The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov (Shane's book 19, 2011)

This was Nabokov's first novel in English. It can be read as the story of one man's search for his brother, a novel about literature or a post-modern intellectual puzzle. However you choose to approach it, it functions brilliantly as all three and it's a worthy addition to my mini-exploration of post-modern and experimental fiction. [amtap book:isbn=0141185996]

The book's narrator, known only as V, is writing a biography of his half brother, the noted author Sebastian Knight. V feels that Knight, a Russian who made his name writing in English, has been unfairly treated in a recent biography and plans to set the record straight.

V was not close to Knight so he has to piece together his half-brother's life from the little he knows and from the reminiscences of others. He travels across Europe to gather his material and spends a lot of time trying to track down the mystery woman who, he has become convinced, was the love of Knight's later years.

Explaining the post-modern aspect of this book requires a couple of spoilers so skip the next paragraph if you'd rather not know too much about how things develop.

As V's journey unfolds, he offers summaries and reviews of Knight's novels. These books are strikingly similar to aspects of V's journey, raising the question of what is really going on here. Does Knight exist at all or is he a character V has invented? Or are we in fact reading one of Knight's books, in which V is an invented character? The third possibility, is that both V and Knight exist and that V is, whether consciously or not, echoing his half-brother's novels in his narration.

Nabokov's writing is wonderful throughout. He creates a set of compelling characters and their story is fascinating. Equally brilliant are his parodies and imitations of other styles. In particular, the book reviews he 'quotes' are hilarious.

This is an excellent book and, I'm ashamed to say, the first Nabokov I've read. It won't be the last.