The title of Paul Russell’s splendid new novel, “The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,” hints at its contents. Sergey Nabokov was the 11-months-younger brother of the great Vladimir, who called his first novel written in English“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.” Only a few pages into what Russell has set up as Sergey’s (fictional) autobiography, supposedly penned in Berlin during the later years of World War II, we learn why the narrator might have considered his life “unreal”: He was homosexual at a time when that orientation tended to be greeted with, at best, condescension and, at worst, persecution.
Drawn by an efflorescence of the fine arts, gay men and lesbians gravitated to Paris and to a lesser extent Berlin during the 1920s, when and where the most vivid sections of “The Unreal Life” take place. The heterosexual Vladimir went into exile for a different reason. The Nabokovs were Russian aristocrats, for whom there was no place in the new Soviet Union.
In Paris, Sergei Diaghilev was staging ballets, and Jean Cocteau was excelling at just about everything: drawing pictures, designing sets, writing novels and making films, even as he broke in one male lover/protégé after another, including Sergey. The young narrator is not himself a genius, or even unusually talented at any of the arts. But he does recognize greatness, and courtesy of his fellow Russian exiles, he is soon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Stravinsky and others.
In this way, “The Unreal Life” bears a resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris.” But whereas “Midnight in Paris” is all charm and whimsy, “The Unreal Life” incorporates many dark features, such as Sergey’s lifelong stutter, which can put people off before they have properly met him; and the rise of Nazism, a movement whose hatefulness extends to gays.
At the same time, however, Russell solves a problem that defeated Allen. In “Midnight in Paris,” the parodying dialogue assigned to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Picasso is brilliantly apt, while 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.”
At the heart of “The Real Life” lies Sergey’s relationship with his genius of a brother, whose combination of innate reserve, single-mindedness about making the most of his literary gift, and discomfort with homosexuality only deepened the misery that often gripped Sergey as a boy. In one of their increasingly rare meetings as adults, Sergey confesses to having always felt he lived in Vladimir’s shadow: “I know I was born too soon. I know I followed you too quickly into this world. It’s neither my fault nor yours. But from the beginning, I think, you resented me.” The most moving relationship portrayed in “The Unreal Life,” though, is that of Vladimir and his wife, Véra, who are seen topping each other’s witticisms with an amorous rapport that makes the demanding husband, in his brother’s eyes, “divinely happy.”
Like its title character, “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.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
THE UNREAL LIFE OF SERGEY NABOKOV
By Paul Russell
Cleis. 381 pp. Paperback, $16.95