The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

By Paul Russell


Cleis Press
November 2011

Reviewed by Adam Gallari


The historical novel comes in many guises; often sweeping in scope, it trucks in a strange nostalgia, an attempt to recreate as truthfully as possible a time and a place and a person ultimately unknowable to the author. They range from massively successful epics like Memoirs of Hadrian to utterly disastrous panderings like Memoirs of Geisha, which forsake a semblance of honesty for an exoticism that feels more fantasy than history stretched.

Despite the familiar Russelian tone of tragedy lurking and thus invariably clouding even the ostensibly happy moments of life, The Unreal Life feels like a departure from an author who, in the past, has offered his readers mellifluous and lyric prose, for there is none of that here. Sergey is pared down and bare bones, pithy and to the point, but unhewn, which is perhaps fitting for a stuttering, wall-flower of a man more concerned with articulating his thoughts quickly and concisely than broadcasting an impediment that seems a cruel trick to be played on an otherwise loquacious and eloquent family. There is much shadow in this book, as though even in these moments of pith Russell's Sergey is still holding back, as though he is either unsure of the total truth or unwilling to speak it for fear that its utterance will cement it in reality.

Sergey is "always taking leave—of a person, an emotion, a landscape, a way of life." His fluidity is both his blessing and his curse, the periphery is his domain, and yet this distance at times becomes the book's greatest weakness, for there are places, like the Salons of Paris, that one feels that Russell is merely describing a scene through Sergey's eyes rather than immersing him in it and the absence is palpable, for to push further might prove to shed light on those many shadows that punctuate the book not because they are off-limits to the most observant of soul searchers, but feel like patches of road on which the street lamp simply has burnt out and is yet to be replaced. Still, if Russell is to be faulted in that he has not pushed far enough, it is only because we forget how far he has actually gone, so fluid and precise is his rendering of Sergey in all other aspects, and though the narrative unfolds slowly, as The Unreal Life is more a collection of remembered moments than a traditional forward moving narrative, it remains fluid, readable, and, like most of Russell's work, wonderfully esoteric.

Russell has always been an erudite writer, one whose allusions and references and influences run the gamut from the Bhagavad Ghita to Thomas Mann to Henry James, and what is offered in The Unreal Life is no different. The cast includes a veritable who's who of the early 20th Century art world, and Russell even lifts actual lines of Vladimir Nabokov when writing him into conversation, but he inhabits the brother so well that it is impossible to tell where the real Vladimir ends and Russell's Vladimir begins, and this, in many ways, is the greatest strength and success of the book. Russell fools the reader into believing that his is in fact a memoir, that the moments in Stein's Salon and Cocteau's opium lounge are real and transcribed from journals and diaries rather than products of the author's imagination.  It is not a stretch, even, to feel an urge to book a trip to Paris in order to explore the Pompidou Center so as to finally see in the flesh all that has been so eloquently transcribed.

More than anything else The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov feels like a love letter, or better a latent eulogy to a man nearly forgotten to history, save for the brief, and often sardonic, allusions to him made by his legendary brother. Even if at times we still only get a silhouette, Russell has, for the most part, succeeded, and can be forgiven the few shortcomings that are bound to accompany a book as ambitious and daunting as The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov truly is.