The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

It begins in Berlin in November 1943 as British bombs gradually do their part in shattering both the illusion and reality of the Thousand-Year Reich. Sergey Nabokov, the gay brother of then still largely unknown Vladimir, blurts out a pro-English statement at the ministry where he works as a translator that he knows full well will bring the Gestapo to his door. In the meantime he decides to write about his wandering, tumultuous life that has taken him from Russia to England, France, Austria and Germany, gotten him in contact with some of the artistic luminaries of the age, burdened him with an addiction to opium and briefly granted him love and happiness before having them ruthlessly snatched away.

In 2000 Lev Grossman mined the scant material available on this forgotten Nabokov’s life and put it into an article where he also took a critical look at Vladimir’s inability and unwillingness to deal with his younger brother’s sexuality. Reading the piece it is easy to imagine how well Sergey’s story might lend itself to a novel. In The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, Paul Russell has honed in on this singular opportunity and decidedly missed it.

The golden age

The early part of the book alternates between Sergey’s bleak wartime present and his cultured yet strained Russian upbringing. What we get though is primarily a young homosexual’s coming-of-age story, which leads to a number of problems. For one thing, it backgrounds much that it most exceptional about his life – that he was Vladimir Nabokov’s brother and that he experienced the last days of an extraordinary cultural moment from a close and privileged vantage point.

During the time the novel is set in Russia the country’s Modernist writers (Akhmatova, Mandelstam) are mentioned in a single sentence, and that in reference to the closing of a café.

This issue is even more glaring in the case of two of the novel’s most significant characters – Sergey’s father and brother. While Nabokov the novelist is later given the chance to expand beyond being a cold, bullying, homophobe (to a still fairly cold literary genius), all the talk of the brothers’ admiration for their father is hard to connect to the wooden figure depicted here intent on straightening out his gay son.

Another problem is the first person narration. In evoking Nabokov’s age and milieu we are bombarded with words like “bemused,” “cajoled,” “madcap” and taking things “amiss,” with Sergey referring to the “standards of my dashingly eccentric set.” It would have been difficult to capture the multilingual, cosmopolitan voice of a figure like Sergey, all the more so knowing how unique a voice his brother developed, but Russell seemingly didn’t try, opting instead to have his hero write like a generic upper class Englishman from the novels of the period that neither Nabokov brother seems to have been much interested in reading.

It is the writing that seems to aim most self-consciously for a sweeping, historical effect that falls the flattest. When Sergey spots the two peasants he suspects of having perpetrated an act of arson – a clumsy stand-in for the revolution we all know is soon to arrive – he writes: “I longed to ditch my bicycle in the long grass, as Lenin would have our soldiers abandon their rifles in muddy fields, and approach the enemy, arms raised in surrender.” And this isn’t the simile of a besotted teenager but supposedly of someone writing his memoirs in war-torn Berlin as he waits for the Gestapo to arrest him.

It’s when the novel veers away from the set pieces – the lifeless ball and theater scenes that seem equally imitation and parody of Tolstoy – and enters into the subdued light of its secondary characters and their background world, that it is most effective and gains momentum. Sergey’s youthful crush and tormenter Oleg, who ends up a drug-addicted taxi driver in Paris, his colleague at the ministry Herr Silber helping him search for an English POW friend and even Sergey’s real-life love Hermann Thieme, are compellingly drawn and neither need nor suffer from all the pomp of the historical and cultural backdrop so prevalent throughout the rest of the book.

Modernism mishandled

Sergey’s connection with the avant-garde should be all the more compelling for entering into a world Vladimir largely steered clear of, yet the scenes featuring Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and the Ballets Russes are not particularly dramatic, vivid and are never made relevant to his life or thought. Much of their content seems to be patched together from the ample literature on the era and consists of little more than lists of names and oft-quoted opinions and witticisms. One Parisian party scene ends with an anonymous American passing around a menu asking for everyone to sign their names so that all his friends back home will know about the artistic celebrities he had seen. Exactly.

Yet the novel’s dramatic failing of not bringing the milieu of Parisian Modernism to life is not as serious as its aesthetic failing. Russell tries to evoke the people and places of a virtually unparalleled time of artistic innovation and broadening of expression in everything from literature and painting to cinema and dance, and then writes a novel that ignores that aesthetic innovation entirely. It’s as if you were going to make a film of a Modernist novel or an episode of avant-garde history and instead of choosing a director with, at the very least, experimental inclinations, you have the film done by Merchant Ivory as if it were an E. M. Forster novel.

The fact that a conventionally sentimental realist American novel would be so incapable of conjuring up the world of European Modernism is not all that surprising, but perhaps more than anything this novel underlines the very reasons those cultural revolts of a century ago were so necessary, and that this particular hundred-year war is far from being won.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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