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The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel

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In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the gay brother of Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Russell re-creates the rich and changing world in which Sergey, his family and friends lived; from wealth and position in pre-revolutionary Russia, to the halls of Cambridge University, and the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But it is the honesty and vulnerability of Sergey, our young gay narrator, that hook the reader: his stuttering childhood in the shadow of his brilliant brother, his opium-fueled ...

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The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel

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In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the gay brother of Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Russell re-creates the rich and changing world in which Sergey, his family and friends lived; from wealth and position in pre-revolutionary Russia, to the halls of Cambridge University, and the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But it is the honesty and vulnerability of Sergey, our young gay narrator, that hook the reader: his stuttering childhood in the shadow of his brilliant brother, his opium-fueled evenings with his sometime lover Cocteau, his troubled love life on the margins of the Ballets Russes and its legendary cast, and his isolation in war torn Berlin where he will ultimately be arrested, sent to a camp and die in 1945.

A meticulously researched novel, in which you will meet an extraordinary cast of characters including Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Magnus Hirschfield ("Tante Magnesia"), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Cocteau, Nijinsky, and of course the master himself, Vladimir Nabokov, this is ultimately the story of a beautiful and vulnerable homosexual boy growing into an enlightened and courageous man.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this meticulously researched novel, Russell (The Coming Storm) imagines the life of the younger, and now forgotten, Nabokov—Sergey. Always living in the shadow of his older brother, Sergey finds himself in 1943 Berlin working for the Propaganda Ministry. When he realizes that he may be under surveillance, he begins hastily penning his life story. From his birth in pre-revolutionary Russia, Sergey (cursed with a stutter) claims that his parents viewed him as Vladimir’s pale comparison. As Sergey tells of his early life in St. Petersburg, the narrative shifts to depicting a homosexual man living in uncertain times, with touches of glamour as Sergey meets Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau, among others. 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. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In this meticulously researched novel, Russell (The Salt Point), named a Granta Best Young Novelist, reimagines the life of Sergey Nabokov, the gay narrator and younger brother of the great writer Vladimir. We catch our first glimpse of the brothers and their affluent family in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg, Russia. Vladimir comes across as an insufferable egotist who doesn't scruple to make his younger brother's life miserable. After the Russian Revolution, the author follows the Nabokov brothers as they escape from the Bolshevik regime to Cambridge, then, eventually, Sergey settles in Paris. In the French capital, the younger Nabokov lives close to the bone but comes to mix with many of the luminaries of the day: Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky, and, most notably, Cocteau. The novel's "present," from which it flashes back to the narrator's earlier life, is wartime Berlin 1943, where Sergey, having found work in the Reich's Propaganda Ministry, lives in fear that every moment may be his last because of his sexual orientation. VERDICT A story that will make you laugh and smile then breaks your heart, this is a rich tapestry of the human condition. Highly recommended.—Edward Cone, New York
Dennis Drabelle
…splendid…The Unreal Life proudly wears an infatuation with the arts. Even minor characters add to the wealth of connoisseurship on display, as when Sergey relays this tidbit from the father of the German man who has become the love of Sergey's life: "He was fond of reminding me that the sumptuous finale of the greatest symphony ever composed, by which he meant Bruckner's Eighth, was inspired by the historic meeting between Emperor Franz Joseph and Tsar Alexander III, a confluence of histories, cultures, and languages he pronounced himself gratified to host in miniature every day under his own roof." Itself a stylish and tragic "confluence of histories, cultures, and languages," The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is well worth hosting under your own roof.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573447195
  • Publisher: Cleis Press
  • Publication date: 11/8/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,297,322
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet 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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Read an Excerpt


a novel


Copyright © 2011 Paul Russell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57344-719-5

Chapter One


THE AIR-RAID SIRENS COMMENCED SHORTLY before midnight. From the cellar we heard the cough of the antiaircraft guns on the city's perimeter, the bombers' drone, the rolling thunder of gigantic footsteps. All this we have grown accustomed to, but now the drunken giant strode directly toward us. We felt the building above us shudder, heard the windows blow out in a crystalline shower, smelled the weird bloom of the incendiaries. Then the deafening footsteps receded, the din quieted—only to be overtaken some minutes later by the fire's roar as it spread through the neighborhood. The pressure drop sucked the cellar door from its hinges. We scrambled to shoulder it back into place. With damp cloths we shielded our faces against the smoke. Our ears and temples throbbed. We cried aloud. We prayed.

"All the same," I told Herr Silber this morning, "England is the most civilized country in the world."

My words hung almost legibly in the frigid air of our office. A stunned silence met them. Several nervous faces glanced our way, then returned to their paperwork. Most of my associates in the Eastern Front Editorial Department had managed to show up for work. As Dr. Goebbels reminds us, in the Reich there are no longer any rights, there are only duties.

"Obviously, Herr Nabokov," said my colleague, a little unsteadily, "we're all under a great deal of stress. Perhaps you might consider taking the rest of the day off."

I knew he was trying to be kind. Every one of us in that room understood exactly what had just happened. Feeling dangerously lightheaded, I rose, made a bow. "Danke sehr," I said. "I believe I will."

What has been said cannot be unsaid. That is the reality of the Reich. Who should know that better than the staff of the Propaganda Ministry?

Herr Silber made the usual stiff-armed salute. There was no point anymore in returning it, so I did not.

I sensed all eyes following me as I left. In the corridor a poster warned: THE ENEMY SEES YOUR LIGHT! DARKEN IT! Shards of glass littered the front steps. Otherwise the Ministry remained remarkably unscathed, though its neighbors on Wilhelmstrasse were not so lucky. The Chancellery, the Arsenal, the Hotel Budapest—all had been reduced to rubble. I skirted a bomb crater nearly as wide as the street, its cavity already filled with water from a severed main. A burnt-out lorry perched on its lip. Nearby lay a headless mannequin which I chose not to inspect closely. All along my nearly impassable route the air hung thick with masonry dust, a hideous oily ash, an odor of char and kerosene and I scarcely dare think what else. Among incinerated trams and buses wandered unearthly shades. On Kurfürstendamm a stout middle-aged woman in a flimsy nightgown and fur stole approached and threw her arms around me. Gratefully I embraced her, if for no other reason than that we were both still alive.

"What despicable barbarians!" Herr Silber had said to no one in particular in that frigid shell of an office. "Murderers. Jackals. Jews! The British are by far the worst war criminals of all."

Who could blame him? The firestorm had overspread the city from west to east. Charlottenburg, Unter den Linden, Alexanderplatz—all were said to be devastated. Nonetheless, I said what I said—"Trotz allem, England ist das zivilisierteste Land der Welt."

Last week a young lady was arrested from the building next door for black-listening to foreign broadcasts. Only yesterday I witnessed an older gentleman plucked from the tram by the Sicherheitsdienst for mentioning to another passenger what hardly needs mentioning: that the war goes very badly for the Reich. The civilized lads of the RAF will not have devastated this city so fully that the Gestapo cannot find their way to me. Flight is out of the question. Where would I go? The Nansen passport we Russian exiles carry is worthless. Besides, I am a convicted sex criminal under regular surveillance since my release from an Austrian jail last year.

I write this in my shell-shocked lodgings in Ravensbergerstrasse. The windows are gone, the electricity and water are out, my nerves are badly shredded, and I cannot get the sight of that headless mannequin out of my head. For courage I rely on black market brandy I have been hoarding for a wedding next week. In a recent novel by the incomparable V. Sirin—quite popular in our émigré circles—a condemned man wonders how he can begin writing without knowing how much time remains. What anguish he feels, realizing that yesterday there might perhaps have been enough time—if only he had thought to begin yesterday.


Excerpted from THE UNREAL LIFE OF Sergey Nabokov by PAUL RUSSELL Copyright © 2011 by Paul Russell. Excerpted by permission of CLEIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014


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  • Posted October 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Very Real Unreal Biography/Novel

    Paul Russell has a very special gift. He is able to enter the timeframe of his characters' lives in such a way that he makes the reader able to feel like a traveling companion rather than an observer from a distance. THE UNREAL LIFE OF SERGEY NABOKOV is rich in the use of language that sets a period of history, using colloquialisms and other-country means of addressing friends, family, and loved ones, and describing an historical tenor that all that happens to seems so very natural, so unstilted, so refreshingly informative. The more famous of the two Nabokov Brothers -Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899 - 1977), writer of 'Lolita' and many other brilliant and controversial novels and poems, even making it to the cover of TIME magazine - far outshone his younger brother Sergey. Of note, at the age of 16, Vladimir discovered the diary of his enigmatic 15-year-old brother lying open on a desk. The professions of gay love he found within its pages scandalized Vladimir. He promptly shared the contents with his tutor, who in turn handed it over to the Nabokovs' politician father. The diary contains details of what Vladimir called "a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on [Sergey's] part"; here Nabokov's homophobia is caught "on the edge of the remark." This bit of filial relationship in part explains the course of this fascinating novel. The brothers were at the extremes of sexual preference. While the erudite Vladimir moved from the family of wealth and opulence in Tsarist Russia into the world of multilingual literature, setting off first to England (where he and his brother studied at Cambridge) and then for America after escaping the Bolshevik Revolution, Sergey fled to Berlin where he embraced the gay life, coming to grips with his occult feelings and finding fleeting love. But that is not the sole course of the book or of Sergey's life. Russell's novel is framed as a series of diary entries, an entirely appropriate manner of relating this story as both brother's were inveterate diarists. 'While verging on cliché, this framing device allows for an intriguing parallel narrative: Sergey, while working for the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, attempts to dodge the Gestapo after uttering a subversive statement against the Reich. These passages are intercut with scenes from his past: a privileged Russian childhood, study at Cambridge, an opium-soaked friendship with Jean Cocteau, the world of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and Gertrude Stein's salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus.' While Sergey's story is somewhat less well defined than his brother's, Russell does manage to use a style of language that is endearing and allows the read to feel the presence of this stammering, vulnerable, needy, yet proud young Russian as he becomes intimate with the intelligentsia of the day. He is part of the lives of Diaghilev, Misia Sert, Jean Cocteau, Nijinsky by default, Picasso, Chanel, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein among many others. But for all the seeming braggadocio of our narrator we are left with a young gay man searching for love and for place in a world basically unkind and unaccepting. This is a love story by a brilliant writer: Paul Russell is a professor at Vassar and has written several brilliant books including 'The Coming Storm', 'War Against the Animals', 'The Gay 100: the most influential gay men, lesbians, GLBTs', etc.

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    Posted May 12, 2014

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    Posted January 2, 2012

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