The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was written between 1938 and 1939 and published in 1941. At the time of its writing Nabokov was living in Paris. According to legend, the book was written while seated on a toilet with a plank over the bidet forming Nabokov's writing desk. It was Nabokov's first book written in English, and he carried it with him to New York. Though it found a publisher (it was originally brought out by the New Directions Publishing Corp.), the book was far from an instant success. In fact, the review in The New York Times was scathing in its dismissal of the novel and of Nabokov as a writer. Only after the release of Lolita, which was met with wide acclaim, was the novel re-examined and widely respected.
The novel could be described as a fictional biography of a fictional author, Sebastian Knight. (Most critics have dismissed the notion that Sebastian Knight refers to an actual author, as Nabokov occasionally hinted.) The novel "performs," as it were, its own theme, given that Knight authored "research novels"; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a research novel itself -- an investigation of the identity and life of the title character. Nabokov thus blurs fact and fiction, writing a carefully researched "biography" of a fictional character. He layers his themes and genres, creating a prism of sorts that reflects different light depending on how you view it: view the book as V., the mysterious narrator, and it is a biography; view it as Nabokov and the book is a research novel about research novels. Even the book's basic conception, then, opens up the world of puzzles, games and identities that Nabokov explores within.
A strand of romance gives the novel its narrative "spine": over the course of his investigation into Sebastian's life, V. focuses on love affairs with two very different women. The reason for Sebastian's love and the strangeness of his rejection emerges as the mystery the narrator is determined to solve. Meanwhile, on another level, the novel reveals the obsessive entanglement of the obscure V. (whose very name, a single mysterious initial, reveals the extent of his obscurity) with the life and concerns of his famous half-brother.
Though he is deeply entangled with the text, V. is fairly successful at keeping himself hidden. Nonetheless certain facts emerge regarding our narrator. V. is a minor businessman who works in Marseilles for a company based in Paris, and he lives as a Russian exile. His friends are all Russian, and he has only learned English through careful study for business purposes. Though V. offers us only this paucity of facts, and though he carefully controls his statements of feelings for his brother throughout the novel, undertones of anger, jealousy, possessiveness and rejection appear through cracks in the surface. The very authorship of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, then, becomes a game of one-upmanship -- or, to use Nabokov's favorite set of images, of chess -- with the obscure brother taking over Sebastian's territory as a novelist even as he exhausts the facts and relationships of Sebastian's life.
When The Real Life of Sebastian Knight began to be re-reviewed and discussed, many critics brought up the fact that as a first novel, this book has a remarkably coherent style and purpose. Nabokov's trademark features -- his blurring of fact and fiction, his toying with literary and non-literary genres, his obsession with the tangled relationship between narrator and subject -- are clearly present already. Moreover, Nabokov revels already in his love of puzzles, patterns and strategy games: numbers (such as the number 36) and images (such as violets) take on arcane significance. Author, narrator and reader alike are (or at least ought to be) attentive to such self-conscious literary tricks, to the structural and symbolic levels of meaning in the novel, as much as they are sensitive to the human drama of families and love.
As a final word, it's fun (if not particularly good literary scholarship) to trace the extent to which Nabokov predicts his own carreer in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Like Knight's first novel, this book was widely panned upon release, only to be resussicated years later following the success of Lolita. Like Knight (and V.), Nabokov was a hybrid of Russian and English influences, one who worked and triumphed in a language that was not natively his (though he had spoken English since infancy). Nabokov, as much as any writer there is, seemed absurdly aware of himself, of the manner in which his writing would be read by the masses and enjoyed by the few. And he brings this easy and sardonic self-awareness to every page of this, his first novel.