I’m embarrassed to say I have never read any of Vladimir Nabokov’s books and didn’t know much about the author’s life, let alone that he had a younger brother who had a very interesting life himself. But I have read several of Paul Russell’s other novels and liked them, so I gave this one a try, despite its dry title.
The book is a remarkable achievement in historical fiction, though tilted toward the latter modifier of the genre. The book is distinctly different from Russell’s earlier novels in construction, language and tone and vividly evokes an epoch spanning the time of tsarist Russia to the Second World War. As an aristocrat fleeing from a crumbling Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, Sergey Nabokov takes safe harbor in cities from London to Paris to Berlin as the story unfolds, falling in with some of the great artistic luminaries of the era, including Cocteau (Russell’s best achievement in creating a character that jumps off the page), Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein and, of course, his now immortal brother. Part biography, part fantasy and wholly imaginative, “Unreal Life” is completely absorbing as it traces a life filled with love, loss and extraordinary adventure.
My favorite passage comes when Sergey has a revelation about his seemingly
insouciant brother: “And I believe I have found something else as well– that we only, any of us, live in art. No matter whether it is in books, painting, music, or dance, it is there we flourish, there we survive. It has taken me many years to come to this realization.”
I great read. I hated for it to end.