The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell

This is the story of two brothers who lead wildly different lives and suffer different fates.

Sergey Nabokov is the younger brother of the famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov. This book is a fictional narration of Sergey’s life. Both brothers were born with “silver spoons in their mouths.” Their father is a wealthy merchant in pre-revolutionary Russia. The narrative starts in early 1900s. Sergey is as gifted intellectually as his older brother, but suffers from a number of deficits including a terrible stutter and the fact that he is gay. When his family discovers his proclivities he is sent to a brutal doctor, who first humiliates him and then abuses him. He has numerous love affairs which scandalize his family. He lives his life as an openly gay man at a time when gay men are treated with as much respect as vampires. If you’re in the wrong spot you could get a stake through your heart.  After the Russian Revolution the family flees from St. Petersburg and ends up in Germany. Sergey, alternating between Paris and Berlin uses his charm, wit, and Paris connections to meet many famous people from that time, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and the whole literary and artistic scene of the 1920s. He also develops a nasty opium smoking habit. Things begin to turn around for Sergey in the middle 1930s when he meets Hermann, the son of well off German aristocrats, who gives him unconditional love and material support. Hermann gets Sergey into rehab and changes his life. Events in Germany are taking an ominous turn in the late 1930s with the rise of Hitler and his increasing persecution of ethnic groups and “undesirables”.

Vladimir detests his younger brother because of his “affliction” and they are estranged for a number of years.  As the Nazi regime closes in, Sergey tries to reconcile with his brother who is trying to escape Germany, and ultimately ends up in America. Sergey unwisely decides to stay in Germany with Hermann and is ultimately arrested and sent to a labor camp. Vladimir prospers after the war and goes on to great fame and fortune. Sergey eventually succumbs to the inhuman conditions in the concentration camp and dies before the Allied Liberation of Germany.

This book was based on a true story entitled “The Gay Nabokov” by Les Grossman that was published in Salon, an on-line newsmagazine, in 2000.  The author does a terrific job of envisioning Sergey’s life and transforming it into a credible story.


The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

“Tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.”  This refrain echoes throughout this harrowing novel by Elliot Perlman.  There are many plot threads in this book , but the main one tells the story of the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz/ Birkenau in October 1944.  Auschwitz was the most notorious of the Nazi Death Camps.  The Sonderkommando or Special command units, were Jewish prisoners who were forced to work at the grisly task of burning corpses of those already murdered by the Nazis in the Gas Chambers. 

When the unfortunate Jews are first transported to Auschwitz they are separated into two groups by Nazi Doctors.  The healthy ones go to the right and are put to work until they die.  The unhealthy ones are directed to the left and are immediately sent to the Gas Chambers.

The story is told through two of the main characters.  Lamont Williams is a black ex-convict  hospital intern who befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a Jewish Holocaust Survivor who tells him of his role in the Sonderkommando Revolt before he dies of cancer at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  Mr. Mandelbrot has never told anyone about the events of October 1944.

Adam Zignelik is a failing history professor at Columbia University.  He needs a research project for his work but also to help him get over the break-up of his marriage.  He finds such a project in the discarded recordings and writings of Henry Border a polish immigrant Psychologist who discovers a unique way to record people’s experiences.  Border hears of the events surrounding the war against the Jews by the Nazis, and decides to go over to Europe and record the memories of Holocaust survivors who have survived in the Displaced Persons Camps after the war.  It is here that Henry discovers the story of the Revolt which is later corroborated by the statements of Mr Mandelbrot.

Both of these main characters are people living in the present who are touched by the ghosts of the past.  The book recounts the heroic struggle of the Jewish prisoners to fight back against the demonic SS guards, who could kill them and replace them at any time. “This book has some grand themes and deals with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.” (excerpted from the book jacket)

This is a novel to read with reverence and respect.


The Marriage Artist

The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer

This is an intricately woven novel which incorporates grand themes such as love, marriage, death, history, religion, and art. Most of the characters are Jewish, and there are two main plots.

The first plotline involves a love triangle between Josef, a famous gifted artist, his friend Max, who is doubly doomed, being Jewish and gay, and Hannah, who is depressed. The story begins in Vienna in 1928, when  8-year-old Josef meets his grandfather, a rabbi, and discovers a talent for drawing Ketubah, an ornate Jewish marriage certificate. “After all,” his grandfather states, “Marriage demands of us the impossible. It is a job for which there is no apprenticeship – a riddle no one has ever solved. And the husband and wife, naively jumping into this great mystery, are left to shape it according to a vision they don’t have. This is where the Ketubah comes in. A Good Ketubah, in words both practical and poetic, in beauty that is symbolic and personal to the bride and groom, illuminates the mystery of the union of man and woman. A Good Ketubah helps give them a vision, a start.”

Joseph draws many Ketubah but becomes disillusioned when the reality is the Ketubah does not guarantee happiness. He meets Max and they both swear to never get married. Many years later Josef meets Hannah when they are both trying to flee from Hitler’s regime. They are married in line at an emigration station, both intending to go to Palestine. But they never leave and Hannah becomes pregnant with baby Herman. Max secretly loves Josef and is not pleased to share him with Hannah. All three of them end up in the concentration camps.

Baby Herman escapes the fate of the concentration camps and grows up to be a Buddhist. Herman’s son Benjamin becomes a troubled, gifted artist like his grandfather.

The second plotline (taking place in present-day New York) involves an art critic named Daniel Lichtmann, whose wife Alexandra has a suicidal affair with Benjamin. The deaths occur at the book’s beginning, and Daniel tries to discover why this happened, and unravels the stories of Josef, Max, and Hannah.

All of these characters are caught up in or haunted by the Holocaust. This is beautiful and powerful writing and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice.