to authors who entertain themselves at my expense unless they are able to entertain me at the same time.

All the other ‘postmodernist’ (really?) tricks – the way the plot of the novel takes on aspects of the plots of Sebastian’s handful of novels, so that fiction holds a mirror up to fiction, and the frequent chess references whose point, I am sorry to say, entirely escapes me – did not add interest or charm to a novel I found significantly lacking in both qualities.

And then, that famous Nabokovian prose... Apparently this was the first novel he wrote in English, so one shouldn’t be too harsh. But Nabokov was always an extreme stylist, one who liked to stretch an image or metaphor till it was on the verge of overbalancing and falling flat. Most of the time he got away with it – this was a man who could describe horse-dung in the act of production in breathtakingly beautiful prose – but for some reason his writing in this book strikes me as often no better than clumsily arch. Perhaps this was his way of portraying the untutored style of his narrator, V. The effect, sadly, is not always that of a bad writer rising above himself; too often it is that of a good writer – indeed, a great writer – missing the mark.

Which, I think, just about sums up this unfortunate novel.

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