Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Unreal (and ultimately, tragic) Life of Sergey Nabokov



It wasn’t until the third edition of his acclaimed autobiography, Speak, Memory, that novelist Vladimir Nabokov bothered to mention his younger brother, Sergey.  And even that mention was grudging. "For various reasons” he wrote, “I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother.”

Where Vladimir was good looking, charming and talented almost from birth, Sergey was shy, flamboyantly gay with a terrible stutter. After the Russian Revolution took away the family title and wealth, Vladimir emigrated to America, where he taught at university and wrote such masterpieces as Pale Fire and Lolita.

Sergey chose a different path. He moved to Paris in the 1920’s and through his relationship with artist Jean Cocteau, travelled in circles that included Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky. In Paris, Sergey fell in love with an Austrian aristocrat and the two of them settled down to what they both hoped would be a quiet life in the family Schloss.

Then all hell broke loose with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

American novelist Paul Russell captures the brave, if naïve, Sergey’s life in a fictionalized autobiography, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. Relying on the barest of literary asides, oblique mentions in scholarly articles and coded references in other biographies, Russell pieces together the younger Nabokov’s mostly unrecorded, and certainly unheralded, life. With almost Nabokovian (Vladimir, that is) fluency and style, Russell describes Nabokov’s early life as the son of a wealthy Russian aristocrat, through his university days at Cambridge, the heady pre-war life of a social gadfly in Paris, up to the final chilling knock by the Gestapo upon his Berlin apartment door. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov would perish in a concentration camp, a lavender triangle on his striped prison pajamas.

Even though it’s only July, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov just might be my favorite book of 2012. And you can reserve it here.

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