Paul Russell beautifully channels the tumultuous life of Sergey Nabokov from his years translating for the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry to an idyllic childhood in imperial Russia with Volodya, his famous novelist brother. Russell’s account of Sergey’s life is brilliant and witty, a literary rollercoaster that delights and dazzles with
the beauty of its language.
Sergey's story gives Russell an expansive platform to ponder Europe at a time of vast political, social, and artistic transformation. Among bomb craters, the air hangs thick with masonry dust as Sergey pens his passionate memoir. No one dares to mention that the war goes badly for the Reich. A convicted sex criminal under regular surveillance, Sergey writes from his shell-shocked lodgings, recounting a world of ramshackle émigré circles and the feelings of a condemned man who wonders how he can continue to write without knowing how much time remains.
Bonded by their shared childhood, Volodya and Sergey nonetheless stand on
opposite sides of the rift cause by Sergey's innate attraction to men. Their imperialist father fails to understand his youngest son’s "defect," frightened that Seryosha will become like Uncle Ruka--charming and charismatic, but also harboring a
lonely, pitiable soul. Only Russell can portray Sergey’s shame, outrage, and humiliation when he
is judged to have "morbid anxieties "concerning “the masculine principle” by the family doctor.
From his earliest memories of being beguiled by an enchanting lift boy to his awe of Yuri, his handsome, lanky interloper cousin, Sergey loses himself in a world of books, art and beauty. As the “annus horribilis of 1917” begins, there’s the gathering storm of rumors and pamphlets. The peasants
can no longer be counted on to remain indifferent as red bunting and Bolshevik rumors begin to inflame Petrograd.
Because this is primarily Sergey’s journey, Russell takes great care to juxtapose the pageantry and privilege of imperial Russia with its hideous process of despair and decay under Bolshevik rule. Set adrift as finances and opportunity command--in England and later in France-Sergey falls quickly in with a gay crowd. Paris throbs with a formidable menagerie of poets, painters and pederasts. Frequenting Jean Cocteau’s notorious nightclub, Sergey witnesses the rise of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, “god’s dazzling oaf,” who dances in the cash-strapped Ballets Russes, its “desperate magic” cobbled together nightly.
Sergey is transported to a place where beauty is nothing less than a birthright, where existence is characterized by the search for warmth, comradeship, sympathy and solidarity. The handsome swing boys with their plumy lips have a dark beauty and hands that roam, restlessly caressing and tugging at Sergey.
These furtive encounters perpetuate Russell’s notion of romantic love--its possibility as well as its price at a time when same-sex attraction was at best viewed as suspicious, at worst abhorrent.
The grave themes of this tale are irrefutable, the novel thrumming with all of life’s tenderness, perplexity and transcendent beauty. Although the French sections are a bit repetitive, so completely does Russell draw us into Sergey’s spell that the novel is endlessly rich in incident and personality. This is where the refined, bustling atmosphere of La Belle Époque Europe gives way to an oncoming war and modernity, forcing Sergey to search for things that have thus far eluded him in his young life.
Maneuvering the cerebral with the sexual, Sergey’s story culminates in a world of human anguish and loneliness, even as Russell’s complex, passionate protagonist comes to resemble a powerful gay symbol at a time of profound revolutionary change.