The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov
Title: The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov
Author: Paul Russell
Publisher: Cleis Press
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Genre(s): Biography, Historical, Literary Fiction
Page Count: 385
Reviewed by: LenaRibka
Heat Level: 1 flames out of 5
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the gay brother of Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Russell re-creates the rich and changing world in which Sergey, his family and friends lived; from wealth and position in pre-revolutionary Russia, to the halls of Cambridge University, and the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But it is the honesty and vulnerability of Sergey, our young gay narrator, that hook the reader: his stuttering childhood in the shadow of his brilliant brother, his opium-fueled evenings with his sometime lover Cocteau, his troubled love life on the margins of the Ballets Russes and its legendary cast, and his isolation in war torn Berlin where he will ultimately be arrested, sent to a camp and die in 1945.

A meticulously researched novel, in which you will meet an extraordinary cast of characters including Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Magnus Hirschfield (“Tante Magnesia”), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Cocteau, and of course the master himself, Vladimir Nabokov, this is ultimately the story of a beautiful and vulnerable homosexual boy growing into an enlightened and courageous man.

This photograph taken of the family when it was in Yalta in 1917 seems to be the only photograph of Sergey Nabokov…


Only in 1966, when he and Véra were living comfortably in their adopted Switzerland—Lolita having propelled him to wealth and worldwide fame—did Nabokov briefly address the subject of his dead brother. The third version of his celebrated autobiography Speak, Memory contains two pages absent from the earlier editions. “For various reasons,” he writes, “I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother. He is a mere shadow in the background of my richest and most detailed recollections. “After enumerating their many differences, his perplexities and discoveries regarding Sergey’s character, his various instances of regrettable behavior toward him, Nabokov concludes, with eloquent abjection, “It is one of those lives that hopelessly claim a belated something—compassion, understanding, no matter what—which the mere recognition of such a want can neither replace nor redeem.”

The most real UNREAL BIOGRAPHY of the unknown brother of one of the most significant writers of the 20th century.

It is difficult to find a book worm who has never heard the name of Vladimir Nabokov or unfamiliar to the novel Lolita, but hardly a lot of readers know about Sergey Nabokov, the second son in the family after Vladimir Nabokov, born 11 months after his famous brother and with a very different fate ahead of him. Sergei, as opposed to Vladimir, grew shy, awkward boy, suffering from poor eyesight and strong stuttering. And Sergey was gay. He was deeply kind and highly sensitive, and therefore an easy butt for teasing sports and mobbing.

It was an unspoken family secret. After his brother outed him at the age of 15, things were never the same for him within the family-although the family reacted to this fact, relatively quiet.
Maybe exactly the homosexuality of Sergey was the reason of the difficult relationship between two brothers – meanwhile, it is well known that Vladimir Nabokov had a fixed distaste for homosexuality.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is for sure one of the best books I’ve read not only this year.

The author did a great job, doing research and putting together those few facts and information about Sergey Nabokov that were left – mostly they were just footnotes in a family chronicles and very little have been preserved -and creating an unforgettable great novel about a difficult and horrible period of history, about the family that fled Russia and never came back and lost its motherland forever, about two brothers that were both brilliant and talented, both rich and handsome and though had totally different fates – one enjoyed a literary international fame and praise, the other

the other died on January 9, 1945, forgotten and unknown, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion in the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.

Written in the form of of a memoir from Sergey’s POV this book ends when someone rings the doorbell. Even knowing WHO was there I didn’t cry reading the last sentence, maybe because of the narrator- Sergey has never sounded depressing and helpless. He was smart, gentle, witty, optimistic and very kind person. But I cried reading the Afterword. And I’m crying now, writing my review. So…be prepared.

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokovis a literary jewel, full of unforgettable characters, historical events, gentle irony and incredibly beautiful mind of Sergey, the unknown brother of one of the most important writers of the 20th century.


It is your contribution that the name of Sergey Nabokov won’t get lost without a trace in the archives of history…

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1 Comment on "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov"

1 month 5 days ago

Great review! I will put this on my list!

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