The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, by Paul Russell

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Sibling rivalry takes many forms. Whether it’s Bart and Lisa Simpson choking each other in front of the television or Cain concussing his brother Abel the outcome is usually the same– someone always wins. There’s always a favorite, a golden child. But what about those who are left second best? Often the arrow that doesn’t quite hit the mark has a fascinating trajectory of its own.

Sergey Nabokov after all suffered from a type of middle child syndrome few of us could imagine. He grew up gay in a prominent aristocratic Russian family at the turn of the century and for the most part in the shadow of his older brother, Vladimir, the family genius. From their earliest childhood, Nabokov the elder stole Sergey’s thunder with his prodigious talent and promise. Later his adult life with its often improbable twists and turns, with its polyglot successes and the way he rode the crest of a changing world all the way to America, with pitstops in Hollywood and the Ivy League, seemed charmed. He literally bridged centuries, the old and the new worlds, totalitarianism and democracy, science and art, and he did it all with an off-hand aplomb about the whole affair. No wonder poor Sergey felt insufficient.

After the family had to flee the mother country when the Communist revolution went down, Sergey, who had already acknowledged as a teen his fate as an “invert,” having attended secret drag balls and committed furtive schoolboy trysts in dark alleys with his comrades in the “Left Handed Abyssinians”, a sort of queer Emo-clique founded by Sergey and his few like-minded friends, would naturally find himself in permissive, expressive Paris. No surprise either that he’d find himself on the fringes of the great salons and art circles of the time, a back row observer at Gertrude and Alice’s, a friend and friend-with-benefits to Cocteau, on the guest list but never the guest of honor, ever a B-list celebrity in his way, living off the fumes of his aristocratic beginnings and his brother’s rising fame. It would however be the backdrop for his emergence as his own person and his eventual demise as well.

Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov offers a fascinating if fictionalized portrait of this unknown Nabokov. Sergey’s also-ran status may have shaped the younger brother’s character but his is not the story of the other Nabokov. Sergey alone is the sympathetic heart of this story. Vladimir after all was at best aloof with Sergey, and at worst officially estranged, the two often not seeing or communicating with one another for years at a time. That his brother was or would soon be a world famous novelist, poet, and scholar is almost besides the point. In fact Vladimir, or Volodya as he is more familiarly called within the Nabokov clan, is actually much less present in the novel than one would expect. Maybe that’s a good thing. He was, in Russell’s eyes at least, a bit of asshole. From his earliest disregard and even cold rejection of his little brother during their boyhood to his essential absence from most of Sergey’s adult life when both brothers were part of the waves of Russian emigres in Paris and Berlin in the twenties and thirties, Vladimir cuts an elusive figure. He represents a missing piece in the lonely puzzle of Sergey’s heart, but in the end one piece only and one which Sergey long before resigned to never really possessing.

Perhaps though a youth spent eagerly at his brother’s dismissive shoulder prepared Sergey for his participation in the dizzying Paris stratosphere in which he found himself. He had become used to almost being there, comfortable around genius if never touched by it himself. Sergey could withstand the disregard of Paris’ bright stars just easily as he could ward off its more rapacious hungers. The effective portrait Russell paints of this uncanny time and place in fact is but one of the book’s satisfying accomplishments. It’s no groupie memoir however and there is no rose-colored nostalgia at work either. The Paris circles are depicted as the venomous, back biting, social climbing snake pits that they actually were. His Gertrude Stein is not the same avuncular hostess played by Kathy Bates in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris but instead a petty, divisive, self-appointed czarina with her own tenuous hold on her realm (and Alice B Toklas, her willing minion who gleefully does the wet work of excommunication). Russell’s Diaghilev, the great impresario of the Ballet Russe, is equally as repugnant, an obese, wheezy, whiny, debt-dodging paranoid pederast with, nonetheless, an impeccable knack for picking talent. Cocteau, more of a brother to Sergey than Vladimir himself, is treated much more favorably, if only because he was more genuinely charming and witty than the other top dogs of the demi-monde. (Many of the book’s wonderful bon-mots issue from Cocteau’s lips.) Perhaps his addiction to opium mellowed him a bit (he enabled Sergey’s own addiction to opium as well). Maybe it was that he lived with his mother, or maybe he just refused to take himself as seriously and for that appealed to Sergey the most. Like Cocteau, Sergey is an incisive observer of all the star-fucking mishegoss, but he has no illusions about himself. He learned early on he’ll never fit in anywhere, so he always seems one foot out the door no matter where he is, and that seems to suit him fine.

After Paris, Sergey found himself in Berlin where he lived out the balance of his life, following a five month prison sentence for sexual deviancy imposed on him and his aristocratic Austrian lover Herman Thieme, with whom he enjoyed the longest and most fulfilling relationship of his life. Even in gay Paris Sergey had opted for an easy string of smoky evenings spent in Cocteau’s opium haze, pining always for a perfect love that despite a string of handsome and sometimes rich lovers that always seemed to escape him–none but a dashing Englishman, a Cambridge chum of Volodya’s of course, later lost in an RAF bombing raid and presumed captured or killed by the Nazis. Soon he is working for the Ministry of Propaganda, as many Russian emigres were initially supportive of the Reich and grateful to Germany for accepting them after their escape from Russia. His participation soon became less than consensual. He knew his days were numbered and is soon shipped off to a labor camp for uttering the unforgivable treason of suggesting that England was the superior civilization, most likely because it was the homeland of his one true love. He never found his Englishman by the way, and literally died trying.

Before he left Paris, though, he sought some kind of closure with his brother, some acknowledgment of their estrangement and some chance to express his love and receive Volodya’s in return. In a telling scene close to the last time they would see one another, Vladimir confesses that all of his correspondence with his brother was actually composed by his wife Vera, who never really liked or trusted the homosexual Sergey all that much anyway. Sergey realizes that the only way his brother ever revealed his soul to anyone was through his art. No wonder he was so prodigious and absorbed as a child. No wonder he disappeared from Sergey’s life, and when he was present was unable to express his love or admiration for his little brother.

In a similar way though Sergey is revealed through “his” novel. It’s a kind of Nabokovian sleight of hand Russell plays, lightly masking one story with another, building a text that is ultimately a mirror to a life, even if it is completely illusory, just like John Shade’s “shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane”, in Nabokov’s later masterpiece Pale Fire. Sergey even broaches the topic of writing a book about their heroic martyred father, but Vladimir dismisses it. “And what do you think you might produce…A sham biographie romanceé where an infinitely graduated life is reduced to an artificially crafted plot, complete with characters and dialogue and dramatic scenes that never happened–and worst of all sentimental detours into the subject’s psyche, his innermost thoughts and emotions. No, I think I’d rather see poor Father’s corpse thrown to a pack of feral dogs.

Did this conversation really occur? Who cares? That Russell exhaustively researched this novel is apparent but not obvious, and that is the book’s greatest success. It’s a great story, not a history of Sergey, but a moving portrait of his soul, and as a salon populated by the divergent personae of Picasso and Dali would bear out, a “likeness” is subject to many interpretations. Russell is showing us too that he is fully aware of the unreliable nature of his own book. But there is nothing “meta” at play here. This is in the end not another bag of Nabokov-style tricks. It is entirely Russell’s book (and Sergey’s). It is however as real an account of Sergey Nabokov as we can get, and is also well crafted, luminous, lively, urbane story of one man’s search for love. It is just as Sergey himself saw life–heartbreaking, beautiful, and in most cases absurdly tragic. His brother would (probably) be proud.


Matthew Aquilone was born and raised in Brooklyn. He is currently completing his memoir, "Those Handsome Young Men." More from this author →