The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel Paperback – Nov 8 2011
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"Russell has succeeded in the impressive feat of making vivid and compelling the story of a vulnerable hanger-on, a person Vladimir Nabokov described as a "shadow in the background." --Historical Novel Society "There's a lot of great 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." --Glorified Love Letters "What struck me most about this work was the lavish, beautiful prose. I've read few modern novels that can compare. The voice Paul Russell captures is both lush and believable. The detail in the scenes he paints is remarkable." --Examiner "Horrible memories are sometimes pushed far to the side, for the best. The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov seeks to tell a story surrounding famed author Vladimir Nobokov's forgotten gay brother, Sergey. Chronicling the story of Sergey through Czarist Russia and their departure from their home land towards England. A remarkable story that explores the relationship of the brothers that shows much research all the way toward Sergey's fate, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov is well worth considering for literary fiction collections." --Michael J. Carson "The language used by the author helps keep the reader in the time period, along with succeeding at painting a picture of what life was like for a homosexual person at the time...The one characteristic of this book that most stands out for me, in an already extraordinary read, is the framing of the story...Absolutely engrossing, the author has put together the story of a shy, endearing, vulnerable, unforgettable young man, valiantly facing circumstances that would have destroyed a lesser soul. Kudos, Mr. Russell, for a brilliant performance. Highly recommended." --Arketipo 187 "Russell's just-released novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov ... brilliantly re-creat[es] the many worlds in which the historical Sergey moved: pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Cambridge University, the gay demimonde of expatriate Paris, a fairy-tale castle in the Austrian Alps, war-torn Berlin." --Chronogram "A brilliant imagining of the life of a marginal son of the Russian liberal elite washed away in the Bolshevik revolution and then enmeshed in the Third Reich." --Stephen Murray, epinions "Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel builds upon those dazzling days between the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and the rise of the Third Reich. Through the perspective of the real, but little-known Sergey Nabokov, younger brother of Lolita's creator, Vladimir Nabokov, Russell brings his readers on a wild romp through the gay and artistic cliques that were changing the face of the art and literary worlds in the 1920s and 30s." --Foreword Review The title of Paul Russell's splendid new novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, hints at its contents...The Unreal Life bears a resemblance to Woody Allen's movie "Midnight in Paris." Russell solves a problem that defeated Allen. In "Midnight in Paris," Gertrude Stein's speech lacks the head-scratching repetitions that coil through her books. Russell, though, captures the Stein style beautifully, as in this reply to a help-me letter from Sergey, sent from Berlin late in the war: "Miss Stein knows she knew you but no longer knows how she knew nor when nor where nor why she knew you when she knew you. Nonetheless she wishes you the very best." --The Washington Post Bookworld "A story that will make you laugh and smile then breaks your heart, this is a rich tapestry of the human condition. Highly recommended."--Library Journal "Sergey's struggles with his sexuality, as well as his adventures and misadventures in the salons and clubs of pre-war Europe, are drawn with humanity. With compelling characters and steady prose, the reader will breeze through this pleasurable, heart-breaking account of the other Nabokov." --Publishers Weekly "The subtle, dark wit that makes The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov a pleasure to read. As WWII begins and then drags on, several characters take shelter in cities outside Berlin. One character goes so far as to say, "My wife and daughter are perfectly safe, staying with her parents in Dresden, which I am told presents no military or industrial targets whatsoever for the RAF." With rare perfect timing, Russell allows his characters to make similar comments completely unaware of history's hammer, poised and ready to slam down." --Foreword Magazine "Russell's prose, engagingly evocative of the period in which the story is set, is studded with gems of dark wit that add quirky grace to a masterful novel." --South Florida Gay News "Russell's stellar research and inventiveness make this obscure figure, an unforgettable gay hero." --Edge "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." --Lambda Literary "In literary heaven, where Vladimir Nabokov now resides, he wouldn't approve of this convincing dream evocation of the life of his gay brother, but the novel is a sidelong tribute to Nabokov--tender, sad, and moving, with touches of the Maestro's elegance." --Herbert Gold, author of Not Dead Yet, and Fathers "Paul Russell has been so skillful and so fond in the creation of this Unreal Life that his readers will unavoidably identify it with the real one which ended in 1943. Now it is their turn to sift what is real from what is imagined, mine only to applaud the author of every life, unreal and otherwise, in this inescapable construction 'dedicated to that ghost,' a voice-over of Sergey, the lost Nabokov, that maintains us all in a sort of double time-machine compelling us to follow the consecrated Nabokovs and a host of others through the last ecstasies of gay Europe." --Richard Howard, author of Paper Trail and Without Saying "An extraordinary novel, tender, fierce, and graceful, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a tale of place and displacement, of shadows and siblings and countries shaken by change--and sustained, as the reader will be, by the quiet heroism of art. A tour de force." -- Brenda Wineapple, award-winning author of WHITE HEAT: THE FRIENDSHIP OF EMILY DICKINSON AND THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON "'Beauty plus pity," Vladimir Nabokov's famous definition of art, perfectly describes this moving, artful novel. Intimate and epic, gorgeously written, divinely detailed, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an ingenious hybrid of a book, powerful, troubling, exciting." --Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God "Paul Russell's sublime novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an astonishing work of art. In lucid prose, Russell retells the story of Nabokov's gay brother, allowing us a clear window into an overlooked life and an underwritten aspect of history. This mesmerizing novel not only recreates the shifting, unstable epoch of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, but reimagines Sergey's persona, his loves and fate with great authenticity and imagination. It's a heartbreaking novel that everyone should read." --Alistair McCartney, author of The End of the World Book "In this melancholy, graceful novel, Paul Russell has captured a vanished time and people, and even the clarity and formality of mid-20th century emigre prose. Despite loss and alienation dating almost from birth, Russell's Sergey emerges as the more humane Nabokov brother, and you cheer for his brief happiness and the love he found before history closed in." --Regina Marler, author of Bloomsbury Pie "It takes an accomplished novelist to bring to glittering life a lost and foreign world. Paul Russell achieves this feat with disarming ease in The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a daring, ambitious, playful, intelligent, and deeply affecting novel. Russell lavished upon Vladimir Nabokov's unheralded and doomed younger brother Sergey the divine attention, sympathy and patience we all wish to receive from our creator. While compulsively reading this book, I felt an occasional twinge of envy, and I thought that it must have been as exciting to write as it is to read." --Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day "Always readable and compelling, Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a brilliant impersonation, literary prestidigitation of a higher order, and in the end, the unexpected, unique, and solidly mature work we were awaiting from this already accomplished author." --Felice Picano, author of True Stories:Portraits From My Past "The historical life of Sergey Nabokov was altogether real and all too short. But there are forms of history that only fiction can suggest, and this subtle novel movingly brings back from the shadows a rich, lost life." --Michael Wood, author of The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction and Yeats and Violence "The only thing 'unreal' about this novel is the skill it took to write it. Paul Russell exhibits uncanny knowledge of the period and its people. He is an unfailing guide through St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin, dope dens, literary salons, drag balls, and war-torn streets. From the height of genius and to the depth of the gutter, Russell extends his precise, penetrating and panoramic gaze." --David Bergman, author of The Violet Hour of Gaiety Transfigured "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov advances the art of biography even as it proves itself the very best of Paul Russell's fine novels. I read half of it not even thinking that Sergey Nabokov was a 'real person,' largely because the intimacy author Russell brings to his subject is the total kind one finds only in art, but then something told me, you're reading two sorts of book at once--a stupendous thrill ride all by itself. History and myth combine to tell the saga, apparently from inside, as we've never experienced it--the splendors and miseries of Tsarist Russia, the picnic of modernism that was the 20s Paris of Cocteau, Stein, and Diaghilev, and the unfolding nightmare of the Third Reich. Our hero lacks his brother's genius, but he is that rare creature, the genuinely brave and sweet man to whom one hates to say goodbye. And now we don't have to." --Kevin Killian, author of Shy and Arctic Summer "This astounding book will remind the reader not of Nabokov, but of Tolstoy: for the epic sweep across history, of course, but even more for the great Tolstoyan trick of finding the one detail in a bit player--the livid scar on the naked thigh of a Russian peasant, the subversive "hangman's lock" of hair sported by a kid in Nazi Berlin--that somehow conjures up a whole vanished world of seeing and feeling. Sergey Nabokov is a triumphant invention: eyes and heart wide open through every catastrophe, he emerges as a new kind of hero, an intrepid conquistador of loss." --Mark Merlis, author of American Studies and A Man About Town "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a really wonderful book, a remarkable achievement from one of our best authors, gay or straight. Paul Russell's writing has the richness of a nineteenth-century novel with a modernist's sensibility. His protagonist, an outsider because f his sexuality, is at the same time an eyewitness to world-changing events who manages to find a place for himself at the heart of the creative life of his times. With a deftness that never stoops to the garish or avoids the grimy truth and is always even-handed, Russell gives us incisive portraits of Cocteau, Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their Charmed Circle, and Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, and glimpses into the demimonde of Paris and Berlin. His ability to reveal his characters' flaws without judging them--or inviting the reader's dismissal--results in moments of poignancy that make the triumphs as well as the tragedies he portrays all the more moving." --Patrick Merla, anthologist of the award-winning collection of original personal essays Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming-Out Stories and longtime editor of literary magazines and the work of such authors as J. D. McClatchy, Nabokov and Edmund White Praise for Russell's The Coming Storm "Unsettling and touching...well-nigh flawless." --The Washington Post Book World "Captivating...It engages like a whisper, seductive and, yes, even sad." --Rocky Mountain News
About the Author
Paul Russell is the author of The Salt Point, Sea of Tranquility, and the Ferro-Grumley Award-winning The Coming Storm. Russell has received many nominations and awards for his writing. He is the author of the indispensable reference book The Gay 100.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The novel is constructed as a fictional memoir written by Sergey as he struggles to survive in 1943 Berlin, dodging Allied bombings and the watchful Gestapo.
Novelist Paul Russell takes the sparse factual knowledge that we have of Sergey and weaves it into a fascinating fictional memoir, in which he tries to fill in the details of Sergey's life -- his difficult relationship with his famous older brother -- his struggle as an artistic gay teen in pre-1917 Imperial Russia, his immersion in the Roaring Twenties Paris art world -- his happy same-sex marriage during the 1930s to Austrian businessman Hermann Thieme, living in a castle in the Austrian Alps -- and the fatal evening when Sergey and Hermann are arrested --
The book is beautifully written, with accurate period detail, in a clear, flowing prose.
My only criticism of the book is that it stops before Sergei is sent to a concentration camp -- there is historical evidence that he was very brave and helped his fellow prisoners -- I would have liked to have read about that. I felt that the novel ended too soon.
Taken quite apart from the Vladimir Nabokov connection, "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel" is a thoughtful, sometimes amusing, often sad story of a man struggling to be himself in a world that refuses to accept him. Sergey is not so much a ghost because he has so little place in the real history of his family, but rather because like so many gay men of the time, he inhabits a shadow world in which intimacy is hesitant and often furtive rather than open and joyous. This is a wonderful view of that world, and of the history of gay men in the first half of the 20th century.
Russell's writing is immensely readable, his characters, many drawn from real life, are vivid and engaging, and so convincing is he that you'll probably finish the book with the conviction that you've just read a true autobiography of a man who should have been better known.
Eleven years later, Paul Russell fleshed out Grossman's informative sketch in a nearly four hundred page book, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. That this book takes the form of a novel rather than a biography is due to the fact that information on Sergey's life is so frustratingly sketchy that only a novelist could hope to "fill in the blanks" and, by doing so, bring this intriguing and elusive figure to life.
The central fact of Sergey Nabokov's life, it might appear, was his ambivalent relationship to his famous brother. Paul Russell, like Grossman before him, indicates that another fact may have been just as important in shaping his destiny: his sexual identity.
From Saint Petersburg to Cambridge University to Paris to Berlin, and in all the other places in which this Russian emigre lived following the Revolution, the ways in which he was viewed and in which he viewed his surroundings had as much to do with his being gay as it did with his family background. But sexual orientation aside, he possessed several impressive attributes: his intelligence, his deep appreciation for the arts, a remarkable gift for languages and, most especially, a core of decency found in all his relationships, whether familial, friendly or erotic. (As it happens he befriended some of the early 20th Century's most famous artistic luminaries: Diaghilev, Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein among them, all of whom are vividly evoked in this novel.)
A word more about his sense of decency: as Russell depicts him, and as I suspect he was in real life, Vladimir Nabokov, his literary genius notwithstanding, was singularly lacking in what is sometimes referred to as fellow feeling, or altruism. Besotted with his own intellectual abilities, he was often conceited, arrogant and supercilious. As such, he was almost the opposite of his modest and considerate brother, Sergey, whom he generally treated with, at best, indifference and at worst, hostility. The younger brother's efforts to win his more accomplished sibling's approval invariably met with failure. Vladimir's homophobia probably accounts for at least some of his insensitivity and even contempt toward Sergey.
While it is Vladimir who is remembered today (though for his writings and not for his character, assuredly), his brother, with his gifts for friendship and kindness but not for creating literature, is largely forgotten. This is hardly surprising, ars longa, and all that. But the bitter irony is that it was one of Sergey's finer qualities, his devotion and loyalty to the great love of his life, his Austrian companion, which kept him in Europe and led to his arrest and eventual death in a concentration camp. Meanwhile, the more hard-headed and career-minded Vladimir got out of Nazi Germany and into the safety of a teaching job in America just in the nick of time. (Who says that nice guys don't finish last?)
However, Sergey may have finally gotten his posthumous revenge in this novel. Though it is "only" fiction, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, is so carefully researched and so convincingly written that it would be hard for the reader to regard the title character as anything other than a true hero. He is one of those who endure hardship, due to both poverty and prejudice, while demonstrating noble qualities, even if these very qualities ultimately lead to a tragic end. When compared to this valiant figure, his famous brother comes across as insufferable, egomaniacal and morally stunted. In light of what is presented in this book, few readers would hesitate in choosing which brother possessed the greater soul, and the more generous spirit.
Nonetheless, this is not a portrait of Sergey Nabokov in black and white, for there are many shades of gray in the way that he is depicted. His extreme sensitivity, coupled with a chronic stammer, made him reticent around other people, and quick to take offense at real or imagined slights. He could deliver withering comments to those he deemed deserving of them and he was perhaps not easily approachable. But once his confidence was gained, he was willing (perhaps, at times, too willing) to lower his guard and share his personal gifts with others. It feels like a real human whose "unreal life" we discover in this book, not a symbol or a two-dimensional figure.
Paul Russell has brought to light--and to life--the dimly remembered Sergey Nabokov in this splendid novel. For readers of literature, there is now a second Nabokov who merits our attention.
What attracted me to this book is the fact that it's subject is Sergey. There have been many books about Vladimir and his wife Vera. This is the first one I came across that discusses Sergey. Sergey was born shortly after Vladimir. He was a less favored child. Part of it may have been his obvious imperfection - stuttering. Later on, it became more profound because Sergey realized early in his life that he was a homosexual. His parents and his brother never quite reconciled with that notion.
When both Vladimir and Sergey were growing up, there country Russia as well as the rest of the world was going through tremendous changes. There was October Revolution, WWI and eventually WWII. The onset of October revolution caused Nabokov family to leave Russia. They moved between London, Berlin and Prague initially. It is only Vladimir that left Europe for America after lucky offer to teach at Stanford University. Others were held behind by the people they loved.
As I was reading the book, I was stricken how author presented Sergey's life as an ongoing struggle in search for professional success and personal happiness. It was not easy for Sergey to define himself, being a son of a famous father who was a significant intellectual figure in Russia and later on a brother to the acclaimed author, his own brother who redefined european literature in those days.
It is a lovely book that look at the human condition of Sergey. Sensitive, lonely and deeply affected by the people and circumstances around him. His brief love affair with an Austrian aristocrat almost has one rooting for the success and happiness in his personal life, until WWII interferes and changes everything irreversibly. I enjoyed this book very much and I strongly recommend it.
The early depiction of Sergey's alienation at school and amid his own family circle is quite painful. One doesn't have to be gay too empathize with the stuttering fish out of water who compares so unfavorably to the more assured and composed Vladimir. Indeed their contrasting selves alone would be enough reason for alienation, however there is much more. His brother Vladimir's betrayal and his father's subsequent enlistment of a doctor to "help cure" his son are depicted in the simplest, most affecting prose. The family's eviction from Russia and its change of fortune are an interesting twist: Sergey was always going to be an outsider, it was merely a matter of where and how.
The story that unfolds of the Paris in the twenties and thirties is interesting but depressing. All that creativity flitting about and one gets the sense that everyone was miserable. One would be happy to leave it behind except it is followed by Nazism. The conclusion is one that some may find depressing but I thought it amazingly uplifting--seeking society's approval was as futile then as now. In one of the more memorable passages Sergey admonishes: "I believe I have found something else as well--that we only, any of us, live in art. No matter whether it is in books, painting, music, or dance, it is there we flourish, there we survive. It has taken me many years to come to this realization.
Sergey Nabokov is proof that integrity, honesty and compassion are the only qualities that ultimately give our life meaning and value.