Our narrator, V., begins with Sebastian Knight's birth on December 31st, 1899, in Saint Petersburg, the former capital of Russia. In his typically digressive, idiosyncratic manner, V. tells us of learning what the weather was like on the day of Sebastian's birth and describes Russia's clear cold mornings. He explains that he was born in the same house as Sebastian six years later to the same father but a different mother (his father had married his mother after divorcing Sebastian's). In his first of many jabs at Mr. Goodman's biography of Sebastian Knight, V. finds fault with Goodman's description of Sebastian's family. V. corrects some (perhaps minor) factual details before offering his own portrait of the family, dwelling especially on his and Sebastian's father, a gallant man whom V. sees as a major influence on Sebastian's writing.
We learn the history of Sebastian's parents -- from the meeting between Sebastian and V.'s father and Virginia Knight, to the circumstances of their separation (Virginia runs off with another man), to his remarriage to V.'s mother. Sebastian and Virginia met again only once years later, unbeknownst to his father, before she died of heart failure.
V. recalls that his parents marriage was very happy, though his father was very jealous of Virginia, going so far as to start a duel with a man named Palchin who gossipped about her. He was shot in the duel and died from complications. V. introduces Sebastian's description of the death before turning again to Mr. Goodman's treatment of Sebastian's childhood. He argues that Goodman, as the author's mere secretary, missed the essence of Sebastian's upbringing -- a delicate balance of Russian and the European culture.
V. then recalls several childhood memories of Sebastian. In each, he tries to be noticed by or even to play with Sebastian, but each time he is rebuffed, in the normal way an older child rebuffs an annoying younger sibling. He remembers Sebastian impatiently helping him with his lessons and relates stealing a peek at Sebastian's early verse, which he hid away and signed with a doodle of a chess knight rather than his name. V. admits that his portrait of his brother is imperfect, owing to Sebastian's aloofness.
He thus turns to an account of his research into Sebastian's life. V. writes that he visited Lausanne to speak with the woman who used to be his and Sebastian's governess; he found her at a sort of nursing home. This interview was disappointing, for the governess's sentimental remembrances of Sebastian ring false. When he left, he was saddened to realize that she did not ask him a single question about Sebastian's later life or recent death.
We learn that Sebastian, V. and V.'s mother fled the Russian Revolution in 1918. V. and his mother bribed someone for a train ticket to Finland and waited for the train while Sebastian and Captain Belov, an old friend, attempted to bring their luggage. Sebastian arrived moments before the train departed, without luggage, and explained that Belov and others, including Palchin, had been arrested but that he had escaped.
This story leads into a passage from Sebastian's last book, The Doubtful Asphodel, about a man's escape from and "unnamed country of terror and misery." Though Mr. Goodman used this passage as an example of Sebastian's hatred for his homeland, V. belittles this view, and quotes another passage where Sebastian speaks of how any exile must long for his homeland. Whatever Sebastian's complicated feelings, V. feels certain that he was as saddened by their desperate departure as he or his mother.
After living for a short time in Finland, V. and his mother left for Paris and Sebastian left for Cambridge University. They parted in a small hotel room, and in the next three years Sebastian visited only twice, the second time for his step-mother's funeral. Still, V. explains, he and his mother spoke of Sebastian often, relating Sebastian's adventures -- such as his eastward journey with the futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa. In each town they stopped in, Alexis gave an artistic performance, attempting thereby to pay their way. Alexis' excessive drinking undermined the plan, and their trip ended with Alexis penniless and his wife arrested for slapping a policeman. Sebastian returned home, completely unembarrassed by his strange journey. Though Pan became briefly popular with the Bolsheviks, he committed suicide only a few years after the Revolution.
V. remembers his mother commenting that she never really understood Sebastian, though she always "tried to be kind to the boy." Sebastian's sole visit to Paris was odd, as Sebastian had awkwardly embraced all things English. When he came for his step-mother's funeral, he suggested that V. come to England, but V. refused, saying that he wanted to stay in Paris with his friends. Sebastian kindly offered money and advice, then left for the south of France.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight begins with a heady task indeed -- Nabokov must not only establish the suspension of disbelief common to all fiction, he must also interest his reader in a fictional personage, Sebastian Knight, and his faux-biography. Moreover, Nabokov chooses the digressive, defensive V. for our narrator -- not the most reader-friendly of literary guides. Anticipating, even embracing these difficulties, Nabokov introduces right away the tension that binds the novel together: the conflict between V.'s account of things and Mr. Goodman's. This biographer's duel "proves" -- so to speak -- how interesting Sebastian Knight will be. He is after all a figure worthy of two biographies, and a mysterious, controversial figure at that. Moreover, it introduces the overarching theme of the novel. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is not about Sebastian Knight. It's about writing about Sebastian Knight -- specifically, about the two conflicting versions of his life, V.'s and Goodman's. Of course, generally, the novel is thus about the mystery, ambiguity and conflict that attends the writing of any life.
V., by the way, is not a perfect biographer, or even a good biographer. He is anything but disinterested in his subject, prefering to expose his connection to Sebastian rather than explore and explain him. This tendency is clearest, naturally, in the writing about Sebastian's family that opens the book. In fact, V.'s need to show the literary world that he knows Sebastian better than Mr. Goodman leads to some rather embarassing lapses of taste. V.'s account of their father's death, for instance, manages to disgrace their dead father doubly: both in emphasizing that Sebastian's mother left him and in stating that their father died after a duel to defend her "honor." These bits of gossip ignore the tragedy behind the exposure -- that Virginia abandoned her family, and that the father suffered from irrational jealousy (or love) for Virginia even after this abandonment. V.'s lack of insight into this episode does not bode well for his ability as an analyst of Sebastian's character. It does, however, allow the insightful reader to see V.'s desperate need for attention, however humiliating, quite clearly.
To take this a bit further, V. declares that Sebastian deserves an insightful biography -- he is trying, he says, to rescue Sebastian from Mr. Goodman's wrongheaded account. As we read into the book a bit, however, it becomes clearer and clearer that V.'s motives are not so innocent. In the sketches of their childhood, for instance, there are undertones of jealousy, anger and longing -- a younger brother's long-established jealousy of an older, famous brother, perhaps. Something fishy is going on: has V. inherited his father's obsession with honor? Does he believe that he can possess his brother in death as he couldn't in life? Or is V. simply once again breaking into Sebastian's secret drawer, attempting to air secrets that Sebastian has no intention of sharing, in an effort to belittle or defy his brother? At this point, V.'s intentions, conscious or otherwise, are unclear. What is certain: they are not motivated by good faith.
V.'s section on Russia develops this conflict between biographer and subject still further. He lashes out at Goodman's contention that Sebastian hated Russia; one feels in the anger directed at Goodman a more poignant anger directed at Sebastian, as though V. feels that Sebastian's rejection of Russia entails a rejection of V. and V.'s mother as well. Certainly V.'s description of a complicated, ambivalent, nostalgic relationship to one's homeland is plausible -- but it is V.'s, not Sebastian's. Indeed, the more V. writes, the more he attempts to inhabit Sebastian's point-of-view, the clearer it is that he is writing from his own point-of-view, taking on Sebastian's authority to assert his own importance.
Thus, in all, the first chapters of the novel offer us little in the way of getting to know Sebastian Knight, and much in the way of getting to know the complicated, flawed V. We are given a series of false starts -- V.'s attempts to work from his own memories, to work from his nanny's memories, to work from his mother's memories. Each point of entry fails. If you accept that the novel is about the halting, imperfect, perhaps even impossible process of "summing up" the life of another, you will find these first chapters an intriguing introduction to the web of Goodman, V., Sebastian and family. If, on the other hand, you look for a clean summing up, a typical biography, anticipate frustration and confusion.