Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Nabokov from an Alternate Universe

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,  by Paul Russell, is a fascinating novel about Vladimir Nabokov’s brother, a man who lived a life at least as interesting as that of his more famous brother. Sergey began his life as a member of the St. Petersburg elite in Tsarist Russia, and along with Vladimir, experienced the revolution and exile at an early age. It is a familiar journey from privilege to poverty for this intellectual family, but we find in this fictionalized version of Sergey’s life, that everything takes on a different meaning when seen through his eyes. Lacking literary talents, the good looks and the privilege of heterosexuality that Vladimir enjoyed and exploited so successfully, Sergey must find his way through the dangers and addictive pleasures of Twentieth Century Europe. Everything comes with more difficulty for Sergey, and he ends up dying UnrealLifeSergey_6ain a Nazi concentration camp. Vladimir, the acclaimed writer, on the other hand, becomes a wealthy writer in America, apparently oblivious to the sufferings of his brother. In the introduction to this novel, the author quotes Vladimir from his autobiography, Speak, Memory, when he finally breaks his silence about his gay brother, “For various reasons, I find it inordinately hard to speak about my older brother. He is a mere shadow in the background of my richest and most detailed recollections.” To be fair, it is possible that he cannot speak about his brother because of the pain of the knowledge of his troubled life and death, but to say that he is mere shadow in his mind is very telling, considering that they grew up so closely right through the tumult of revolution, until their exile as teenagers. One can perceive the easy forgetfulness that the perfect and spoiled child often feels when confronted with the plight of a less fortunate sibling. Perhaps for this reason, Paul Russell does not paint a very sympathetic portrait of Vladimir in this novel.

Beautifully written, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov offers an extraordinary alternative reading of the history of the Russian exile. It is a reminder, if we need one, that in this age of wider acceptance, the awareness of the lives of gay people gives us a refreshing new perspective on the world, turning the familiar on its ear, and giving depth to history.

Some reviews of the Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov:

on the Lambda Literary website

in the Washington Post

 

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June 28, 2014 - Posted by | literature | , , ,

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