Sergey, the slightly younger brother of the great Vladimir Nabokov, was virtually forgotten until Lev Grossman's essay "The Gay Nabokov" brought the fact of his existence to widespread attention in the year 2000. In that Salon article, the surviving details of Sergey's brief but eventful life (1900-1945) were pieced together, suggesting that this unknown Nabokov might be worthy of a longer study.
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.