Two brothers, born to an aristocratic Russian family, emigrate during the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Vladimir Nabokov goes on to become the celebrated author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and dozens of other works. His brother Sergey is arrested for homosexual activity and dies in a Nazi concentration camp, nearly forgotten by history.
“I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of Sergey as a subject before, because I’ve been living with his brother for years,” says novelist Paul Russell, whose PhD dissertation at Cornell explored the effect of Nabokov’s physical and linguistic exiles on his protean body of work.
Then again, Vladimir rarely mentioned Sergey, barely eleven months his junior. “All I knew until I read Lev Grossman’s essay [“The Gay Nabokov,” Salon, 2000] were two pages he added to the third edition—the third edition—of Speak, Memory. It was clear he had a very painful relationship with his brother,” Russell says. “You could read between the lines and tell Sergey had been gay, but Grossman filled in enough details to suggest a potential character whose life could be expanded further.”
Russell’s just-released novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov (Cleis Press, 2011) does just that, brilliantly re-creating the many worlds in which the historical Sergey moved: pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Cambridge University, the gay demimonde of expatriate Paris, a fairy-tale castle in the Austrian Alps, war-torn Berlin.
“Every time Sergey changed countries, I’d think, ‘Oh great, now I have to build a whole new stage set,’” Russell says with a laugh. “I’m very dependent on the research of others, because I never leave my house.”
This is clearly not true—he teaches literature at Vassar and just gave a reading at Philadelphia landmark Giovanni’s Room—but his Rosendale farmhouse does have the air of a private retreat. It’s easy to picture Russell poring over research books in front of the living room woodstove, with his feet on a Turkish rug and one of his four cats curled nearby, or sitting amid the rambling gardens he’s built over the past 20 years, which even in winter attest to a landscaper’s vision.
“The research was great fun—I read lots of diaries, which were the most helpful. You find out what sorts of buttons people had on their shirts and what they ate for dinner,” Russell says. The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, whose title shares some DNA with brother Vladimir’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is Russell’s sixth novel and first period piece. The Salt Point (Dutton, 1990), Boys of Life (Dutton, 1991), and The Coming Storm (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) take place in various urban and upstate New York locales; War Against the Animals (St. Martin’s, 2003) unfolds in “Stone Hollow,” a translucently fictional stand-in for Rosendale.
Sea of Tranquillity (St. Martin’s, 1994) spans 20 years and many locations, from Florida to the moon; one of its characters is an astronaut. Russell did extensive research on NASA and space flight, but nothing like the in-depth historical and cultural immersion required for The Unreal Life, a seamless blend of fact and fiction. The flamboyant, doomed teenage friends with whom Sergey forms the self-proclaimed Left-Handed Abyssinians are “totally and completely invented,” but one becomes the sexual plaything of a historical personage, actor Yuri Yurev, gaining the trio access to a fabulous Czarist drag ball. This unlikely sounding event really took place, as did the myriad Paris art parties described in the novel with details of decor, celebrity guests, and outrageous garb that seem nearly first-hand. (“I’m older than I look,” Russell quips.)
During his Paris years, Sergey crosses paths with a queenly, opium-smoking Jean Cocteau, Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes coterie, and the “young men” of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s salon. But if the supporting cast suggests a remix of Midnight in Paris directed by Pedro Almodovar, the leading man might recall another Woody Allen creation: Zelig, the enigmatic everyman who disappears into his surroundings.
“Sergey was the hardest character by far,” Russell says. “With the real-life historical figures, if you read enough of their work, they supply you with their personalities. With Sergey, I had to invent his personality pretty much from scratch.”
Sergey Nabokov’s actual words exist only in four letters archived at the New York Public Library. Three are about such mundane matters as an impoverished student asking his mother for money, but the fourth is a passionate defense of his relationship with Austrian aristocrat Hermann Thieme, strikingly bold for its time, in which Sergey asserts that he cannot consider anyone who criticizes his choices a friend or ally.
Russell had found the seed of his narrator’s voice. Though at first he wavered between first and third person, he chose the more intimate first. “I wanted to give voice to this silenced voice, and thought this would give it more power,” he explains. Being inside Sergey’s head also minimizes the need to reproduce his painful stutter; Russell decided early on he did not want to use the conventional dashes (“t-t-t-talk”), so Sergey’s affliction comes up mostly through his social fears and self-consciousness about stuttering under pressure.
The choice of first-person narration also determined the book’s ending, since Sergey could not tell readers about his death in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1945, four months before its liberation. This information is instead conveyed in a terse afterword; Russell regrets not saying a bit more about his hero’s real demise. “Sergey was apparently sort of a saint in the camp—he spent all his time in prayer, and when he received packages from the outside, shared their contents with others. I didn’t want any faux sentimentality to break in, but in his last months, he was quietly heroic.”
Some of Russell’s readers have found his fictional evocation of Sergey’s famous brother, nicknamed “Volodya,” unflattering. Charismatic and hyperaware of his genius, he’s painfully homophobic and can be lofty and cold to those closest to him. “I wanted the portrait of Volodya to be mixed—he’s clearly a difficult person, very self-absorbed, but also one of the great artists of the 20th century,” Russell says. His Sergey eventually comes to a generous realization about his mercurial brother: “I saw now that Volodya, apparently so indifferent to me, had in reality all along been patiently teaching me that the only way to know him was through his art. Everything else was incidental; it was only in his books that he lived, intimately revealed, fully and forever available.”
If this observation extends to the man who penned it, readers may learn more of Paul Russell through his novels than the few autobiographical facts he lets drop. He grew up in Memphis, the oldest of three boys. His mother was a devout Southern Baptist, his mathematician father an atheist. Though this schism “almost made the marriage not happen in the first place,” they agreed she would bring up their sons in her faith. “Mom would take us off to Sunday school and church, and Dad stayed home to read the paper,” Russell reports.
He attended Oberlin College, an alma mater he gives to War Against the Animals’ protagonist Cameron Barnes, along with his own Memphis roots and passions for gardening, cats, and traveling in Turkey. Local readers may recognize Stone Hollow’s uneasy admixture of long-entrenched locals and wealthy gay newcomers, along with such locations as a twinkle-lit vegetarian café on Main Street and a nearby waterfall where local boys “danger-dive” off the cliffs (“Very Thomas Eakins,” enthuses one character). “A number of people claim to have recognized versions of themselves,” Russell says, adding that “all the characters are amalgamations. Sometimes two or three people claimed to be the same character. In some cases, I had stolen some gesture or tone of voice, but in others—I hate to say it, but it never crossed my mind.”
However authentic its sources may be, fiction is an alchemical cauldron in which much can transmute. With The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, Russell says, “It was very much the novelist’s imagination and not the biographer’s imagination that was writing the book.” (His biographer’s imagination got a workout with his 1994 book The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past and Present; Birch Lane Press.)
He’s just completed the first draft of a new novel about a right-wing politician from Tennessee brought low by a sexual scandal. Russell’s twist is that he’s not a closeted hypocrite, but a profoundly tortured man, “a homosexual who genuinely believes that homosexuality is evil, without any hypocrisy involved, but with all the anguished soul struggle you would have to endure every minute of every day with those irreconcilable sides of yourself,” he says. “I enjoy the perplexed laugh when I tell friends that it’s autobiographical. I don’t suffer from inner homophobia, but there’s something about the shape of my politician’s struggle that feels very recognizable to me.”
Would he ever consider writing a novel without a gay lead? “It’s a challenge I’ve thought about,” says Russell. He’s already mulling his next novel, and “it actually seems possible that the two major characters are straight, with a peripheral gay character. But things can change, and often do, from the first stirrings of a novel to the actual writing of it.”
The actual writing will wait until summer. Like many academics, Russell finds it impossible to focus on fiction while teaching a full course load. Gardening, on the other hand, is the perfect companion activity. “The way I work is I write half a sentence, then go outside and weed, then come back and write the other half. Not quite literally.” He pauses. “Well, yes, sometimes literally.” Readers can enjoy the profusion of prose that blossoms in Paul Russell’s garden.