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.