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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov

Started 5/2, finished 5/22

"...safe to say that it's the very best novel ever written on a bidet" -- James Marcus

I wanted to love this one more than I did. I've been wanting to read a non-Lolita Nabokov, and this one has been tooling around on my bookshelf for more than 10 years (actually more like 15--dating back to when I was majoring in Post-Soviet and Eastern European Studies). The others I have are too long or too short, so this one fell off the shelf into my hands.

If you're a writer and you're sitting down to write and you've just finished reading this genius of a stylist, the letters on the keyboard just sit there and laugh at you. They go silent as your fingers get closer, pursing their lips and betraying half-smiles as you touch one of them. Then when you choose F when they would have gone for the more sensual B, they can't help themselves anymore. Nabokov would have chosen B. B would have been the start of something out of a fantasy. F is only the start of something lurid and obscene. So you ignore them and press on, if that's the phrase.

But for all that, I didn't love it. It's the story of a ficticious author whose half brother, the nameless "V", tries to dig up the story of his last days before his untimely death at the age fo 37. Sebastian Knight only wrote five books, but he left his mark on literature and on the writing of his contemporaries. A previous biography had been written, but V is so scandalized by the inaccuracy and indifference to the nature of the subject that he is compelled to right the wrongs and produce the "real life". As V goes deeper into Knight's past, hijinks meander.

I spent the first hundred pages marveling at the prose, but ultimately bored and wondering why I was supposed to be interested. At around the hundred page mark a mystery begins, the mystery of the woman who ruined Knight. This gets very interesting, and the level of brilliant prose heightens still, but I was still wondering "why?". At the very end, when V reflects on his last minute dash to be with Knight on his deathbed, it may well be one of the most frenetic, inspiring, well-paces pieces of prose I can remember, but I still didn't know why I should care all that much.

Is it an exercise? Is it a personal study into the nature of identity and the inadequacy of words? Is it literature for the sake of literature? Should that bother me? I'm afraid at this point that I would need more study, more education in the arena to be able to figure it out. This was either beyond me or it was just no big deal. I found a good essay on the subject, and it at least shed some light on the intricacies I missed.

This sentence leapt out at me. I hope you can understand why:

[Sebastian, writing to a lost love]
"Life with you was lovely--and when I say lovely, I mean doves and lillies, and velvet, and that soft pink 'v' in the middle and the way your tongue curved up to the long, lingering 'l'.

Oh my... I think I should turn up the A/C. What amazes me is his trickery, his ability to look within the sentences to the words, within the words to the letters. I believe he can do this because English is not his first language, so he has a childlike ability to sit back and observe the words meandering on the page. As he composes them he decomposes them, plays around, juggles them like a circus performer. He observes things in this foreign tongue that the rest of us have forgotten.

I think I'll return to this one in a few years. Hopefully by then I will have read a hundred or so more great books, including more VN, and I'll be more ready to read deep into the mysteries. Until then I'm going to dream, hope, believe I can write as well as this man one day. Maybe I should start writing in Russian.

Book #14 will be The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold



Blogger incandragon said...

An intereseting comment on seeing the words under the meaning they convey. I'll be thinking about that all day, I can tell.

I always feel conflicted when I'm reading something I'm not enjoying. If it's good, I mean. I go back and forth between "This is supposed to be entertainment, dang it" and "different and good is the only weay of stretching my horizons."

I loved the phrase "hijinks meander", btw.

Tue May 23, 05:45:00 AM  

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