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In his new novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov (Cleis Press), author Paul Russell brings an almost forgotten witness to history back to life: the younger brother of the great writer Vladimir Nabokov, a gay man who lived in the shadow of his famous family and his tumultuous relationships with the most daring artists of the 20th century.
Inspired by Lev Grossman’s 2000 essay “The Gay Nabokov” on Salon.com, Russell imagines Sergey’s exodus from an aristocratic childhood in Tsarist Russia to the interwar demimonde in Paris to the Nazi’s translation office in bombed-out Berlin. His sexuality shapes all of his relationships: While Vladimir views his sibling as a disappointment; Sergey’s fey ways are his entry into the artistic circles of Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Sergei Diaghilev and others. The reader is left to discern where fiction merges with fact.
Russell spoke with Lambda Literary Review about creating Sergey’s unreal life, blending historical fact with a novelist’s imagination, and reveling in the syntax of Gertrude Stein.
The biographical details about Sergey’s life are so elusive. Was that anonymity part of the allure for you?
You’ve got it exactly right—if I were trying to write a biography of Sergey Nabokov, I’d really be in trouble because it would be little more than a pamphlet. As it was, for writing a novel, I had the perfect amount of material—meaning that I had the spine of his life, the general trajectory, but then I had to invent all of the flesh and the musculature to clothe that spine. I asked Lev Grossman, who wrote “The Gay Nabokov” essay, if he had come across other things in his research that he hadn’t included in the essay, and he said he put every scrap of information in it.
Lev said that one of the Nabokov relatives in Paris did have some letters from Sergey, but had no interest in showing them to anyone. The Nabokov family is very reserved and protective, and I would be surprised if there weren’t more bits of Sergey out there—but I don’t think [the family] is in any hurry to make them public.
Perhaps the shame over Sergey’s sexuality, which so affected Vladimir, still lingers in the family many years later.
Vladimir’s son Dmitri, in particular, had always tried to squash any conversation about Sergey, saying that we should respect Sergey’s privacy—and of course to mention that he was gay would be a violation of that, especially if you come from a time and place where that’s just not discussed.
It seems that the family of the person you’re creating would have preferred you didn’t write this novel. What sources did you use to recreate Sergey, and how did you research this “unreal” life?
Several of the family members, besides Vladimir, wrote books; Sergey’s uncle Konstantin, who was the Chargé d’Affairs at the Russian Embassy, published his memoirs called The Ordeal of a Diplomat. One of Sergey’s aunts, Nadezhda, also wrote a memoir called The Russia I Loved, which is a very florid, lyrical account of how wonderful life was under the Tsar and how terrible it was for all of that to disappear. And at least one of Nabokov’s father’s books was translated into English, a deadly dull account of his political career.
But even more useful that those memoirs were diaries from the time, by people who were not necessarily connected with the Nabokovs at all. It was much more important for me to learn what was on the menu at the restaurants along the Nevsky Prospekt in 1915 and the kind of automobiles people were driving than to learn about the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and all of that grand historical stuff.
There were the diaries, for example, of Maurice Paleologue, the French ambassador to the Tsar’s court. He recorded in his diaries, every day, what the weather was, what he had for dinner, what he went to see at the Mariinky Theatre that night. That’s the texture of day-to-day life, and that’s what vanishes over the course of history. That’s what creates the illusion that this unreal character is moving through a very real world.
As he travels in artistic circles from St. Petersburg to Paris, Sergey acts like a canvas on which his more famous friends and family members display their charismatic personalities. He has so many relationships with famous people; which of these was most interesting for you to explore?
I had great fun with Jean Cocteau, because Cocteau was great fun! I do occasionally put Cocteau’s words in his own mouth. I found him a delight because of his energy.
I enjoyed Gertrude Stein as well; I think my portrait shows her as a somewhat mixed character. I think my portrait of Cocteau was mixed as well; he’s ambitious and manipulative and dangerous in his way, as is Stein. Unfortunately I had to cut a number of Gertrude Stein’s scenes, and I regretted that. The other character that got cut way back was the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.
Did you cut them because they weren’t advancing the story? Those must have been difficult decisions, given their real-life importance.
At one point this novel was 700 pages! The hardest thing is doing all this research and then realizing that you can only use about ten percent of it. It seemed to me that Cocteau’s and Tchelitchew’s antic personalities were duplicating one another. Sergey’s interactions with Tchelitchew echoed a little his interactions with Cocteau a little too much. I finally thought, for the purposes of novelistic elegance, we only need one character like that.
The other painful cut involved the time the Nabokov family spent in Crimea after they fled from Russia and before they went to Greece. I had written about a love affair that Sergey had with a dancer named Maksim, and several other characters that I really liked a lot. But I needed to give the plot a kick and basically leap over the whole Crimean episode and get [Sergey andVladimir] to Cambridge.
Towards the middle of the story, Sergey reads Vladimir’s first published novel. He feels shock at the overlap between whatVladimirhas fictionalized and fact. I had a similar reaction in reading your novel; I wondered at times how much was fact and how much was fiction. How did you draw the line between the two?
I’m delighted to hear you say that, because I was going after that effect. I wanted the line to be blurred. Readers who know Nabokov’s work well will, I hope, be in for a disorienting experience. There is, for example, a fictional character in Vladimir’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight who has strode right in to the pages of The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov to become a real flesh-and-blood character. That’s a very Nabokovian game.
Though Sergey’s not the genius his brother was, I did want Sergey’s prose and imagination and the novel he’s enshrined in to be a relative of his brother’s work.
Do you feel that Sergey’s homosexuality, his “attitude” as his family calls it, was the biggest factor in shaping his life, and his demise at the hands of the Nazis?
I think it probably was the biggest factor shaping Sergey’s life, because after his brother outed him at the age of 15, things were never the same for him within the family. I imagine that profoundly affected the choices he made. As for his demise, I think that’s a little less clear. Many people think he was sent to the concentration camp because he was homosexual, but that’s not technically the case. He and his lover Hermann had been arrested Austria in the early 1940s for homosexuality, but Sergey received a relatively light five-month jail term for uttering politically subversive statements.
On the other hand, he had an Austrian lover, and that very well may have been why he decided to stay inEuropewhen war broke out rather than flee to America like his brother. In the novel, I posited that that was the case; I had Vladimir saying that he was crazy to stay inEurope. Sergey believes it’s God’s test of his love for Hermann and he elects to stay by his side rather than save his own skin. That’s my novelistic speculation.
Are you working on other projects now?
I’ve finished draft of another novel. It’s a contemporary story about a right-wing, family values politician from Tennessee who is brought low by a sex scandal. He’s writing the book to explain why things are very different than they appear to be. The guy is a scoundrel, but he’s not a hypocrite; I’m trying to get inside the truth. It’s too easy to say all right-wing politicians are hypocrites.
The complicated truth is that a lot of those people actually do believe in what they’re doing, for whatever reasons. And it’s those reasons I want to explore