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Paul Russell’s newest novel imagines the delicate inner life of Sergey Nabokov, the lesser-known gay brother of Vladimir, of Lolita fame. It’s a work rich in details—the air-raid sirens of 1943 Berlin serenade Sergey as he remembers his childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, where revolution and violence exist amid the ethereal beauty of the ballet, the “gauzy light out over the Bay of Finland” and scenes of pastoral stillness on the Nabokov county estate.
At the heart of the book is Sergey, a sensitive teenager discovering that his “most cherished emotions…constitute a defect” in the eyes of his Father, the medical profession and society in general. Even more upsetting is his budding same-sex obsession, a school acquaintance who taunts Sergey while parsing out small sexual favors, interspersed with physical abuse. “My loves have always ambushed me,” Sergey laments.
Russell excels in his portrayal of an idealistic young man caught between “confusions and exhilarations” during his first complete sexual experience with an older soldier, at the urging of a more experienced gay friend. Sergey’s musings after his messy bathhouse exertions are perfectly captured in all their incongruous mix of innocence and newly discovered carnal knowledge.
“I did not know how I felt. Abjectly sorry, deliciously manhandled, rapturously fallen, defiantly unguilty, well-nigh shattered, I walked through the streets of an unchanged city a changed person, a traveler returned from a foreign and fantastical land,” he says. And then his world—the Russia of his childhood—changes, as St. Petersburg is overcome by revolution.
For their protection, the well-off Sergey and his brother are sent to university in Cambridge, England; the Nabokov family moves to England and then Berlin. After several years of study, Sergey finds his new home charming, while Vladimir attempts unsuccessfully to recreate in his mind all the landmarks of Saint Petersburg, which are “beginning to disappear before our very eyes.”
“That indelible city is vanishing as we speak, and stroll, and sip tea, and very soon, I fear, I shall be left with nothing but a few stray phantoms, misremembered relics, the odd bit of déjà vu, then nothing at all,” he says. In sharp contrast, Sergey is content to practice his English and savor their fall walk. The rift between brothers is a theme Russell returns to throughout the novel, depicting Vladimir as a cold, unsympathetic and largely unavailable figure in his brother’s life.
After an unexpected family tragedy, Sergey takes a job offer in Paris, and begins an expatriate life that puts him in the social circles of Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Pavel Tchelitchew, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. He also encounters the whirlwinds of “the kind of beautiful flower opium” and a variety of attractive sexual “diversions.”
Russell’s telling of Sergey’s troubled twenties reads as the novel’s most forced feature, with his protagonist inserted into the lives of larger-than-life men and women familiar to most readers. This period in Sergey’s life does contain some interesting scenes and unexpected reunions, which Russell presents well, but I would have enjoyed less focus on prominent individuals and more devotion to Sergey himself, who is by far the book’s most captivating personality.
Although Sergey does eventually find some measure of happiness in his life, it is short-lived. “I will not bore my reader with a honeyed account of that time,” he says. “As Tolstoy knew well, there was no story to tell in Eden—only afterward, once it had all come to ruin, once history had begun.”
The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov displays linguistic artistry through portraying ruin in all its forms—the scattering of family ties, the loss of one’s country, and the consequences of war, death, addiction and forbidden love. It’s a life story that does, in fact, seem “unreal,” and is made all the more remarkable for its veracity. Kudos to writer Paul Russell for presenting the historical persona of “the gay Nabokov” in a fictional format that succeeds at drawing the reader into Sergey’s improbably true life.
THE UNREAL LIFE OF SERGEY NABOKOV
By Paul Russell
Trade Paperback, 9781573447195, 394pp.