When I read the description for The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, I was intrigued – how does the younger, gay brother of a literary icon conduct his life? How dark is that shadow? The minutiae, the great secrets, and of course, loves of a person’s life are endlessly interesting to me, so I hoped that this book would scratch that itch. Because only limited details of Sergey’s life are documented, Paul Russell chose to write a novel instead of a biography. The result is a beautiful, lonely story about a man who has a lifelong struggle with happiness.
Bouncing back and forth between 1943 Berlin and the start of Sergey’s life and onwards, Sergey talks to the reader knowing his days are numbered. He has just spoken approvingly of England while inside a Third Reich office, and he knows that men have been killed for far lesser infractions. His comment – “England is the most civilized country in the world.” – came without thinking it through, based on his own past there, and now, “The civilized lads of the RAF will not have devastated this city so fully that the Gestapo cannot find their way to me.”
So he begins to write, starting with his birth in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 12, 1900. He was only eleven months younger than his brother Vladimir.
As for my undoting parents, they were disappointed, as I was later told by my needlessly honest grandmother Nabokova, to find their second offspring such a pallid reprise of their first. I was an uncommonly listless child: nearsighted, clumsy, inveterately left-handed despite attempts to “cure” me, and cursed with a stutter that only grew worse as I matured.
His father was widely known and respected as a criminal lawyer, newspaper editor, and political activist. His mother came from money, and the family lived on a great estate, but as the Russian revolution intensified, their lives became more unstable. Though the children tried to carry on with school, eventually, it was no longer safe for them to stay in St. Petersburg. Their father, staying behind to work, sent the family to Crimea. From there, they left for Greece, and then London, as the situation grew increasingly grim. Both Sergey and Vladimir attended Cambridge and tried, each in their own way, to adjust.
The brothers were never close. Vladimir remained confident, a romantic when it came to both art and women, yet always more serious about his writing than whoever he dated. He was embarrassed by his brother’s more effeminate qualities, as well as his stutter, and though Sergey admired his brother, they drifted apart. Though he knew from a young age that he was attracted to men, he struggled with how to live with it, as non-straight orientations were commonly still thought of as a mental disease. Left-handedness was not the only thing people thought could be “cured” (an idea that regrettably still exists within a certain modern minority, but I digress).
Eventually, Sergey finds himself living in Paris. He exists on the fringe of the Ballet Russes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ famous salon, and among the rotating cast of true characters involved with Jean Cocteau. He and Cocteau develop a fast friendship, partially fueled by opium addiction. Cocteau has some of the best lines in the book:
“What people don’t understand is this: art’s only half intoxication; the rest is paperwork. Only a fine line separates the artist from the accountant – but as in drawing, the placement of that line is everything.”
Paul Russell is a lovely, immersive writer, and while the story was such that made me carry on reading at an anticipatory clip, occasionally I would stop and marvel at the skill of his sentences. Now, I don’t know enough about Vladimir Nabokov’s writing to know if Russell’s style pays homage at all, but he is subtle about the way he presents everything. The over-the-top characters like Cocteau or the ballet enthusiasts feel natural – by that, I mean that at no point does the writing sound like, “Look at me! Look at me writing these characters oh-so-dramatically!” And given the unassuming, shy nature of Sergey, it makes sense that his narration would be that way as well. He reports what happens and how he felt, but he is not about to call any extra attention upon himself. To be paid attention means scrutiny, and scrutiny leads to judgment, and the times he has been judged, the results are rarely in his favor. Still, Sergey has an incredible mind attuned to beauty, and Russell’s fictionalized version of him makes me wonder what writing this “other” Nabokov could have accomplished, had he lived longer and been encouraged to explore it.
I walk the night, momentarily free from fear, ravished by this ruined city’s ghastly beauty as snow settles everywhere, softening the blackened debris, obscuring the mortal wounds, and suddenly I am remembering, helplessly, a late spring afternoon high in the mountains, somewhere along the flanks of the Grossvenediger, where Hermann Thieme and I are surprised in our sunny ramble by a glittering snow squall blown in from nowhere, and Hermann in a transport of sheer joy lifts his arms into the air to welcome this whim of Nature, and as he does so his shirt rides up, exposing to view an expanse of smooth stomach, and impulsively, gratefully, in pure tribute I kneel before him and kiss him there on his taut belly, grazing my lips along smooth skin, savoring that narrow furry trail that leads southward from his elegant little navel, and there has never, I think, been a more perfect moment in the history of the world.
What a sentence! “An expanse of smooth stomach,” “savoring that narrow furry trail” – I love those phrases. All of it is great, and a feat of writing to make a sentence that long not feel too heavy. Sergey has a particular way of describing other people that I really enjoyed. Talking about one of the dancers he meets, he says, “There was a bored patience in his gaze that reminded me of a sleek racehorse that submits patiently to being petted.” Now, I know that I’m partial to the humor I find in the word “petted,” but I know just the expression this man must have had. It’s a great way of putting it.
There’s a lot of magnificent stuff in this book, and it certainly made me want to know more about the man, the time in which he lived, and more about his famous brother’s books. The way creativity runs in families is interesting, the same way less common traits like left-handedness or not-straightness might manifest. Given the time in which Sergey dies, uncontrollable facts and genetics hold extra poignancy. WWII-era books are so plentiful, and I wonder if we’ve all got the dangers of power on the brain. What happens when the powerless are ignored? How have we grown? Personal is political, after all, and I hope that, in a roundabout way, books like this remind us not only of sacrifice, but of the unsung, quiet intermediaries passing through life. Progress only happens when we pay attention.
Full Disclosure: A version of this review originally appeared at Glorified Love Letters. Cleis Press sent me this as an advanced reader copy, so the quoted excerpts could have changed slightly in the final edition.