Russell, Paul. “The Unreal Life of Sergey Vladimirovitch Nabokov”, Cleis Press, 2011.
The Gay Brother
I know that when I read a Paul Russell book that I am going to enjoy the experience so I eagerly looking forward to “The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov” and entering a world that I knew little about. Sergey is the younger brother of famed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and a virtual unknown but this book will change that. Russell has created the brother and his unreal life and we do not really know what is real and what is not. Was he really the lost Nabokov and why is he such compelling reading? The answer to the second part of that question is in the skill of the writer.
One of the things that make this such a fascinating read is the detail with which Russell writes. Sergey is a teen when we meet him and his sensitivity causes an issue between him and his father. He is also attracted to members of his own sex and he is bullied for that by a school buddy who shares both sex and abuse with him. Sergey is confused on one hand and happy on the other. His first full sexual experience was with a soldier and he ponders it long afterwards. His personality comes across as a combination of youthful joy missed with carnal enjoyment and his sexual experiences began way to mark his life. He became totally changed but then he had to flee Russia because of the revolution and start all over somewhere else.
He and his brother are sent to Cambridge, England to the university and then the family came but later moved to Berlin. Sergey adjusts fine but his brother had a hard time as he felt his Russian heritage slipping away. Here begins a split between the two brothers and we begin to see Vladimir as cold with no emotion and a man who wants nothing of his brother’s life.
Sergey moves to Paris and enters the world of the literary salons and he begins to life or an expatriate. He also discovers opium and a great deal of sexual diversity. He finds a bit of happiness in a short affair but basically this is a book about an unfulfilled life. Both of the Nabokovs went through trying times—the family was spread thin, they lost their home country and they were forced to deal with war and death as well as addiction and same sex love. This is hard for anyone to deal with and for the boys it was terror. No wonder Sergey’s life seems unreal.
Russell is a master storyteller as well as a wonderful writer. If you have read anything else by him, you know what I mean (“Sea of Tranquility”, “The Salt Point”). Every word is perfectly chosen and every sentence advances the plot. If I had to pick one word to describe this, it would be “beautiful”. When a book affects me like this then I know it is more than a book, it is a total experience and there are not many like that around. It oozes melancholia and grace and I mean that in the most positive of ways.
We don’t get many books from Russell but when we do, we have cause to celebrate. Let us hope that there are more Paul Russell celebrations coming. Sergey’s life, combined with a plot out of Russell’s imagination based upon that life is a perfect way to spend some time and I recommend that you do so.