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The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel

4.8 4
by Paul Russell

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In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the 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


In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the 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 Cocteau, his troubled love life on the margins of the Ballets Russes and its legendary cast, and his isolation in war-torn Berlin. A meticulously researched novel, featuring an extraordinary cast of characters (including Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Magnus Hirschfield, and of course the master himself, Vladimir Nabokov), this is ultimately the story of a beautiful and vulnerable boy growing into an enlightened and courageous man.

Editorial Reviews

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
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.)
From the Publisher

"Russell has succeeded in the impressive feat of making vivid and compelling the story of a vulnerable hanger-on, a person Vladimir Nabokov described as a “shadow in the background.”"
—Historical Novel Society

"There's a lot of great stuff in this book, and it certainly made me want to know more about the man, the time in which he lived, and more about his famous brother's books."
—Glorified Love Letters

"What struck me most about this work was the lavish, beautiful prose. I’ve read few modern novels that can compare. The voice Paul Russell captures is both lush and believable. The detail in the scenes he paints is remarkable."

"Horrible memories are sometimes pushed far to the side, for the best. The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov seeks to tell a story surrounding famed author Vladimir Nobokov's forgotten gay brother, Sergey. Chronicling the story of Sergey through Czarist Russia and their departure from their home land towards England. A remarkable story that explores the relationship of the brothers that shows much research all the way toward Sergey's fate, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov is well worth considering for literary fiction collections."
—Michael J. Carson

"The language used by the author helps keep the reader in the time period, along with succeeding at painting a picture of what life was like for a homosexual person at the time....The one characteristic of this book that most stands out for me, in an already extraordinary read, is the framing of the story....Absolutely engrossing, the author has put together the story of a shy, endearing, vulnerable, unforgettable young man, valiantly facing circumstances that would have destroyed a lesser soul. Kudos, Mr. Russell, for a brilliant performance. Highly recommended."
—Arketipo 187

"Russell’s just-released novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov ... brilliantly re-creat[es] the many worlds in which the historical Sergey moved: pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Cambridge University, the gay demimonde of expatriate Paris, a fairy-tale castle in the Austrian Alps, war-torn Berlin."

"A brilliant imagining of the life of a marginal son of the Russian liberal elite washed away in the Bolshevik revolution and then enmeshed in the Third Reich."
—Stephen Murray, epinions

"Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel builds upon those dazzling days between the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and the rise of the Third Reich. Through the perspective of the real, but little-known Sergey Nabokov, younger brother of Lolita's creator, Vladimir Nabokov, Russell brings his readers on a wild romp through the gay and artistic cliques that were changing the face of the art and literary worlds in the 1920s and 30s."
—Foreword Review

The title of Paul Russell’s splendid new novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, hints at its contents....The Unreal Life bears a resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris.” Russell solves a problem that defeated Allen. In “Midnight in Paris,” Gertrude Stein’s speech lacks the head-scratching repetitions that coil through her books. Russell, though, captures the Stein style beautifully, as in this reply to a help-me letter from Sergey, sent from Berlin late in the war: “Miss Stein knows she knew you but no longer knows how she knew nor when nor where nor why she knew you when she knew you. Nonetheless she wishes you the very best.”"
—The Washington Post Bookworld

"A story that will make you laugh and smile then breaks your heart, this is a rich tapestry of the human condition. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"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."
Publishers Weekly

"The subtle, dark wit that makes The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov a pleasure to read. As WWII begins and then drags on, several characters take shelter in cities outside Berlin. One character goes so far as to say, "My wife and daughter are perfectly safe, staying with her parents in Dresden, which I am told presents no military or industrial targets whatsoever for the RAF." With rare perfect timing, Russell allows his characters to make similar comments completely unaware of history's hammer, poised and ready to slam down."
—Foreword Magazine

"Russell’s prose, engagingly evocative of the period in which the story is set, is studded with gems of dark wit that add quirky grace to a masterful novel."
—South Florida Gay News

"Russell’s stellar research and inventiveness make this obscure figure, an unforgettable gay hero."

"The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov displays linguistic artistry through portraying ruin in all its forms—the scattering of family ties, the loss of one’s country, and the consequences of war, death, addiction and forbidden love. It’s a life story that does, in fact, seem “unreal,” and is made all the more remarkable for its veracity. Kudos to writer Paul Russell for presenting the historical persona of “the gay Nabokov” in a fictional format that succeeds at drawing the reader into Sergey’s improbably true life."
Lambda Literary

“In literary heaven, where Vladimir Nabokov now resides, he wouldn't approve of this convincing dream evocation of the life of his gay brother, but the novel is a sidelong tribute to Nabokov—tender, sad, and moving, with touches of the Maestro's elegance.”
—Herbert Gold, author of Not Dead Yet, and Fathers

“Paul Russell has been so skillful and so fond in the creation of this Unreal Life that his readers will unavoidably identify it with the real one which ended in 1943. Now it is their turn to sift what is real from what is imagined, mine only to applaud the author of every life, unreal and otherwise, in this inescapable construction ‘dedicated to that ghost,’ a voice-over of Sergey, the lost Nabokov, that maintains us all in a sort of double time-machine compelling us to follow the consecrated Nabokovs and a host of others through the last ecstasies of gay Europe.”
—Richard Howard, author of Paper Trail and Without Saying

"An extraordinary novel, tender, fierce, and graceful, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a tale of place and displacement, of shadows and siblings and countries shaken by change—and sustained, as the reader will be, by the quiet heroism of art. A tour de force."

"'Beauty plus pity," Vladimir Nabokov’s famous definition of art, perfectly describes this moving, artful novel. Intimate and epic, gorgeously written, divinely detailed, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an ingenious hybrid of a book, powerful, troubling, exciting."
—Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God

"Paul Russell's sublime novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an astonishing work of art. In lucid prose, Russell retells the story of Nabokov's gay brother, allowing us a clear window into an overlooked life and an underwritten aspect of history. This mesmerizing novel not only recreates the shifting, unstable epoch of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, but reimagines Sergey's persona, his loves and fate with great authenticity and imagination. It's a heartbreaking novel that everyone should read."
—Alistair McCartney, author of The End of the World Book

"In this melancholy, graceful novel, Paul Russell has captured a vanished time and people, and even the clarity and formality of mid-20th century émigré prose. Despite loss and alienation dating almost from birth, Russell’s Sergey emerges as the more humane Nabokov brother, and you cheer for his brief happiness and the love he found before history closed in."
—Regina Marler, author of Bloomsbury Pie

"It takes an accomplished novelist to bring to glittering life a lost and foreign world. Paul Russell achieves this feat with disarming ease in The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a daring, ambitious, playful, intelligent, and deeply affecting novel. Russell lavished upon Vladimir Nabokov's unheralded and doomed younger brother Sergey the divine attention, sympathy and patience we all wish to receive from our creator. While compulsively reading this book, I felt an occasional twinge of envy, and I thought that it must have been as exciting to write as it is to read."
—Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day

"Always readable and compelling, Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a brilliant impersonation, literary prestidigitation of a higher order, and in the end, the unexpected, unique, and solidly mature work we were awaiting from this already accomplished author."
—Felice Picano, author of True Stories:Portraits From My Past

"The historical life of Sergey Nabokov was altogether real and all too short. But there are forms of history that only fiction can suggest, and this subtle novel movingly brings back from the shadows a rich, lost life."
—Michael Wood, author of The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction and Yeats and Violence

"The only thing 'unreal' about this novel is the skill it took to write it. Paul Russell exhibits uncanny knowledge of the period and its people. He is an unfailing guide through St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin, dope dens, literary salons, drag balls, and war-torn streets. From the height of genius and to the depth of the gutter, Russell extends his precise, penetrating and panoramic gaze."
—David Bergman, author of The Violet Hour of Gaiety Transfigured

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov advances the art of biography even as it proves itself the very best of Paul Russell’s fine novels. I read half of it not even thinking that Sergey Nabokov was a ‘real person,’ largely because the intimacy author Russell brings to his subject is the total kind one finds only in art, but then something told me, you’re reading two sorts of book at once—a stupendous thrill ride all by itself. History and myth combine to tell the saga, apparently from inside, as we’ve never experienced it—the splendors and miseries of Tsarist Russia, the picnic of modernism that was the 20s Paris of Cocteau, Stein, and Diaghilev, and the unfolding nightmare of the Third Reich. Our hero lacks his brother’s genius, but he is that rare creature, the genuinely brave and sweet man to whom one hates to say goodbye. And now we don’t have to.”
—Kevin Killian, author of Shy and Arctic Summer

"This astounding book will remind the reader not of Nabokov, but of Tolstoy: for the epic sweep across history, of course, but even more for the great Tolstoyan trick of finding the one detail in a bit player—the livid scar on the naked thigh of a Russian peasant, the subversive “hangman’s lock” of hair sported by a kid in Nazi Berlin—that somehow conjures up a whole vanished world of seeing and feeling. Sergey Nabokov is a triumphant invention: eyes and heart wide open through every catastrophe, he emerges as a new kind of hero, an intrepid conquistador of loss."
—Mark Merlis, author of American Studies and A Man About Town

"The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a really wonderful book, a remarkable achievement from one of our best authors, gay or straight. Paul Russell’s writing has the richness of a nineteenth-century novel with a modernist’s sensibility. His protagonist, an outsider because f his sexuality, is at the same time an eyewitness to world-changing events who manages to find a place for himself at the heart of the creative life of his times. With a deftness that never stoops to the garish or avoids the grimy truth and is always even-handed, Russell gives us incisive portraits of Cocteau, Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their Charmed Circle, and Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, and glimpses into the demimonde of Paris and Berlin. His ability to reveal his characters’ flaws without judging them—or inviting the reader’s dismissal—results in moments of poignancy that make the triumphs as well as the tragedies he portrays all the more moving."
—Patrick Merla, anthologist of the award-winning collection of original personal essays Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming-Out Stories and longtime editor of literary magazines and the work of such authors as J. D. McClatchy, Nabokov and Edmund White

Praise for Russell’s The Coming Storm
"Unsettling and touching...well-nigh flawless."
The Washington Post Book World

"Captivating...It engages like a whisper, seductive and, yes, even sad."
Rocky Mountain News

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

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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.

Meet the Author

Paul Russell, named a Granta Best Young Novelist, 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. A professor at Vassar College, he lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
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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