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The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel [Paperback]

Paul Russell

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Book Description

Nov. 8 2011
The life and times of the gay Nabokov - a novel telling the real story of the lesser known, but equally fascinating brother of Vladimir Nabokov.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Cleis Press (Nov. 8 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573447196
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573447195
  • Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 386 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #398,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  47 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent Aug. 25 2011
By Reader from Washington, DC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Few people know that famous Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov had a kind, handsome and talented younger brother, Sergey, who died in a concentration camp during WWII three months before his 45th birthday, murdered for two crimes: being gay and speaking out against the Nazi regime.

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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Autobiography of a ghost Oct. 17 2011
By Tracy Rowan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
At the end of his acknowledgments, Paul Russell refers to Sergey Nabokov, brother to Vladimir Nabokov, as "a ghost" and it's this image which seems to inform the whole of Russell's faux autobiography of Sergey. Russell has given us a colorful and tender novel based on a few tantalizing literary and/or historical mentions of Sergey, most notably two less than enlightening pages in Vladimir's autobiography. In the novel, the lack of mention by Vladimir -- who comes across rather badly in this novel, at least until the very end where he becomes slightly more palatable -- is, on the surface, because he finds it impossible to understand or accept Sergey's life as an "invert" and so pushes him away. And yet, there is a suggestion here that Sergey's life has informed Vladimir's novel "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," and that Sergey is a kind of phantom Siamese twin to Vladimir, a necessary part of his emotional life, irrevocably joined, but yet a frightening, mysterious presence.

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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Other Nabokov July 30 2012
By Stephen John Vogel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Living in a brother's shadow Oct. 24 2011
By Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
There are very few, if any, that can say they have not heard of Vladimir Nabokov. Sergey Nabokov was a younger brother of his brother, a famous writer Vladimir. Both were born in Russia, into a family that was affluent and well off at the same time. They were raised in privilege by parents who deeply cared about each other.

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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quickly won me over March 21 2012
By Ste - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
As a student of Russian language and literature, I approach novels written on Russia/Russians by Westerners with caution and low expectations. As a student of queer studies, in particular in Russian and East European contexts, I was even more prepared to be disappointed.

It pleases me to say that Paul Russell's biographical novel paints a truly compelling portrait of Sergey Nabokov. I found that the book was indeed evidently "meticulously researched," as the synopsis proclaims. Anyone who has spent time researching homosexuality in Revolutionary Russia (particularly the development of a sort of gay subculture in St Petersburg) will be quite tickled to follow the exploits of young Sergey and his decadent pals. Russell really breathed life into what little is known about the enactment of male same-sex desire in that era.

Russell's depiction of émigré life I found to be quite comparable to what I have read in memoirs from the period; no details stuck out to me as anachronistic or conspicuously invented. In fact I was often in awe of the wealth of detail woven into the story; compiling the information for such a rich text must have been quite a feat.

All that being said, I do have to say that a more lengthy afterword or historical note would have been nice. But Russell does refer to the article "The Gay Nabokov," which is easily found online and quite important to read if you want to begin separating known fact from authorial fabrication.

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