The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a biographical metafiction which is in some ways an anticipation of postmodernism. Although there are elements of the detective story in its description of a quest to ascertain facts about a very private and evasive novelist, its subject cannot be grasped through the medium of language, even though Sebastian Knight is only knowable through his own medium. Instead, the book spins “a texture of words around an empty point, an absence”, according to Giorgio Manganelli. By the end of the second chapter it has become clear, anyway, that the projected book will not be about Knight’s life but his brother V’s attempt to write it.
What complicates the process of getting to know the real Sebastian Knight is the interlayering of a subjective account of the quest with a variety of texts. There is firstly the hastily written and poorly researched biography by Mr Goodman, Knight’s ignominiously dismissed secretary, largely written to fit a simplistic thesis. Then there is Knight’s own “memoir”, supported by passages from his novels, both as stylistic demonstrations and illustrative of V’s subjective reading of their biographical significance. Finally there are V’s own novelistic interpolations, making clear the difference between Knight’s linguistic mastery and the literary devices used by hack authors. “Who is speaking of Sebastian Knight?” asks a sudden voice in the Cambridge mist at the end of chapter 5, only to be disavowed immediately. In a similar way, V prepares a speech to unmask the deception of Madame Lecerf at the end of chapter 17 but then refrains. “She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand.”
Such tricks reach towards the perception in Nabokov’s later novel Despair that “the first person is as fictitious as all the rest”. It is also open to the reader to play the detective himself, noting in what ways the novel reflects Nabokov’s own biography. He too was a Russian emigré who was educated at Cambridge, his relationship with his brother Sergei was always at arm’s length, and an unwise emotional entanglement had just endangered his domestic arrangements.