The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov
This beautifully imagined and written novel, which feels more like a literary biography than a fiction, tells the story of Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother, a brother who followed too soon — 11 months — after the 1899 birth of his bullying, brilliant sibling. Author Russell heard about Sergey Nabokov in an essay in Salon.com, and now has conjured him back to life with this many-layered, readable page-turner. The story begins with Sergey trapped in 1943 Berlin. An arrest seeming inevitable, Sergey is writing the story of his life, “without knowing how much time remains.” The chapters of the memoir then take their turns with 1943’s events.
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.” Sergey, an affectionate child in a liberal, wealthy Russian family that celebrated the gregarious Vladimir, was mostly overlooked. An effeminate, stuttering adolescent, Sergey was pitied and scorned. As an adult, he drifted for years, opium making him even more shadowlike as he searched for love and meaning. The shimmering world he lived in, though! — the tables he ate at, and the beds he slept in! After graduating from Cambridge, Sergey moved with the glitterati of between-the-wars Paris. Here are Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Vladimir Nabokov himself, all of them written with wit. There are fireworks of detail that would overwhelm a reader in the hands of a less adept writer. (Details pulled off in part, it turns out, by a cadre of research assistants!)
This is a book that ends all too quickly, and calls to be reread and enjoyed again. Absolutely recommended.