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The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel Paperback – November 8, 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Cleis Press (November 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573447196
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573447195
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,117,562 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"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.”"
—Historical Novel Society

"There's a lot of great stuff in this book, and it certainly made me want to know more about the man, the time in which he lived, and more about his famous brother's books."
—Glorified Love Letters

"What struck me most about this work was the lavish, beautiful prose. I’ve read few modern novels that can compare. The voice Paul Russell captures is both lush and believable. The detail in the scenes he paints is remarkable."

"Horrible memories are sometimes pushed far to the side, for the best. The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov seeks to tell a story surrounding famed author Vladimir Nobokov's forgotten gay brother, Sergey. Chronicling the story of Sergey through Czarist Russia and their departure from their home land towards England. A remarkable story that explores the relationship of the brothers that shows much research all the way toward Sergey's fate, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov is well worth considering for literary fiction collections."
—Michael J. Carson

"The language used by the author helps keep the reader in the time period, along with succeeding at painting a picture of what life was like for a homosexual person at the time....The one characteristic of this book that most stands out for me, in an already extraordinary read, is the framing of the story....Absolutely engrossing, the author has put together the story of a shy, endearing, vulnerable, unforgettable young man, valiantly facing circumstances that would have destroyed a lesser soul. Kudos, Mr. Russell, for a brilliant performance. Highly recommended."
—Arketipo 187

"Russell’s just-released novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov ... brilliantly re-creat[es] 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."

"A brilliant imagining of the life of a marginal son of the Russian liberal elite washed away in the Bolshevik revolution and then enmeshed in the Third Reich."
—Stephen Murray, epinions

"Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel builds upon those dazzling days between the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and the rise of the Third Reich. Through the perspective of the real, but little-known Sergey Nabokov, younger brother of Lolita's creator, Vladimir Nabokov, Russell brings his readers on a wild romp through the gay and artistic cliques that were changing the face of the art and literary worlds in the 1920s and 30s."
—Foreword Review

The title of Paul Russell’s splendid new novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, hints at its contents....The Unreal Life bears a resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris.” Russell solves a problem that defeated Allen. In “Midnight in Paris,” Gertrude Stein’s speech lacks the head-scratching repetitions that coil through her books. Russell, though, captures the Stein style beautifully, as in this reply to a help-me letter from Sergey, sent from Berlin late in the war: “Miss Stein knows she knew you but no longer knows how she knew nor when nor where nor why she knew you when she knew you. Nonetheless she wishes you the very best.”"
—The Washington Post Bookworld

"A story that will make you laugh and smile then breaks your heart, this is a rich tapestry of the human condition. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"Sergey’s struggles with his sexuality, as well as his adventures and misadventures in the salons and clubs of pre-war Europe, are drawn with humanity. With compelling characters and steady prose, the reader will breeze through this pleasurable, heart-breaking account of the other Nabokov."
Publishers Weekly

"The subtle, dark wit that makes The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov a pleasure to read. As WWII begins and then drags on, several characters take shelter in cities outside Berlin. One character goes so far as to say, "My wife and daughter are perfectly safe, staying with her parents in Dresden, which I am told presents no military or industrial targets whatsoever for the RAF." With rare perfect timing, Russell allows his characters to make similar comments completely unaware of history's hammer, poised and ready to slam down."
—Foreword Magazine

"Russell’s prose, engagingly evocative of the period in which the story is set, is studded with gems of dark wit that add quirky grace to a masterful novel."
—South Florida Gay News

"Russell’s stellar research and inventiveness make this obscure figure, an unforgettable gay hero."

"The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov displays linguistic artistry through portraying ruin in all its forms—the scattering of family ties, the loss of one’s country, and the consequences of war, death, addiction and forbidden love. It’s a life story that does, in fact, seem “unreal,” and is made all the more remarkable for its veracity. Kudos to writer Paul Russell for presenting the historical persona of “the gay Nabokov” in a fictional format that succeeds at drawing the reader into Sergey’s improbably true life."
Lambda Literary

“In literary heaven, where Vladimir Nabokov now resides, he wouldn't approve of this convincing dream evocation of the life of his gay brother, but the novel is a sidelong tribute to Nabokov—tender, sad, and moving, with touches of the Maestro's elegance.”
—Herbert Gold, author of Not Dead Yet, and Fathers

“Paul Russell has been so skillful and so fond in the creation of this Unreal Life that his readers will unavoidably identify it with the real one which ended in 1943. Now it is their turn to sift what is real from what is imagined, mine only to applaud the author of every life, unreal and otherwise, in this inescapable construction ‘dedicated to that ghost,’ a voice-over of Sergey, the lost Nabokov, that maintains us all in a sort of double time-machine compelling us to follow the consecrated Nabokovs and a host of others through the last ecstasies of gay Europe.”
—Richard Howard, author of Paper Trail and Without Saying

"An extraordinary novel, tender, fierce, and graceful, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a tale of place and displacement, of shadows and siblings and countries shaken by change—and sustained, as the reader will be, by the quiet heroism of art. A tour de force."

"'Beauty plus pity," Vladimir Nabokov’s famous definition of art, perfectly describes this moving, artful novel. Intimate and epic, gorgeously written, divinely detailed, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an ingenious hybrid of a book, powerful, troubling, exciting."
—Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God

"Paul Russell's sublime novel The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is an astonishing work of art. In lucid prose, Russell retells the story of Nabokov's gay brother, allowing us a clear window into an overlooked life and an underwritten aspect of history. This mesmerizing novel not only recreates the shifting, unstable epoch of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, but reimagines Sergey's persona, his loves and fate with great authenticity and imagination. It's a heartbreaking novel that everyone should read."
—Alistair McCartney, author of The End of the World Book

"In this melancholy, graceful novel, Paul Russell has captured a vanished time and people, and even the clarity and formality of mid-20th century émigré prose. Despite loss and alienation dating almost from birth, Russell’s Sergey emerges as the more humane Nabokov brother, and you cheer for his brief happiness and the love he found before history closed in."
—Regina Marler, author of Bloomsbury Pie

"It takes an accomplished novelist to bring to glittering life a lost and foreign world. Paul Russell achieves this feat with disarming ease in The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a daring, ambitious, playful, intelligent, and deeply affecting novel. Russell lavished upon Vladimir Nabokov's unheralded and doomed younger brother Sergey the divine attention, sympathy and patience we all wish to receive from our creator. While compulsively reading this book, I felt an occasional twinge of envy, and I thought that it must have been as exciting to write as it is to read."
—Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day

"Always readable and compelling, Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov is a brilliant impersonation, literary prestidigitation of a higher order, and in the end, the unexpected, unique, and solidly mature work we were awaiting from this already accomplished author."
—Felice Picano, author of True Stories:Portraits From My Past

"The historical life of Sergey Nabokov was altogether real and all too short. But there are forms of history that only fiction can suggest, and this subtle novel movingly brings back from the shadows a rich, lost life."
—Michael Wood, author of The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction and Yeats and Violence

"The only thing 'unreal' about this novel is the skill it took to write it. Paul Russell exhibits uncanny knowledge of the period and its people. He is an unfailing guide through St. Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin, dope dens, literary salons, drag ba...

About the Author

Paul Russell is the author of The Salt Point, Sea of Tranquility, and the Ferro-Grumley Award-winning The Coming Storm. Russell has received many nominations and awards for his writing. He is the author of the indispensable reference book The Gay 100.

Customer Reviews

Overall, I was absorbed into the story and found this book very difficult to put down.
I liked the way the novel moved between Sergey's early life in St Petersburg, Cambridge, and Paris, against his final impoverished weeks in Berlin 1943.
H. Williams
His books are well written and very indepth, and it is obvious with Unreal Life that his writing was well researched.
Shannon L. Yarbrough

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Reader from Washington, DC VINE VOICE on August 25, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Few people know that famous Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov had a kind, handsome and talented younger brother, Sergey, who died in a concentration camp during WWII three months before his 45th birthday, murdered for two crimes: being gay and speaking out against the Nazi regime.

The novel is constructed as a fictional memoir written by Sergey as he struggles to survive in 1943 Berlin, dodging Allied bombings and the watchful Gestapo.

Novelist Paul Russell takes the sparse factual knowledge that we have of Sergey and weaves it into a fascinating fictional memoir, in which he tries to fill in the details of Sergey's life -- his difficult relationship with his famous older brother -- his struggle as an artistic gay teen in pre-1917 Imperial Russia, his immersion in the Roaring Twenties Paris art world -- his happy same-sex marriage during the 1930s to Austrian businessman Hermann Thieme, living in a castle in the Austrian Alps -- and the fatal evening when Sergey and Hermann are arrested --

The book is beautifully written, with accurate period detail, in a clear, flowing prose.

My only criticism of the book is that it stops before Sergei is sent to a concentration camp -- there is historical evidence that he was very brave and helped his fellow prisoners -- I would have liked to have read about that. I felt that the novel ended too soon.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Rowan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 17, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
At the end of his acknowledgments, Paul Russell refers to Sergey Nabokov, brother to Vladimir Nabokov, as "a ghost" and it's this image which seems to inform the whole of Russell's faux autobiography of Sergey. Russell has given us a colorful and tender novel based on a few tantalizing literary and/or historical mentions of Sergey, most notably two less than enlightening pages in Vladimir's autobiography. In the novel, the lack of mention by Vladimir -- who comes across rather badly in this novel, at least until the very end where he becomes slightly more palatable -- is, on the surface, because he finds it impossible to understand or accept Sergey's life as an "invert" and so pushes him away. And yet, there is a suggestion here that Sergey's life has informed Vladimir's novel "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," and that Sergey is a kind of phantom Siamese twin to Vladimir, a necessary part of his emotional life, irrevocably joined, but yet a frightening, mysterious presence.

Taken quite apart from the Vladimir Nabokov connection, "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel" is a thoughtful, sometimes amusing, often sad story of a man struggling to be himself in a world that refuses to accept him. Sergey is not so much a ghost because he has so little place in the real history of his family, but rather because like so many gay men of the time, he inhabits a shadow world in which intimacy is hesitant and often furtive rather than open and joyous. This is a wonderful view of that world, and of the history of gay men in the first half of the 20th century.

Russell's writing is immensely readable, his characters, many drawn from real life, are vivid and engaging, and so convincing is he that you'll probably finish the book with the conviction that you've just read a true autobiography of a man who should have been better known.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Stephen John Vogel on July 30, 2012
Format: Paperback
Sergey, the slightly younger brother of the great Vladimir Nabokov, was virtually forgotten until Lev Grossman's essay "The Gay Nabokov" brought the fact of his existence to widespread attention in the year 2000. In that Salon article, the surviving details of Sergey's brief but eventful life (1900-1945) were pieced together, suggesting that this unknown Nabokov might be worthy of a longer study.

Eleven years later, Paul Russell fleshed out Grossman's informative sketch in a nearly four hundred page book, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. That this book takes the form of a novel rather than a biography is due to the fact that information on Sergey's life is so frustratingly sketchy that only a novelist could hope to "fill in the blanks" and, by doing so, bring this intriguing and elusive figure to life.

The central fact of Sergey Nabokov's life, it might appear, was his ambivalent relationship to his famous brother. Paul Russell, like Grossman before him, indicates that another fact may have been just as important in shaping his destiny: his sexual identity.

From Saint Petersburg to Cambridge University to Paris to Berlin, and in all the other places in which this Russian emigre lived following the Revolution, the ways in which he was viewed and in which he viewed his surroundings had as much to do with his being gay as it did with his family background. But sexual orientation aside, he possessed several impressive attributes: his intelligence, his deep appreciation for the arts, a remarkable gift for languages and, most especially, a core of decency found in all his relationships, whether familial, friendly or erotic.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Eugenia on October 24, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There are very few, if any, that can say they have not heard of Vladimir Nabokov. Sergey Nabokov was a younger brother of his brother, a famous writer Vladimir. Both were born in Russia, into a family that was affluent and well off at the same time. They were raised in privilege by parents who deeply cared about each other.

What attracted me to this book is the fact that it's subject is Sergey. There have been many books about Vladimir and his wife Vera. This is the first one I came across that discusses Sergey. Sergey was born shortly after Vladimir. He was a less favored child. Part of it may have been his obvious imperfection - stuttering. Later on, it became more profound because Sergey realized early in his life that he was a homosexual. His parents and his brother never quite reconciled with that notion.

When both Vladimir and Sergey were growing up, there country Russia as well as the rest of the world was going through tremendous changes. There was October Revolution, WWI and eventually WWII. The onset of October revolution caused Nabokov family to leave Russia. They moved between London, Berlin and Prague initially. It is only Vladimir that left Europe for America after lucky offer to teach at Stanford University. Others were held behind by the people they loved.

As I was reading the book, I was stricken how author presented Sergey's life as an ongoing struggle in search for professional success and personal happiness. It was not easy for Sergey to define himself, being a son of a famous father who was a significant intellectual figure in Russia and later on a brother to the acclaimed author, his own brother who redefined european literature in those days.

It is a lovely book that look at the human condition of Sergey.
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